You are undoubtedly familiar with so-called “sharing economy” titans such as Uber and AirBnB. The latter is an online marketplace for people to list and/or book accommodations. It might be a room, a home or a castle. AirBnB is a prime example of disruption in the hotel industry. They market other people’s dwellings and then take a percentage of the revenue from the transaction. It claims to have 50,000 renters every night. That’s 50,000 people not renting a hotel room.
On the transportation side of things, Uber connects consumers through an app with independent drivers who own their own vehicle. Taxis are no longer a consideration for many people. In fact, the company celebrated its 2 billionth Uber ride this past July.
Whichever way you slice it, both companies are wreaking havoc on existing business models.
But there is a problem. These are not truly “sharing economy” companies. For the record, I’m with Harvard Business Review authors Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi who made a strong case against using the term “sharing economy” when it comes to firms like Uber and AirBnB. The authors suggested these sorts of businesses—where products and services are traded on the basis of access rather than ownership, when trade is done temporarily and not permanently—ought to be referred to as the “access economy.”
Eckardt and Bardhi write:
“A successful business model in the access economy will not be based on community, however, as a sharing orientation does not accurately depict the benefits consumers hope to receive. When “sharing” is market-mediated — when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other — it is no longer sharing at all. It is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.”
While there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with companies like Uber or Airbnb in the “access economy”, they are not examples of organizations who are truly “sharing” nor are they reinvesting any of its revenues or profits into the workers and/or materials it rents. It extracts money from its “partners” and reinvests the profit in itself, not those who are its labourers. .
Which brings me to Stocksy and the business model of a “Platform Cooperative.”
In its simplest form, a Platform Cooperative is defined as “worker–owned cooperatives designing their own apps-based platforms, fostering truly peer-to-peer ways of providing services and things”.
Put differently, those doing the work are owners and are both compensated for such effort and regarded as members of the greater team. A Platform Cooperative is not in it to extract money from its labourers through the rental of talent, service or even capital. Its business model is not about renting access.
Stocksy is an exceptional example to delve deeper into the notion of being a Platform Cooperative. Headquartered in Victoria, British Columbia, Stocksy is the online home to a highly curated collection of royalty-free stock photography and video footage that is “beautiful, distinctive, and highly usable.” What I love about Stocksy is that it is in business for all of its stakeholders, not just the owners, founders and senior leadership team. Its motto, “We believe in creative integrity, fair profit sharing, and co-ownership, with every voice being heard,” found on its About Us webpage is a tribute to the operating ethos of any Platform Cooperative.
I stumbled across Stocksy one day in June of 2016 courtesy my Twitter feed. I had never heard of the company prior to that serendipitous tweet. After a few clicks, I realized they were in fact headquartered in Victoria. “Oh my,” I said to myself. “I live in Victoria! I have to go find these people and understand more.”
The tweet I tripped over was from VIATEC—a group that represents Vancouver Island’s advanced-technology community—announcing its Executive of the Year, Stocksy CEO and co-founder Brianna Wettlaufer. “Brianna brings a unique combination of high expectations and encouraging support,” said Dan Gunn, CEO of VIATEC, after I asked him about Brianna. “Add to that her sophisticated sense for culture trends and aesthetics along with her savvy as a business woman and you get a very rare type of leader.”
I reached out to Brianna myself, and she agreed to meet with me over a latte. (How very West Coast.) She also brought along Nuno Silva, Stocksy’s vice-president of product.
The first thing I had to ask about was related to Stocksy’s motto. Why is it important for Stocksy to demonstrate “creative integrity, fair profit sharing, and co-ownership, with every voice being heard?” As an artist, Brianna believes it is highly unethical to approach business from any other angle than transparency and accountability while continuously rallying to support and inspire the creators—the workers. “When you use this approach,” she said, “you’re investing in the long term success, integrity, and people working for the product, so you shouldn’t have to make choices that are intentionally designed for short term gain at a huge cost.”
Nuno indicated honesty, integrity, fairness and giving back were all driving reasons for starting Stocksy in the first place. “Given our collective experience in the industry as business professionals and contributing artists and photographers,” Nuno added, “it led to a holistic perspective of representing every angle in an ethical approach that lived up to those values.”
Stocksy defines its business model as follows:
“An online community business designed to put power back into the hands of its co-owners through collaboration, fair distribution of profits, and ethical business practices.”
This is of course highly unusual in terms of business models, but not to Brianna or Nuno. In fact, one may argue that their leadership style is rather antithetical to today’s business leaders.
“I’m fortunate in having always worked for start-ups, where you’re forced to wear a lot of hats and commit to the gritty work, no matter what it takes, to make a company survive,” said Brianna. “This always made business a passionate pursuit, leaving me confused why “business” had to be a dirty word. From my experience, the value of doing something you love, that supports an amazing community creatively and financially, with the added joy of creating an integrity-driven product, is much more motivating and rewarding than chasing wealth.”
But Stocksy is a business. It needs revenue (and profits) to survive and ultimately to grow. How does it remain true to its purpose—as a Platform Cooperative—aiming to serve everyone that is part of the collective?
“By focusing on sustainable growth, even at the sacrifice of a quick gain,” replied Nuno rather matter-of-factly. “The co-op model reflects this. It’s designed to create checks and balances in everything we do so that we can’t do anything that isn’t in our community’s best interest, or without complete transparency.” Becoming more passionate as he continued his train of thought, Nuno said, “It requires more work, but it’s a challenge we welcome in our commitment to community and our stakeholders.”
In 2015, Stocksy earned $7.9 million in sales—doubling its revenues from the year prior—and it paid out its first ever dividend of $200,000 to its members. This was in addition to the money artists were paid for selling their images and videos in the first place, a whopping $4,323,735.
But where will Stocksy be in 5-10 years? Aside from supporting photographers, community and creative integrity, Brianna is “naively stubborn enough,” as she puts it, to advocate that the Stocksy model of Platform Cooperatives could help turn traditional business on its head. “Business can be fun,” she said, “and it can be driven by creativity and purpose.”
Dan Gunn agrees. Asked about the future of Stocksy, he said, “The world is largely deprived of authenticity and anything that puts quality and inspirational values at its core has a good chance of generating a following. When you add their experienced leadership team you have almost a sure thing.”
Brianna’s ultimate wish? “To keep waking up every day, respecting each other, just as inspired as the next to keep creating an amazing product while benefiting the many, building trust and empowering workers and staff.”
“[Platform Cooperatives] can be a reminder that work can be dignified rather than diminishing for the human experience. Cooperatives are not a panacea for all the wrongs of platform capitalism but they could help to weave some ethical threads into the fabric of 21st century work.”
I could not agree more. Stocksy sheds a shining Victoria Inner Harbour light on this wonderful, purpose-driven movement of Platform Cooperatives.
Maybe it is time for both Uber and AirBnB to contemplate becoming a Platform Cooperative, too.