Interview with Stocksy

We’re in the midst of our month-long Co-Optober celebration, and this week is all about how great cooperatives are for arts and media organizations. There are co-ops across all sorts of creative industries, and we’re so excited to feature a few of them this week.

Posted by C.N. Josephs on 19th October 2023


Today, we’ve got an awesome interview with a progressive stock media cooperative called Stocksy.

When I reached out to Stocksy, we were delighted to find out that several Stocksy workers are actually fans of MaxFun! That gave us a really cool opportunity that’s going to make today a little different from the other interviews: while the first few questions will just talk a bit about the company and how it operates, the second half of the questions will feature four different Stocksy employees talking about their personal experience working for a cooperative.

Michelle Sadler from Stocksy will be participating in our Creative Co-Op Roundtable tomorrow, so be sure to check that out!

Company Questions

C.N. Josephs (Maximum Fun): There are a lot of potential business models out there, and a worker-owned cooperative is still a relatively uncommon one. What drew Stocksy to the cooperative model?

Michelle Sadler (Stocksy): Stocksy’s founders were all veterans of the stock licensing industry. Throughout their careers, they saw creative artists marginalized in an effort to maximize shareholder value. Our founders envisioned supporting, empowering, and amplifying both artists and employees from the ground up. Giving artists a voice and control in the business would ensure its members were paid fairly for their work and offered profit sharing in years of surplus.

The cooperative model seemed a natural fit for Stocksy, not only because the cooperative principles aligned so closely with the goals of its founders, but because the cooperative model itself provides the legal and governance framework that holds the business accountable. The co-op model puts people first and Stocksy is nothing without our members (almost 1900 and counting).

C.N.: Can you tell me more about how Stocksy is structured? Who are the owners? Who makes the big and small decisions?

Michelle: Stocksy is a member-owned multi-stakeholder cooperative comprising three membership classes: Classes A, B, and C. Class A is our Advisor class and includes five external industry experts, who also serve on our board of directors. Class B is made up of Stocksy’s 50-ish team members who run the day-to-day operations of the business. Class C is our Contributor class and it includes 1800+ artist members from over 80 countries worldwide, who contribute their work to the Stocksy collection.

Stocksy’s Board of Directors consists of nine members: five appointed Class A members, two elected Class B members and two elected Class C members. The board is responsible for overseeing our CEO and Stocksy’s general performance (strategic and financial).

All co-op members have access to Stocksy’s online resolution system, which allows any member to generate an Idea for Discussion (what we call a pre-resolution) through the co-op portal at any time. Once submitted, all members are notified via email and encouraged to vote within the site and discuss in our forums on whether they think the idea should be considered as a formal resolution. If members vote it through, our board of directors then reviews and decides whether to advance the idea to a formal resolution vote, approve for implementation by the team, or decline the idea if it doesn’t align with our financial and strategic goals. This partially automated resolution system allows all members to engage with our democratic process in real-time, regardless of physical location or time zone.

C.N.: Have you faced any unique challenges due to being an artist-owned cooperative?

Michelle: The first one that comes to mind is the member cap resolution. Stocksy’s founding documents placed a limit on the number of contributing members we were able to have (1000). By 2017, Stocksy had grown to over 900 artist members, but we knew that we needed more content to keep up with the needs of our buyers. With the cap in place, we were limited in how many new members we could bring on–and facing the possibility of having to remove existing inactive members to be able to grow. But there were limits to that option as well. The team put forward a resolution to allow for removal of the 1000-member cap; but it didn’t pass. Existing members were worried about the risk of too many new members diluting their work in the collection or their earnings from that work. The team went back to the drawing board and ultimately put forward a resolution (again) to lift the 1000-member cap, this time with the safeguard in place that the co-op would vote annually whether to continue growing membership or pausing member growth for a year before reevaluating.

This was heavily debated by members in the forums and proved a pivotal moment for our co-op because a vote for lifting the cap would require a change to our governing documents and ultimately, a change to our founding promise of keeping our membership small. In the end, the resolution passed (with over 80% of those who voted in favor of lifting the cap). In 2021, after two safeguard annual “freeze votes,” where members continued to approve membership growth, the team put forward another resolution to remove the annual requirement for a freeze vote and it passed. Stocksy continues to carefully grow its membership and regularly reports its progress to our members in quarterly reports and at every AGM.

Some ongoing challenges we face have to do with Stocksy’s unique global membership. Stocksy’s 1800+ members are located in over 80 countries worldwide. Language and member communication will pose challenges. English is our co-op’s primary business language, however, it’s not the first language for many of our members, so we are always working towards making our co-op more accessible and inclusive for non-English speakers. A number of our team members are multilingual (speaking Dutch, French, Spanish, German, and Russian) and our incredible member-base is always willing to help mentor new members when the team is unable to onboard in their preferred language. Time zones are another regular challenge, so recording information to be made available to members on demand has proven helpful.

C.N.: Stocksy is committed to curating diverse, progressive stock media, and you’ve got a really thorough content policy to help maintain that. Can you tell me a little about how you developed the policy?

Michelle: Stocksy’s Content Policy is the result of a thoughtful and deliberate process undertaken by our content, marketing, and platform teams. Our goal was to communicate both internally and externally our unwavering commitment to fostering a forward-thinking culture in the realm of stock media. Our journey towards crafting this policy began with research into understanding the significance of creative expression and innovation in stock media. It was important for us to understand the pivotal role we play in supporting creative production across all scales, while also ensuring our collection remains authentically diverse and artistically uncompromised.

In the day-to-day operations of collection management, we face ethical, artistic, and subjective decision-making. These decisions are made cross-functionally across teams but also with individual discretion, so the development of our content policy was driven by the need to establish a set of fundamental principles to guide our actions.

Lastly, in the development of our content policy, we looked outside of our industry to the collection development and management policies of museums, libraries, and curatorial institutions. By looking at their principles, which are built to service communities, we established a policy that not only sets high standards for quality inclusivity and innovation, but also ensures our collection evolves to remain relevant to a diverse clientele and is fair to a diverse community of artists.

Worker Questions

C.N.: What’s your favorite thing about working at Stocksy?

Michelle Sadler (Director of Co-Op Operations): The people! I am inspired, humbled, and educated daily by working in this creative environment surrounded by a global community of amazing humans.

Dan Ross (Senior Developer/Co-founder): While I do love the people I get to work with every day, I think my favorite aspect is knowing that we’re truly attempting to do right by our artists and employees. The respect and enthusiasm we’ve received from them over the years has fueled my own enthusiasm for the business and why I continue to show up every day.

Genevieve Ross (Creative Director): I’m honestly so privileged to work with incredibly creative and talented people and their content. I love seeing new series come in, I love following the growth of different contributors, and I love my role playing a part in the curation and expression of the collection.

Ivar Teunissen (Artist Relations Lead): The wide variety of people that are a part of Stocksy. We have artists and staff from all over the world who all bring their own backgrounds and views into making the co-op a success.

C.N.: What does it mean to you to be part of a cooperative?

Michelle Sadler (Director of Co-Op Operations): Being a worker member of a multi-stakeholder cooperative has offered me more fulfillment than any job I’ve had before. Being a part of a cooperative means you carry the responsibility of co-ownership and are accountable to your fellow members. It’s a people-first approach to business and there’s great value in knowing your work means something and has a positive impact in the community.

Dan Ross (Senior Developer/Co-founder): It means that we’re working constantly to do what is right, rather than what is easy. By no means am I suggesting that running a business – ANY business – is easy, because I know it’s not… but cooperatives face a unique set of advantages and disadvantages that often put the needs of your members above pure profit. It requires creativity and inclusiveness to succeed as a cooperative.

Genevieve Ross (Creative Director): Being part of a cooperative means embracing a collective ethos where individuals come together to pursue shared goals and mutual benefit. It signifies a commitment to democracy, equity, and collaboration, where decisions are made collectively, resources are distributed fairly, and the power dynamic is horizontal rather than hierarchical.

Ivar Teunissen (Artist Relations Lead): It feels rewarding to know that I’m part of a cooperative that believes in the fair treatment of everybody who makes the company a success.

C.N.: What are your hopes for the future of art as a field? Do you think that more people will embrace the cooperative model?

Michelle Sadler (Director of Co-Op Operations): Art and the people who create it must be protected at all costs. My hope is that creative expression is never censored, artists are valued and paid fairly for their work, and arts programs are fully funded and accessible to all. I believe the co-op model is the future. It leverages talent, ensures a voice for all, and ultimately, it offers a better way of doing business–while also making everyone money!

Dan Ross (Senior Developer/Co-founder): Unfortunately, I think there’s been a cultural and technological movement to undermine and devalue the work of artists and creators, which blows my mind… The ends to what people will do in order to avoid paying a writer, artist, or performer is kind of ridiculous. I hope that creators of all kinds will recognize their value and stand up and organize against these efforts. In that respect, I believe the cooperative model is one of many options to do that.

Genevieve Ross (Creative Director): I believe that as artistic fields continue to evolve, we will witness a democratization of the creative process. With the rise of peer-to-peer services, we’re witnessing the death of middlemen institutions gatekeeping access and exposure. As for the cooperative model, I’m optimistic that more people will embrace it, especially in creative production. The cooperative model aligns with the principles of collaboration, diversity, and equitable distribution of resources, making it a promising avenue for artists and creators to thrive collectively while challenging traditional systems like the gallery model and agency model.

Ivar Teunissen (Artist Relations Lead): For the future of art, I hope that it continues evolving in a way that it becomes accessible for more people without the artist needing to hand over their value and power to companies. I strongly believe that we will be seeing more cooperatives in the artists field in the future.

C.N.: Do you have any advice for other people who are considering forming a co-op?

Michelle Sadler (Director of Co-Op Operations): First, make sure you have a solid product and then figure out how to apply the co-op model to your business. The co-op model can be rigid in some aspects but flexible in others and it’s important that you are product-first in the beginning and then leverage the model to provide value-add to your members (whether that’s customers, workers and/or suppliers).

Dan Ross (Senior Developer/Co-founder): Cooperatives are great, but the co-op model is ultimately just a legal and financial tool. Successful co-ops succeed because they have a solid business model, and because they have strong leadership that cultivates a culture that inhabits the co-op ideals.

Genevieve Ross (Creative Director): Certainly, if you’re considering forming a cooperative (co-op), my advice would be to start with a clear and shared vision among all potential members. Define your cooperative’s mission, goals, and values early on, as they will serve as the foundation for decision-making and collaboration. Establish a solid governance structure that ensures democratic decision-making, with transparent processes and open communication channels. Prioritize inclusivity and diversity within your cooperative, as different perspectives and skills can enrich your collective efforts. Additionally, seek legal and financial guidance to ensure compliance and sustainable financial management. Lastly, cultivate a strong sense of commitment and mutual trust among members, as successful co-ops thrive on a shared dedication to the collective’s success.

Ivar Teunissen (Artist Relations Lead): Find out whether there are resources available in your region. There are often cooperatives or groups which are built specifically to help others start, or convert into, a cooperative. Alternatively, you can try and find other cooperatives and connect with them to see if they would be available to chat. There are a lot of wonderful and helpful people in the cooperative world who all believe that cooperatives are the way forward.