This photo is one of thousands available on Stocksy a new online photo service

Entrepreneurs turn photo world upside down from Victoria

Victoria company quietly transforming the global stock photography industry

Bruce Livingstone slots into a bench seat at Habit Coffee on Pandora Street, a white v-neck T-shirt exposing tattooed sleeves and chest.

Nursing an espresso, Livingstone ponders his motivation in returning from early retirement to create his latest online venture, Stocksy Inc.

“Photographers were getting a raw deal, and still are,” he says. “We wanted to create a new paradigm.”

As Stocksy’s co-founder and board chair, Livingstone and CEO Brianna Wettlaufer are quietly transforming the global stock photography industry from a humble office in downtown Victoria’s Market Square.

“When we started, everybody thought it was a little far-fetched,” Wettlaufer says. “Photography was evolving online with Instagram, Pinterest … but stock photography wasn’t evolving in the same way.”

Enter Stocksy, which launched its website in March 2013. The Victoria start-up pays photographers 50 per cent of profit when an image is purchased online, and 100 per cent on extended licence purchases for use on T-shirts, billboard advertising and other end-user money-making ventures.

The model has competition elsewhere, but its co-op structure means each of Stocksy’s 600 contributing photographers directly benefits from year-end profits.

“After a year of operating, we’re getting close to that magic number of $200,000 in royalty payments per month,” Livingstone says. “We hit profitability after eight months, started spending again and now we’re in profitability again. It’s evidence that we’re there. After a year, for any business, it’s kind of unheard of, especially for an online start-up.”

The high-end, editorial aesthetic of the photos is the biggest draw for customers, a deliberate curation of images designed for targeted markets, says Wettlaufer, an Oak Bay high school grad.

“We’re attracting a lot of high-end firms and advertising agencies,” she says. “They’re coming to us because they can now find that editorial feeling content, like you’re seeing a documentary piece of somebody’s day.”

Stocksy’s photographers live all over the globe, with large numbers based in the U.S., and perhaps more surprisingly, Serbia.

“A lot of the guys just travel all the time; they don’t really have a home,” says Livingstone, whose journey from image clerk to digital photography poster boy to Victoria start-up success is its own story. At the turn of the century, he created iStockphoto, an online database of every conceivable stock image for purchase.

Six years later, the company sold for $50 million to Getty Images, solidifying a new era for photographers who were relying on ever-shrinking royalties in a saturated stock image market.

“When I was at iStock, the profit margin was around 70 per cent. That’s a ton,” Livingstone says. “So we felt, after I sold iStock, that there was a way to share more and a way to be more altruistic with our goals of trying to help photographers by paying them as much as possible.”

The company uses an Alberta co-op model, but Victoria provides one of the best places in Canada for an online start-up, he says.

“We love Victoria for what Victoria is, not just the talent pool up here, but the city really is supportive of our lifestyle in every way. Pick somewhere else in Canada and it just doesn’t cut it.”

Stocksy plans to expand its Victoria office in the coming year and invite new photographers into the fold, as profits continue to flow directly to the content creators in an easy-to-understand model.

“The co-op model helps set up a new paradigm, but it doesn’t help the other 95,000 photographers out there struggling,” Livingstone says. “But we wanted to create something sustainable first and then worry about big numbers after that.”

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