No More Bad Stock Photos: How a Great Image Helped Inspire Me to Launch Stocksy

UPDATED: October 10, 2015
PUBLISHED: May 13, 2015

My obsession with stock photography can be traced back to an exact moment in the late ’90s when I saw an ad for Getty Images in Wallpaper magazine; it was a close-up shot of a horse’s white mane against a black background. I was fascinated by the bold use of negative space, its minimalism, and the power in photographing something often taken for granted over something obvious, like a portrait.

From that point on, I started paying attention to how photographs were used in magazines: the concepts, use of color, negative space, surprising angles and perspectives, and the typography laid on top of them.

When I co-founded Stocksy United, my “why” was re-creating that moment of inspiration for others and championing the brilliant photographers that capture those inspiring images. That’s why Stocksy was set up as an artist-owned cooperative. We’re challenging the stale clichés of stock photography with a collection of beautiful, modern and authentic images.

My journey to becoming CEO started with stubborn perseverance. I got my first job at 18 by sitting in the lobby of a graphic design company for four hours until I was able to convince the creative director to give a kid with no experience or college degree a chance. I was willing to go above and beyond in bringing integrity to the company’s brand. When a company findsto bring results, her background doesn’t matter.

My experience with iStockphoto, where I worked before Stocksy, is an example of this. I was hired during the company’s infancy and came in with a tidal wave of ideas about how the business could be improved. As a contributing photographer who was mesmerized by this new idea of democratized online communities, I wasn’t coming from a business perspective so much as a vision to celebrate the changing landscape of photography.

Once hired, I took the reins of their image inspection team (even though I was hired as a copywriter). I saw amazing potential in harnessing the strength of the collective by establishing process, style guides, mentorship, live events and a constant stream of communication from headquarters. It was a special moment when an amazing community grew together and learned from each other.

There were definitely times when I was challenged to prove my worth to the executive team. My initiatives based around a vision were sometimes harder to measure, and I often had to stand my ground and champion the integrity of the brand and community over the temptation of making a quick buck.

Selling to Getty was a learning experience. I remember staying up nights with the founder discussing whether it was the right move. We thought they’d help us in our growing pains, but the result was far different from what we anticipated. It turned out they had more to learn from us. The community we had worked so hard to build was treated like a commodity, and photographers were disenfranchised as a result.

With Stocksy set up as a co-op, it’s baked into our bylaws that no big buyout can happen without the approval of our members. Being a co-op definitely presents its own challenges, however. There’s a lot of additional work in being accountable to our photographers who are the stakeholders. Still, we welcome these challenges because we’re creating a product we can all believe in.

We have a very small team that operates on a modest budget in order to maximize our photographers’ compensation. It’s more sustainable, but it requires intensive strategy and prioritization. Despite the limited time and resources, we grew our revenue last year by 580 percent. Some of our photographers are already making more than members of our executive team. That’s the way it should be. We want to pave the way in showing that fair distribution of profits works.

Running a creative business and a co-op doesn’t make my job essentially different from that of any other CEO. But developing all the pieces that make it come together is something special. It’s like the fascination I first had with different graphic elements coming together to create a great image. It’s the heart and soul of the business.

Brianna Wettlaufer is co-founder and CEO of Stocksy United. Prior to founding Stocksy, Brianna served as VP at iStockPhoto (acquired by Getty Images for $50 million in 2006). Follow Brianna on LinkedIn, Pinterest or Instagram.