Interview with Microstock Blogger Lee Torrens

February 22, 2011, Author: Vitezslav Valka, Categories: Interview, Photographer, Showcase

Lee Torrens is a VIP of Microstock. I’ve had the chance to meet him in Dublin at CEPIC and he is a person who knows everyone in the business. What’s more, he does a great job in making the Microstock business more transparent to everyone. All that happens at his Microstock Diaries blog that is a must for anyone who’s serious about Microstock. If you want to know what photographers like, what competition does or who just acquired another agency, Lee is your answer.

Where are you now? Traveling or finally back in Australia?
Right now I’m in Australia, but I’m just visiting. I currently live in Argentina. My wife is Argentinean and I’m Australian so we plan to spend part of each year in each country, though at the moment it’s financially easier to live in Argentina.

Where have you been during the travels?
2010 was a bit of a freak year of travel for me. I was very lucky to be invited to attend stock photo industry events in many places, including an open iStockalypse in Cannes, the CEPIC congress in Dublin (where I finally met you, Vita!), the PhotoOp shoot with Veer in Calgary, the STOCKinRUSSIA conference in Moscow, the PACA conference (I invited myself to that one) and PhotoPlusExpo both in New York. I’ve attended other industry events before, but never so many in one year. I loved it, but I don’t expect to be that lucky again.

Is Microstock Diaries and shooting photos your full-time job?
It is now. For the last few years I’ve been primarily a freelance web developer. But now my blog and photo license revenue is enough to support me and my family financially. Closing down my web development business in a responsible way has taken a long time, so I haven’t been able to concentrate on the blog or shooting until now. I have some plans to expand and enhance my blog and I’ve started putting the pieces together for shooting in a much more professional way than I’ve done in the past. I published a market research report for microstock businesses late last year and that is helping a lot too. But I haven’t submitted any new stock photos for over two years now – aside from the Veer shoot – so I’m most excited about getting back into shooting.

How do you combine your family life with work?
At the moment they’re combined a little too much. We live in a one-room apartment, so my desk is right beside where my wife and daughter spend their day. That’s great for being there for the important moments, helping out with the household stuff (like changing nappies/diapers!) and spending lots of time together, but it’s not so great for concentrating. I often escape to a cafe to work, but we’re planning to move into a small house soon where I’ll be able to close a door behind me. I’m yet to find a cafe that serves better coffee than what I make at home, so that will be a relief. And of course I’ll still be at home and get to spend lots of time with my family when I’m not out shooting.

Vita: It’s exactly the same here. One room, baby, concentration, house in progress. You should buy a good headphones if you don’t have them yet and a Nespresso machine which makes perfect coffee at home the easy way.

How do you see your future?
As someone who’s always struggled with long-term focus, I’m not accustomed to planning more than a couple of years ahead. That being said, I’ve maintained Microstock Diaries for almost four years now, and that’s double the time I’ve stayed continuously in any one job. In 2010 I plan to make stock photo licensing a bigger part of my income, while of course developing my blog and research report. Beyond that, I’m at the point where most of my income is mostly passive, so I can mix stock shoots with other projects. It’s a very flexible situation. My wife and I designed this lifestyle to achieve geographical freedom given we’re from different countries, but it’s also providing a lot of career/entrepreneurial freedom too.

Do you still love microstock?
There’s a few possible contexts for “microstock” in this question, but the answer to each is ‘yes’. I love stock photography as a profession. While the photos aren’t exactly what most photographers would choose to create for pleasure, the freedom and potential of the profession is very exciting right now, despite popular opinion. I love the microstock business model too. In contrast to the old model, it’s open, clear and merit based. In contrast to other photographer business models it’s consistent, flexible and has massive potential. Finally, I’m loving what I’m doing in microstock. Blogging, speaking, consulting and now the research report – they’re all part of this unplanned wild ride that continues opening up in front of me.

Vita: Seems like dreams are becoming reality which is good. Don’t forget to pick new and higher targets! ;-)

Was there some good development in microstock during last 2 years?
Absolutely. We’ve seen some radical movements in pricing and distribution. These have helped buyers find more suitable photos and photographers access greater opportunities to maximize their revenue. Of course much of this development has also had not-so-good impacts for some, particularly non-exclusive stock photographers (both microstock and traditional). Many people in the market are also citing accelerated migration of buyers from traditional agencies to microstock agencies, from which there are obvious winners and losers.

What are the most important features of an agency for you?
For me as a microstock contributor, the list looks like this:

  • Professionalism among senior management and customer service personnel. Not all agencies have it and it’s super disappointing when they don’t.
  • The ability to sell photo licenses in high volume. Agencies that can’t do this are a waste of time for contributors.
  • A business model based on facts supported by current evidence, not predictions for an as-yet-unproven future situation.
  • Above average prices and above average royalty rates. I know it makes it hard to get started, but if you can’t manage that you don’t belong in this industry at this time.
  • Control over the content – ability to edit metadata and delete/disable images – is also important for me.

Vita: I’m happy to see this. I see the future in a very similar way. Fair business, ability to make the project successful and use of all the possible opportunities rather than just waiting for something that may come or may change.

Who are the innovation leaders?
To innovate you must risk and fail. To risk and fail you must have money. To have money you must have the low royalties, and the first-mover advantage doesn’t hurt either. I think it’s totally logical that the leading agency in this market is innovating the most. But not everything they do is their own innovation. They weren’t the first with collections nor with an image warranty (guarantee). And given their royalty rates their level of innovation could perhaps be higher.

That’s not to discount the innovation happening among the smaller agencies. As I stated in my review, I’m impressed by the level of innovation at Pixmac. I hope it’s enough to see you push through the challenges of starting a new microstock agency.

Do you prefer exclusivity or not?
For such a simple question, there’s no short answer that’s complete. I’m current distributing my stock non-exclusively, so that’s obviously my preference at this time. However, it wouldn’t take much change to my situation to change my preference.

From the agency perspective, this is a massive issue – it’s hard to find words that convey how convincing the data is. Here’s my attempt: Microstock agencies leave this topic off the agenda of every strategy meeting at their peril.

I’m a big fan of image exclusivity in microstock. It puts the onus on the agency to make the image perform well, and there’s no long-term lock-in like in the traditional market. I always recommend contributors take advantage of image exclusivity if they have an image with a stand-out performance at any microstock agency that offers it.

Should we change/improve anything at Pixmac especially for Lee?
I’m glad you asked!

  • Add video and audio
  • Increase the price of Extended Licenses (Vita: Done $40-120)
  • Increase royalties so direct sales are always more lucrative for contributors than partner sales
  • Enable automatic monthly (1st of month) payouts (as an option)
  • Support Payoneer
  • Provide contributor functionality via API
  • Introduce high-priced collections for image-exclusive content, be very selective about what gets in and promote them heavily
  • Include contributor referrals (I wouldn’t do this if I were in your position, but you asked what changes you could make for “Lee”) (Vita: Done)
  • Add corporate accounts to attract more high-volume buyers
    (Vita: Done, not yet promoted)
  • Do less microsites and more deep integration i.e. go where the BIG buyers are (Vita: Working on it)
  • Find more partners for your API – it’s best of breed so leverage it
  • Require complete metadata from your content partners – I think you know this one already ;)

Perhaps even more important are the things I would like to see you continue to do or not change:

  • Continue your blog – I love that you talk about your company, business issues and what you’re thinking. Nobody else is doing it that well and that broad. It’s making you very open and transparent, which is great.
  • Continue developing your API. Other agencies in our industry are laggards in this area, so compare yourself to forward-thinking companies outside the industry: Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Google, etc.
  • Keep up the great SEO work.

What is your dream country?
Every country has its good parts and not-so-good parts. For me it’s not about searching for one ideal country, but enjoying the best of each one and changing regularly.

Vita: Thank you Lee for the inspiring thoughts. I’ll definitely keep this list as one of my TODOs because the constant evolution and feature development is our way of exploring the market. Keep up the great work you do. Microstock Diaries is one of the few pages I check regularly.

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  1. Nice Interview Vita and Lee. I think Lee gave a great list of To-Do’s in the “Should we change/improve anything at Pixmac especially for Lee?” question. I think every agency should take a look at that list and make note!

    Tyler Olson - MicrostockGroup, February 22, 2011 @ 9:23 am

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