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Author Topic: Reflecting on 10 years of microstock  (Read 2198 times)

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« on: May 16, 2017, 23:34 »
+46
I know there are plenty of folks around here with more years in the business than me. But with 10 years in the books, its been interesting to do a little reflecting on how things were when I started, what happened along the way, and what the state of the business seems to be (in my opinion). So heres a little of what Ive been thinking about:

I started selling stock images (mostly vector icons and illustrations) with StockXpert in May 2007. I got into selling after being a buyer for years and finally realizing that I could probably make things of a similar quality level as the stuff I was buying. A few icon sets later, I was pulling in some coffee money every month.


Some of my early stock stuff from May 2007

Back then the big discussion was Should I go exclusive with iStock? Probably the worst thing I could have done would have been to go exclusive, and fortunately I resisted the temptation. But believe me, the temptation was there. Back then, iStock was still a mostly reputable company, and financially speaking, exclusivity still made sense for a lot of people. Crunching the numbers and trying to guess what might happen if I went exclusive, I was sort of on the fence about it. It was possible that I could make more money working only with iStock. I didnt go for it, though. I liked spreading my work out to as many places as possible, and I bet on the long-term profitability of that strategy.

By 2008, after shutting down a failed business I was running and getting back into full-time graphic design work, stock was the perfect side-gig for me. I worked at a local ad agency during the day, and could make stock images at night. I got married that year, but didnt have any kids yet so there was plenty of time to create new stuff to sell and things kind of took off from there.

By 2010 I was out of the agency job and on my own, freelancing as a graphic designer but largely supported by my income from stock image sales.

Between 2010 and 2013 I saw the best financial times in my stock image career. In my best year, I pulled in around $70,000. Nearly half of that came from Shutterstock.


2010-2013 - This was the kind of stuff that really kicked my earnings up.

During these years, I also saw the most change in the stock image business. The feeling that we are a commodity to agencies became less a theory and more a reality. Getty definitely showed that, and said as much with their comments about money not being what should make us happy. These years marked a pivotal moment for me in this business, when I really felt that stock image licensing as I knew it up to that point had a definite expiration date on it, and I would not be able to do this in the same way for long. As good as things had been going, there was also this looming doubt in my mind that this wouldnt last long.

Of course we all know how that went. Since 2014 its been much harder to make a living at this. Impossible, in fact, for me and many others. I dont make anywhere near what I used to, and this is fully a side-gig income again for me. To be fair, I had a hand in that shift to some extent. I was skeptical about the future prospects of stock and I pulled away a bit. I didnt upload as much as I used to, and I started looking for other things to do. But it was always a part of my life and I still had hopes that either things would turn around or Id figure out some way to get things moving again.

Through the years, some unexpected and really cool things landed at my doorstep because of stock, and some of these things helped fill the gap of the declining income.

For example, I got an email from Shutterstock years back saying that someone was interested in buying exclusive rights to one of my images. Actually they wanted one badge design from a single image (a set of 9 badges). It was a set of college logos/emblems, and apparently some design company that was hired to design a new logo for a university took one of my stock images and passed it off as their own custom work. The school used the logo on banners, signs, books, all over the campus before finding out that their logo was a stock image. It was too late to re-do it, and too costly to tear down everything that already had the new logo on it, so they reached out to Shutterstock to find out about buying the rights to the image. I got a few thousand dollars in the deal, and the school got to keep their logo. From what I heard afterward, it was kind of a local controversy when the whole stock logo thing became known. Not just because of the drama with the design agency, but with the fact that the logo they were now fully committed to came from outside the community (outside the country for that matter).

A few similar stories came up over the years. I had a buyout request from a guy who, like the university, thought he got a custom logo design but it was one of my stock images instead. He actually loved his new custom logo so much that he got it tattooed on his arm. I felt bad for the guy, I couldnt even sell him the rights. It was my top-selling image at the time, sold over 10,000 times. After years of sales there was just no real value in having exclusive rights to the design, no way to really own it when so many people already had valid licenses to it. Last I heard, he was getting a new logo done and planned a cover-up for his tattoo. Thats one of 2 people I know about that have had my stock work tattooed on them. 


Band t-shirts and tattoos.

Ive had quite a few buy-out requests because of designers passing off my work as their own custom design. One was the Kabbage logo (the leaf graphic part of the logo). I was able to work out a deal with them to give them ownership of the leaf graphic.

Probably the weirdest one was from a designer who told me she "accidentally" designed a logo that looked exactly like one of my stock designs, the client saw the stock image, and now the designer wants me to stop selling it so her client doesn't sue her. Oh, and she didn't want to pay more than $20 in the buyout. The best part? This was somehow partially my fault, and I should "do the right thing" and sign over rights to the image to get her out of this messy situation.

Stock also brought some awesome clients to me for custom design work. I got an email from a guy who saw my work on Shutterstock and wanted to hire me to do some designs for his skateboard company. Within a few hours I was on the phone to an office in France, talking to the founder of Element skateboards, one of the largest skate companies globally. Ive done over 20 custom designs for them since, and my work is on t-shirts, hats, and decks in skate shops around the world.


Custom work for a skateboard company.

Ive done a ton of logo and t-shirt design work as a direct result of my stock portfolio. I have a steady gig with a clothing company doing around 10 t-shirt designs each month. Ive worked on graphics for apps, product logos, murals, even branding for a big marijuana and music festival, all the direct result of people finding me through stock site portfolios.

Ive seen my stock images used in some interesting places. On products and packaging in stores like Target, in ads, tv commercials for Verizon and Kayak, on news websites, on band merchandise, as the background artwork on a Shell gasoline card, on products and store graphics for Olan Rogers Supply, in graphics for shows on the TWiT network, in poster art on the walls of the high school in the Fox tv show Glee, and in print materials for the Boy Scouts of America.


Stock image sightings.

Along with the good, there is also the bad side of putting your work out there. Ive had countless cases of people stealing my work, reselling it, taking credit for it, putting it on products for sale without a proper license, I even had one guy who tried to sell the rights to one of my images to another company. He signed a contract and everything, and I had to inform the company that their contract with him was invalid.

I had to deal with the IRS thinking I drastically underreported my earnings one year, and get my accountant to fix the issue and make that $18,000 IRS invoice go away. It was that PayPal 1099-K form making it look like I earned twice as much as I actually did.

Still, the good has far outweighed the bad, and the 10 years Ive been doing this have been worth the hassles, the ups and downs, and the sometimes chaotic environment that the stock image business can be. This business gave me the freedom to be my own boss for 6 years, and it was a great side-gig during the other 4 years. It helped me hone my skills creating vector graphics, logos, badges, illustrations, and other designs, and build a portfolio that landed me projects I couldnt have gotten otherwise.

Looking forward, I dont see it being possible for anyone to make the kind of living at this in the same way and at the same level that was previously possible. Thats been true for years now, and will only become more real for us all in the years ahead. Its why guys like Yuri cut deals with agencies, they know as well (or better) than all of us that they cant maintain earnings rates.

The only constant in this business is change, and we need to change with it. For me, that change is what led me to Creative Market and why CM outperforms all of the stock sites I work with except Shutterstock. Although I can see the day coming soon when it does surpass Shutterstock. Creative Market never tried to match what microstock companies were doing. Its why they never really gained much popularity with the microstock contributor community, but its also why they have outperformed many microstock companies for many contributors. Its a different market, with a different buyer mindset and different paths to success. Trying to apply the same ideas and strategies to that platform doesn't work.


2017 new work. Definitely on a roll with camping-themed stuff lately.

I believe that marketplaces like Creative Market are the future of this business, at least for people like me who do vector design and sell customizable design elements. The best version of the product I sell isnt the flattened font-less EPS file buyers get at Shutterstock, its the fully editable, easily customizable, feature-rich product that gives buyers the tools to make something awesome. Sure its more work for me to make that kind of product, but its worth it. And the sales results prove it, for me and especially for the top earners who see six-figure or even seven-figure earnings.

In another 10 years Ill still be doing this, but it likely wont be with all the same companies. Probably half of the companies I currently work with wont even be around in 5 years. The market for pre-made visuals will still be as necessary in another decade as it is now, maybe even more so. But well have to better meet the customer where they are and not expect them to just take whatever we throw out into the market. We need to respond better to what they want, give them products that fit their needs and not just give them the products we want to make and expect them to be satisfied with that. Adobe will be an interesting company to follow in this. They are already are offering more than photos and vector icons.

When I look around my office, Ive got skateboards and prints hanging on the wall that show work I did because of connections I made through microstock. Ive got sketchbooks and folders on the bookshelf full of ideas for new stock graphics and illustrations. I'm wearing a t-shirt that someone sent me with a sea turtle mascot on the front, one of my stock designs. And Ive got a whiteboard with a list of projects I need to do, many of them for people who clicked around on Shutterstock or Creative Market and found me through those sites. What started out as me selling vector icons to pay for breakfast turned into something that has defined my career. No matter what happens from here, my path is forever changed because of this business. I think thats pretty awesome.

Thanks for 10 years, microstock, and thanks to everyone Ive met on this crazy journey.


« Reply #1 on: May 17, 2017, 00:10 »
+2
Thanks for putting this together. Great read and fascinating to see what your experience has been. I hope your new strategy continues to pay off for you.

« Reply #2 on: May 17, 2017, 00:26 »
+2
This is inspiring to read, I wish you more success in coming years.

« Reply #3 on: May 17, 2017, 01:08 »
+2
A great insight :)

Funny I got in to microstock fairly late in the day but I've been approached by print and design companies as a result of the stock portfolio.  The latest one they paid more for the images than they would have if they went to stock.  But they were happy because I could offer extra items which were not on stock (spares if you like) and I could go back and tweak the original images.

Good luck for the future :)

« Reply #4 on: May 17, 2017, 05:57 »
+11
Great post!  Until the promotion of CM.  After their licensing terms fiasco coupled with their inability to understand copyrighted/trademarked content, I pulled everything from there.  But glad to see your success.  I think these kind of connections come easier to illustrators than photographers, just because of the flexibility in working with the content.  Wish I could draw :)

« Reply #5 on: May 17, 2017, 08:36 »
+3
Nice read. It's definitely been a crazy ride for 10 years. In a way, it feels like it has come to an end, but it seems like it will keep going for a while too.

« Reply #6 on: May 17, 2017, 09:13 »
+1
Great post!  Until the promotion of CM.  After their licensing terms fiasco coupled with their inability to understand copyrighted/trademarked content, I pulled everything from there.  But glad to see your success.  I think these kind of connections come easier to illustrators than photographers, just because of the flexibility in working with the content.  Wish I could draw :)

Thanks, Sean. I know CM has been kind of unpopular around here. They've had some missteps, but they do make efforts to respond to concerns. Extended Licensing only came about because of contributor requests. And sure they could do better with trademark enforcement, but I don't see that as a reason not to participate myself. It doesn't affect me or my work. And I think eventually they'll have to do better in that area of the business.

Their positive attributes far outweigh the negatives. The 70% non-exclusive commission rate goes a long way in making up for licensing terms that lean a little more generously towards the buyer than is typical in microstock.

CM does things very differently, in a lot of ways. They're not microstock, really, so I never expected to see the exact same model and licensing that we get from microstock. It's got some good and some not so good. It's different, which is exactly what everyone around her is always asking for. It's not for everyone, but it's worked really well for me and for a lot of people. Things aren't going great at most places in stock these days. CM coming along and trying something different I think is exactly what we need, even if it's not always entirely what we want.

At the very least, companies like CM are proving that you can pay contributors well and still run a profitable business doing it. To me, they've been a big part of flipping the old microstock mentality that contributors should get the minority share of each sale.

angelawaye

  • Eat, Sleep, Keyword. Repeat

« Reply #7 on: May 17, 2017, 09:42 »
+3
Great read! Creative market is a different kind of place. After the new licensing update, I doubled my prices and don't see many sales now... plus I don't like how they include "their" cut in your MISC 1099. That is not right ...

Wishing you continued success and thanks for sharing your journey!





« Reply #8 on: May 17, 2017, 11:05 »
0
Interesting perspective!  Thanks for sharing.

« Reply #9 on: May 17, 2017, 12:27 »
+1
Thanks for sharing. I started about the same time, but with photography and significantly less talent, effort, and success. My best years were 2011-2013 and since then I have been less motivated and had lower expectations. I have managed to get some other income opportunities with my photography but it wasn't through microstock (although I certainly learned an awful lot from Microsoft University).

I figure there will be a fairly long glide path for my micro income, partly effected by my work in it but also on search changes and how many others get demotivated and stop.


« Reply #10 on: May 17, 2017, 16:14 »
+1
Great read! Creative market is a different kind of place. After the new licensing update, I doubled my prices and don't see many sales now... plus I don't like how they include "their" cut in your MISC 1099. That is not right ..

I thought the same thing at first. I was coming off of the Envato thing and it felt like CM was doing the same move. But it's pretty different. CM still considers all of your income from them one big number for the year, where as Envato regards it all as individual invoices between the contributor and the customer.

I talked to my accountant about how CM does it, and he said it's surprisingly common in many industries to do that kind of reporting. It's an easy enough work-around, and just means a few extra minutes of bookkeeping work to track it.

I still think it's weird, because it's money that never actually reached me and yet I'm supposed to say that it did. But apparently it's an extremely common practice and not nearly as big a deal as I originally thought.


« Reply #11 on: May 17, 2017, 17:39 »
+1
Very interesting read - thanks for taking the time to share it

You are very talented, and it has allowed you to have these experiences

« Reply #12 on: May 17, 2017, 22:10 »
+3
Nice writeup. I'm at 10 years too. Been a great journey.

« Reply #13 on: May 18, 2017, 04:43 »
+1
Nice read! yeah i've been 9 years in this and its been an up and down ride. There is no doubt that micro-stock in its heyday was very good and there was lots to be earned. My best years was when Istock was at its best and with SS a coule of years before gong public. The Adobe/Ft move was Ok at the start but have deteriorated for many myself included.
I personally dont believe in micro anymore and neither in the likes of Getty. I supply the slightly smaller niched agencies and the rewards are so much greater both in money and in being able to do conceptual photography. :D

Microstock Man

  • microstockman.com

« Reply #14 on: May 18, 2017, 10:40 »
+1
Awesome post EmberMike! Thanks for a great read, hope there's another 10 years left in this for all of us at least!

« Reply #15 on: May 18, 2017, 13:36 »
+1
Awesome post EmberMike! Thanks for a great read, hope there's another 10 years left in this for all of us at least!

Yeah, I'd love to see another 10 years ahead to go with the 8ish I've had.  I'm old enough that should almost put me to retirement age. 

But things would have to change drastically, IMO, to squeeze another decade of good income out of micro.   The direction things are going in for me, and other pros I read is the opposite.  We'll be lucky to get 3-5 more decent years.  Sad to say.

Thanks for the history, Mike.  Makes for interesting reading.

« Reply #16 on: May 18, 2017, 13:56 »
+2
Back then the big discussion was Should I go exclusive with iStock? Probably the worst thing I could have done would have been to go exclusive, and fortunately I resisted the temptation. But believe me, the temptation was there.

Back in these days I believe it was a wrong decision. I left the other sites and went exclusive with Istock; two monts later I was earning 2X; one year later I was earning 10X. Yes, now is (very, very) different, things began to go down the toilet about 2011-2012, but the ride was incredible. The expensive home I own is a testimony of this.


« Reply #17 on: May 18, 2017, 14:29 »
+4
Back then the big discussion was Should I go exclusive with iStock? Probably the worst thing I could have done would have been to go exclusive, and fortunately I resisted the temptation. But believe me, the temptation was there.

Back in these days I believe it was a wrong decision. I left the other sites and went exclusive with Istock; two monts later I was earning 2X; one year later I was earning 10X. Yes, now is (very, very) different, things began to go down the toilet about 2011-2012, but the ride was incredible. The expensive home I own is a testimony of this.

Similar experience. 10 years ago Istock offered incentives and was more friendly. I was also earning more there than anywhere else. So went exclusive and it was an awesome ride. RPI was great. Way more than being independent. Then all the changes started happening, incentives slowly removed, friendliness went away, and so did the money. Growth stalled around 2012 and it was obvious where things were headed. Turned in the crown and moved on to other things. Dont regret any of it. I also have a lot of things that I would never have had without photography. Amazing times we live in.


 

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