For freelance image-makers, the launch of Stocksy, a stock agency, should be food for thought. Created by Bruce Livingstone, the founder of microstock site iStockPhoto, the site is a freelance co-operative. Not only do contributors receive at least half of the sales price generated by their submissions, they will also receive a share of the company’s profits. The idea is to create a new model for stock contributors that gives artists a fairer share of the value of their work. (iStock pays contributors commissions as low as 15 percent.) But could the co operative model work for freelancers in other fields?
The benefits are certainly attractive:
- Easier Scheduling
Work as part of a team rather than as an individual and you can smooth out the feast-or-famine scheduling that often afflicts freelance work. When you’re snowed under, you can offload some of the extra work to colleagues without disappointing clients. When times are lean, you might find that other members of the co-op need some help, letting you bridge the gap until the next crush.
- Cheaper Overheads
Freelancing isn’t usually expensive but if you’re sharing the costs then heading out of the home office and into a rented space becomes a lot more feasible, freeing up more room in the home. Software licenses become cheaper too when you buy them in bulk and if you need to pay attorney or bookkeeping fees, those costs come out of the co-operative’s income, not just your revenues.
- Broader Skill Range
A co-operative doesn’t have to be formed with people whose skills are the same as yours. Bruce Livingstone might have brought photographers together but form a co-operative made up of freelance copywriters, designers, artists and videographers and you’ll be part-owner of your very own ad agency, letting you bid for projects that are much more complex, much more interesting (and often much more lucrative) than the kind of work you usually take on.
- Team Work
And leaving money and challenges aside, being a member of a co-operative will also supply the camaraderie and fun that can come from working as part of a team. You’ll get all of the benefits of working for a company but as one of the owners, you won’t have a boss.
With such a broad range of benefits, it’s not too surprising that a number of freelancers have already made the leap, even on the smallest scale.
The Freelance Cooperative in the UK, for example, specializes in design work for print, packaging and digital platforms. It’s made up of just two people who found themselves collaborating on a number of different projects.
“We discovered that by combining our skills we could offer clients an agency type service, but at a fraction of the cost,” the co-op says on its website.
Other co-operatives though are much more complex. Shift Cooperative Support Systems is a tech firm that creates Joomla-based websites. It’s also trying to create a national freelance co-operative made up of members across the United States who can both provide creative and technical services in their local areas and collaborate on projects with other members around the country. The co-op is growing and is looking for members with skills that range from copywriting, design and photography to cable and network technicians, public relations and marketing managers.
Depending on the complexity of the co-op, forming your own freelance co-operative can be challenging. Shift-CSS has published a document that explains what freelancers might have to do if they want to expand from a one-person business to a multi-person co-operative. It’s a ten-step process:
- Find “cooperators.”
- Consolidate a clear vision.
- Design your process.
- Create a start-up plan.
- Analyze who you are and what you can really do.
- Make a feasibility check.
- Write a business plan…
- … and an organizational plan.
- Incorporate and start-up.
In practice, while all of those steps might be a good idea not all of them will be necessary, some will be settled over a cup of coffee with your fellow co-operators and all will be shared between people with a shared goal and a stake in the outcome.
And the good news is that the first step, which is probably the most important, is also the easiest. Early last year, a freelance writer in the UK created a group on LinkedIn that announced that she was trying to set up a freelance cooperative in Manchester made up of “a loosely linked group of media freelancers who can share work and meet up to discuss ideas.” After inviting people to let her know if they would be interested, the response was overwhelming. Some forty-six people liked the group and the post generated nearly 150 comments.
Clearly, not all of those respondents would have been genuinely interested in joining a co-operative, especially if it meant working through all of the details of the ten-step process laid out by Shift-CSS. Many were interested largely in the possibility of meeting other freelancers working in a related field for either the extra company or the possibility of networking. Some mentioned, too, the dates of local Jelly meetups, a co-working initiative that brings the benefits of working alongside other freelancers, sharing some overheads and networking opportunities but without the complicated structure or commitment involved in setting up or joining a cooperative.
That’s an issue that goes to the heart of the freelance cooperative dilemma. Stocksy makes sense because freelance photographers have to get together to sell their creations; the more images buyers can find in one place, the more likely they are to buy from that source. If they can make those sales themselves instead of relying on agencies to do it for them, they’ll see a lot more of the profits. But freelancers in other fields can usually sell individually — and we like it that way. Joining or forming a freelance co-operative might offer opportunities to sell more services or win more projects but because we tend not to have middlemen, we also tend not to be exploited. There are benefits to freelance cooperation but the cost is the loss of some freelance freedom, and that’s a heavy price to pay.