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Stock Photography Redefined

By Julie King |

The way that iStockphoto rose to "" success comes across like something from a fairy tale. The story starts with a photographer turned entrepreneur, Calgary-based Bruce Livingstone, who unsuccessfully tried to market his own stock photography CD-Rom in the 90's.

Rather than giving up after this failure, Livingstone decided to turn the stock industry on its ear. In 1998 he began sharing his 1600+ photos - for free - to other designers and photographers.

Eight years later that initial experiment has evolved into a thriving community and a successful business that has 32 full-time employees. In February 2006 Livingstone realized the success that most entrepreneurs only dream about; his company was acquired by by Getty Images, Inc. one of the world's leading stock photo companies.

The company's vital statistics look very good. iStockphoto has 600,000 members and a stock photography database with over 650,000 images. Livingstone estimates that iStockphoto will sell between seven and ten million images in 2006, or one image every 4.5 seconds.

"iStockphoto democratized access to great photos for everyone," says Bruce Livingstone. "We are the first, the biggest and the best social marketplace for value-priced imagery, currently ranked as one of the top 346 most visited sites in the world. We, together with our members have effectively turned community into commerce, and were the first to provide a direct communication link between photographers and designers. We also have a cadre of image inspectors on contract around the world, who review and approve our images."

Redefining the way stock is sold
To understand what makes iStockphoto unique, consider how stock photos are often sold. A business would traditionally have purchased either a "royalty free" or "rights managed" image for use in flyers, websites and other business materials. Royalty free images typically cost $70 - $200 from large stock houses; rights managed photos cost even more and may only be used in specified quanities and projects.

When Livingstone created a community for professional photographers and designers to share their photography he abandoned traditional pricing models. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for an image designers could now source good quality photographers for as little as $1 per image. All low resolution images cost at iStockphoto cost $1, with higher resolutions (in lay terms this means larger sizes) costing a bit more.

For the small business owner iStockphoto's model is highly relevant because it levels the playing field, enabling them to add high quality photography to their designs for an extremely low price.

Behind the scenes at iStockphoto

To learn more about the success of iStockphoto we went to the source: Bruce Livingston, founder, president and CEO. Here is what he told us about his entrepreneurial experiences.

CanadaOne: You originally started by giving away your photos. Financially, how did you survive?
Livingstone: iStockphoto was built on passion, not on dollars. The site paid its hosting bill through my design firm,, and our hosting company Webcore Labs donated the bandwidth at cost. It was important for us to create a culture that didn't depend on advertising dollars and inundate designers with smiley faced banners that distracted from the site's true purpose.


What is your revenue model and how has it evolved?
Livingstone: We pioneered the micropayment category in imagery. On iStockphoto you can find images for $1-$40. We created a credit system, where you purchase credits in lots of $10, $25, $50, $100, and $250. This way, you don't have to have hundreds of $1 charges on your credit card.


Before 2000 it seemed like everyone had a dream to make it big with a "", but of course very few survived the crash of 2000 and even fewer have truly succeeded in the way many once dreamed would be possible. In this regard you definitely seem to be the exception to the rule. With that in mind …what do you think set iStockphoto apart from other 'dot.commers'?
Livingstone: A genuine love for what we do. We didn't care about revenues or traffic. All we cared about was making something that had meaning. Once things started going well, we had an effective and well-executed business plan.


Along the road to success I'm sure you've encountered some major challenges. What were they and how did you overcome them?
Livingstone: Challenges? We've created a major new segment of an industry that everyone said wouldn't fly. I've found the best way to overcome any challenges is to pay attention to the small details and treat them with great importance. It minimizes the amount and frequency of larger issues. Surrounding yourself with competent and passionate people also makes our lives much easier.


When did you realize you were really going to make it and how did that feel?
Livingstone: Making it is a fairly subjective concept. Many of us here are still playing in our indie bands and gigging on the weekends. I've found that making it is something that rarely happens. I guess I feel like we've stirred some sh*t in the industry, but still want to accomplish a great deal more. We have some big plans in the coming years.


As an entrepreneur, have you found time in your life for "balance"? What is a day/week/month in the life of Bruce Livingstone like? Do you have outlets that you turn to when things get stressful at work?
Livingstone: I'm not unlike most entrepreneurs, I suspect. I live what I do and don't really make time for anything else. By design, my life is set up to be at the office quickly. I only live a few blocks away. I work constantly, leaving little time for family, sleep or personal hygiene. My time for release is during a photo shoot or some other creative output. My Director of Photography is a master at the creative process and makes a few hours behind the lens particularly special. We pull out all the stops and really get to have some fun.


What is the next step for iStockphoto? How about yourself personally?
Livingstone: Access to great images has taken a huge step forward as of February 9. Getty Images, the world's leading creator and distributor of visual content, acquired iStockphoto, the first, biggest and best community-powered marketplace for value-priced imagery. With Getty's resources and expertise, iStockphoto will expand its global footprint and localize content in key regions. I will remain on as CEO and president.

iStockphoto will continue to be the same innovative and dynamic company you have enjoyed, only better. We will have the same employees as before, operate out of the same location, and most importantly, will continue to provide cutting edge technology and innovation. We will offer continued passionate growth with more stability.


What advice would you have for another entrepreneur who is just starting out in business, whether it is online or off-line?
Livingstone: Don't let anyone ever say "no" to you. If your ideas are challenging and people tell you they won't work, ignore them. Most importantly, surround yourself with amazing people who share your passion and pay them as much you can afford. Friends, confidantes and passion are concepts you can't pay for and likely can't afford.

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