Continuing on with the Stock-Wizards interview series, I’m happy to welcome Shawn Rubel, Founder & CEO at Vecteezy, an online collection of both paid and free-to-download stock photos, videos, and vector images. Let’s get started!
Disclaimer: As someone who has been consistently critical of the free-download model this interview is an opportunity to try to better-understand the benefits, if any, of such models from someone on the inside the industry. Therefore, my intention is neither to promote or “dis-promote” Vecteezy.
Thanks Shawn, for taking part in this interview. Please tell us about when and how the idea behind Vecteezy emerged. Also, how large is the team and where are you/they based?
I started Vecteezy in 2007 as a side project with modest ambitions. I have a background as a graphic designer and I started Vecteezy to be a place where designers could find free vector graphics for use in their own work. At the time, I didn’t imagine Vecteezy would become a stock marketplace used by millions of creative professionals from around the world. My goal was basically to help designers find quality resources, and also to provide more exposure for people who already had created those resources.
Of course, Vecteezy has changed and evolved a lot over the years. We added premium content to the site in 2010 and added stock photos and stock videos in 2021.
Today, our team includes about 75 people. Our home office is in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but many of our team members work remotely from different areas of the US and internationally.
Vecteezy has grown considerably in the past few years, I’m sure it’s not all been so smooth sailing as any start-up is aware. Which were the most difficult technical and commercial challenges and how did you overcome them?
Early on, my biggest challenges were related to patchwork coding that was the result of working with several different freelance developers. The solution was hiring a full-time developer, and later a team of developers.
Recently, we’ve been really focused on trying to fine-tune the search results our site provides to visitors so they can find the photos, videos, and vectors that meet their needs. We’ve added a number of filters that help to narrow down the results, like filtering for images that include a specific color or filtering by the number of people, age of people, and composition.
One of the most challenging aspects was to improve the results when the user filters for the “newest” resources instead of viewing by “best match”. It took a lot of time and effort for our team of engineers to ensure that the results are still highly relevant while also featuring the newest resources first, but I think they did an outstanding job of overcoming this challenge.
Which challenges do you foresee for Vecteezy and the wider industry in the medium term (1-5 years)?
The biggest challenges for us right now are related to growing our team in an efficient way. Adding new roles is a positive change, but maintaining efficiency and remaining nimble as the team and infrastructure grows is not as simple as it may sound.
As far as the wider industry is concerned, over the past few years, free photo websites have become increasingly popular. Most of these sites don’t require signed model releases and don’t prevent users from uploading photos that include logos or other trademarked material. People use these sites because they’re a free alternative to paying for stock photo licenses, but most people who are using these photos don’t realize the potential legal issues that exist. I’m really interested to see what happens over the next few years both for people using free photos and for companies in the industry.
How do you position yourself against other “free-download” sites such as Unsplash and Pexels?
The biggest difference between Vecteezy and sites like Unsplash or Pexels is that we require contributors to submit signed model and/or property releases when resources include recognizable people or private property. If the necessary releases are not provided, the resource will have an editorial license, which means it cannot be used for commercial purposes. Likewise, any images that feature brand logos or other trademarks will have an editorial license.
Vecteezy users can see if a signed release has been submitted for a specific stock photo or video (if we have a signed release on file, it will be noted just below the download button). As a result, end-users have more protection by using the resources from Vecteezy.
Do you view Vecteezy as a threat to the traditional microstock agencies when most contributors are reporting year-on-year reduced royalties?
Most of our contributors, including our top contributors, have seen their earnings from Vecteezy increase year-over-year. Of course, we’ve had a lot of contributors join our platform after becoming frustrated with some of our competitors. We don’t require exclusivity from our contributors, so we’re not a threat in the sense that contributors wouldn’t have to choose to leave other platforms in order to join Vecteezy. However, I do believe that contributors will stop using platforms that continue to generate less and less income for them.
I see Vecteezy offers contributors two distinct business models, the “free-download” and “Pro” models. Can you please elaborate on the pros and cons of each?
For professionals and contributors who want to maximize their income from stock marketplaces (which is probably most of your audience), our Pro model is more appropriate. Most of our contributors who submit Free content are just looking to make some extra money by sharing their photos.
The advantage of submitting Free content includes simplicity (they get paid a flat rate per download for images and videos) and maximum exposure. Free resources get more downloads than Pro resources, so it offers an opportunity to get your work seen and used by more people. Many of our contributors who submit Free content to Vecteezy are already sharing their content on other sites like Unsplash, Pexels, or Pixabay, but they’re not getting paid per download by those sites. We use a subscriber share model to determine how much our contributors are paid for each download of Pro content. The revenue from Pro subscribers is split 50/50 (after credit card fees) between Vecteezy and contributors. The revenue from each subscriber goes to the contributors that have provided the specific resources downloaded by the user. We believe this is the fairest way to compensate contributors.
Discussing the “free-download” model first, what are the main threats for buyers, contributors and Vecteezy when buyers download commercial content for usage? How do you ensure that unreleased content is not being used in a way that induces risks to all Parties?
The biggest risk for users is something I touched on earlier, potential legal issues related to using resources without a signed model/property release, or with logos and trademarks included. The photographer or videographer who uploaded the content may be fine with it being used commercially, but models or property owners may not have given their consent. And the inclusion of logos and trademarks could create similar issues. Contributors could face some of the same issues as well.
At Vecteezy, we’ve addressed this issue by requiring signed releases (when needed) for content that will be licensed for commercial use, including free downloads. Every resource is manually reviewed before being published to our site. If it lacks a necessary release, it will be licensed for editorial use until the required releases are provided by the contributor. We also use an editorial license if a logo or trademark is visible. In this way, we treat Free submissions the same as Pro submissions. We strive to be transparent with both users and contributors, which is why resources that have signed releases are clearly marked on our site.
As you may already know, the “free-download” business model is extremely controversial with traditional microstockers. Therefore, how does Vecteezy plan to overcome this negative perception in order to entice quality contributors?
Traditional microstockers need to realize that the free-download model isn’t going away. They need to learn to evolve with it. We already get thousands of new contributors signing up every day, so trying to convince a skeptical traditional microstocker isn’t a top priority for us.
With that being said, Contributors need to start thinking more about carving out their own niches within the industry and giving a small selection of their portfolio away for free to attract more paying customers. They don’t need to give all their content away for free, but we are seeing our most successful contributors giving a portion away for free which helps drive customer discovery and usually leads to more sales.
We suggest contributors offer both Free and Pro content together on the site. If you’re a Pro contributor, at first you might not like the idea of Free content appearing in the search results next to your Pro content. However, we’ve seen that a high percentage of our paying customers started by downloading Free content before upgrading.
Moving onto the “Pro” model, how much can new contributors realistically earn? Let’s suppose a contributor has 1,000 images and 100 clips that are highly sought-after…how much, on average, should a contributor expect to earn after let’s say 1 year?
The revenue from Pro subscriptions and download credits is split 50/50 between Vecteezy and contributors. Of course, the exact amount made by a contributor will depend on many factors. So the answer to your question is not an easy one. Trying to guess earning expectations is always very tricky. We are never able to give you an exact number (and I even hesitate to give you a range because there are just too many factors that determine success). However, our top contributors are making several thousand dollars per month.
Of all the best images and portfolios, here’s what we’re seeing:
- Image Quality and Technical Aesthetics: Poor quality images don’t sell well (obviously). The highest selling images are professional and technically excellent in every way.
- Image Topic & Market Need: Oftentimes when beautiful images don’t sell, it’s because they still appeal to a very specific and small audience.
- Keyword and Description Quality: High quality images that appeal to a large audience still don’t sell well if they’re keyworded poorly and the description of the image isn’t good. This is because they won’t show up highly in the search results for what users are looking for. OR they don’t show up if a user spammed or keyword stuffed the images. Being accurate and concise is key. I.e. adding the word “background” to every single image isn’t going to do you any favors.
- Portfolio Quality and History: In our industry, it’s very easy for a user to download a free image from Google that they don’t own the rights to and try to upload it as their own in an effort to try and earn a quick buck. We have a series of checks and balances to prevent this and rank and score portfolios over time. Oftentimes contributors don’t earn well over the first few months, but then begin to gain momentum over the coming months as they gain more history and trust from the algorithm. Our highest earners put their time in, and really hit a good stride once our algorithm has had time to place their content appropriately.
- Portfolio Size: Obviously the more photos you have, the more opportunity you have to catch a customer’s eye. Customers with a high amount of high quality images are oftentimes the highest performers on our site. The top earners in our marketplace have uploaded thousands of high-quality images.
- Original Content: One thing we’re starting to see is that the top earners are also uploading original and unique images to our website. Uploading a portfolio of images that exist in 5 more places on the internet may earn you some additional revenue. But the top earners are uploading 100% unique content. This is because the unique content ranks in Google and starts to get compounding network effects. I.e. It ranks in Google, and gets 10x more eyeballs on the image because it appears in Google Image search which drives up the visibility in our algorithm and makes it rank higher in our marketplace. So it’s a win-win and earns far more.
Would you kindly offer general tips for those contributors who are looking to increase their earnings from their photos/vectors and footage? Which types of content stand out to buyers in 2022?
Some basic things contributors can do to increase earnings include effective keywording, creating a complete contributor profile (including a photo or avatar), verifying their ID and tax documents, and focusing on increasing the quantity of submissions without sacrificing quality.
Creating images or videos for specific seasons or holidays is also an excellent approach, and we have a contributor calendar to help our contributors know what seasonal content they should be creating and when. I also recommend that contributors create content for specific purposes with end users in mind, rather than just creating something that looks nice.
We’ve also seen strong demand for content that has a genuine and authentic feel to it, as opposed to a stereotypical stock image or video. Today’s users want something that looks custom rather than content that obviously came from a stock marketplace.
What is Vecteezy’s policy on deleting content and portfolio from their platform? Some agencies make it extremely challenging, sometimes having to wait up to 6 months.
When you sign up, we ask that contributors give us at least 1 year before you request removal. This is because we need time to collect data, calculate the quality for our index, and establish earnings for you. There is also a lot of expense involved in reviewing content before it gets placed on the site.
It also gives your images a fighting chance to get indexed in Google. That often takes at least 90 to 120 days. If you get an image that ranks highly in Google, it can drive earnings for years to come. But that’s not going to happen if you try to remove your images after a few months. So we always suggest contributors have a longer time horizon for the best chance at success.
How do you foresee the future of the microstock industry in the short and medium terms (1-5 years)? In addition, do you see a greater demand for buyers who demand a more flexible “free-download” license model for commercial usage?
The demand for high-quality images and video isn’t going away. Stock video footage will continue to grow the fastest over the next few years, in part because of the popularity of video-oriented social platforms.
I anticipate the continued demand for free content to remain strong, but I think it may shift over the next few years as more users become aware of the potential legal issues involved with images/videos that don’t have signed releases or that include logos and trademarks. I think more users will be looking for free content that has the appropriate releases to protect themselves from potential legal issues.
Thank you, Shawn, wish you success and happiness both in your personal and professional life!
I’m an eccentric guy, currently based in Madrid, Spain, on a quest to visit all corners of the world and capture stock images & footage, when my current corporate job ends (soon!). I’ve devoted eight years to making it as a travel photographer / videographer and freelance writer. I hope to inspire others by showing an unique insight into a fascinating business model.
Most recently I’ve gone all in on submitting book cover images to Arcangel Images.
I’m proud to have written a book about my adventures which includes tips on making it as a stock travel photographer – Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography