Studio Sense: Changing the world one co-op at a time

Stocksy United is a co-op co-owned by 900 artists – all hand selected out of 10,000 applications received over the past four years – with a mission to redefine stock photography. The mandate at the outset was to ensure every photographer had a voice and that business decisions were always in the artists’ interest. This results in a business culture that wakes up determined and satisfied, with a clear conscience. You achieve these goals by putting community first.

But adopting these values does not mean dooming yourself to keeping an ark of idealism afloat in a dark sea of capitalism. Co-ops can be wildly successful, redefining business culture and informing progressive products, services, and practices. To date, since opening it’s doors, Stocksy has brought in over $19 million dollars and counting.

© Stocksy/Ivar Teunissen

So, what is a co-op?

There are many misconceptions about running a co-op. When starting one, be ready to answer these questions: “Why would you choose to do a co-op when co-ops aren’t designed to make money?” and, “Why would you do a co-op? They’re so much work.” Let’s shed some light on that. A co-operative (co-op) is a jointly-owned, member-driven enterprise created to sell its products as a business that benefits its owners through ethical, best practices. A co-op is like a standard corporation. It is not a non-profit, but a business whose purpose is to make money so that members can earn sustainable incomes.

Sustainability is a huge mission for member-shareholders, the livelihood of their incomes and the business itself. A co-op is about the long game and producing the best product possible for shareholders.

When you choose to invest in building a strong product foundation through your community, you create a business and product everyone believes in, your clients included.

Black tipped reef shark viewed from a jetty
© Stocksy/Ruth Black

You’re accountable to someone

In a traditional business, instead of reporting to members, you’re obligated to provide similar reports and levels of transparency to venture capitalists or shareholders who are removed from day-to-day business.

And this is where business is shifting in general. Businesses focused solely on numbers or an exit strategy don’t have a holistic enough approach to maintain good business or strong product. When you depersonalise and only look at numbers to drive business and product decisions, you get the most watered down result – so, of course, you’re going to end up with product that lacks the interest of the people.

More and more businesses are putting their product and creative professionals at the helm because it’s becoming common knowledge that creating a phenomenal product requires vision. You need to have that person who will say: “No, that’s a horrible idea. Even if it will show profits upfront, it will lose money in the long run and ultimately destroy everything we’ve just worked for.”

Building a solid community

To be successful you need to avoid being cagey about ideas. Don’t be afraid to collaborate. Trust your people because chasing ego and money, without integrity of the business, leaves us all relentlessly unsatisfied and empty. Start with a single vision product. Product always has to come first. If you don’t have a solid vision, it’s going to be difficult to wrangle a varied community to agree on a cohesive brand. As with a traditional business, founders or VCs wouldn’t hire staff first to discuss what the business is going to be.

Trust won’t happen overnight.

When Stocksy started, our forums were not a benevolent, altruistic Kumbaya singing circle. We came together as a group which had been disenfranchised and exploited. We came together believing in a new model, but carrying disgruntled feelings. These emotions can be the catalyst for change but they take time and trust building between the company and community.

The vision was initially challenged because part of Stocksy’s mandate was to bring the world of stock photography into the modern age and leave behind dated, stereotypical clichés associated with stock. Not everyone was ready for this change. Without a strong vision for what the product was going to be, things could have come to a full stop.

Emotional intelligence in online settings takes time and nurture. You have to lead by example. Most of all, we learned to first trust our members to guide the conversation without us getting in the way. And that’s where we started to see beautiful things happen. But you can’t get meaningful input from your community if you don’t provide them with meaningful business intelligence.

So, how can you educate your communities? By speaking to them like you would a colleague – because that’s exactly what they are. If someone asks a question that you can’t answer with facts or business intelligence, you go dig it up so you can make the most informed conclusions.

© Stocksy/Isaiah And Taylor Photography

Business should be fun

A huge part of loving what you do and participating in modern business practice is to generate working environments that are intuitive, engaging and fun to create. Our members, contributors, and staff love what they do and are proud to represent the collection because it represents them.

The fact is modern generations aren’t willing to work at companies that they cannot believe in. If we continue to share, collaborate and explore ideas as a collective, we can create a standard for all companies to operate with fairness and integrity. And that will leave you with a superior product, a positive work environment, and a sustainable future.

An effective co-op can encourage content that pushes boundaries, evolve companies and communities and positively challenge office culture. A product influenced by a diverse and balanced community with a wide variety of experience and vision can create a profitable, sustainable and overall successful business. Screw Kumbaya – just change the world, one co-op at a time.

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