How’s this for a company doing things differently: no physical inventory, a flipped buying model, and a business plan in which their greatest wish is to see their customers move on to their competitors.
Confused? Welcome to Death To Stock, a company as edgy and innovative as their name suggests.
Founded in 2013 by Allie Lehman and David Sherry, the company began with a simple email to fellow creatives where they offered to share unused photos from commissioned photo shoots. From there, Death To Stock, also known as DTS, launched a free monthly newsletter with 10 free photos, then later began offering paid monthly subscription packages. These allowed customers to access the entire photo library and also receive a monthly delivery of curated photographs for download.
Four years and hundreds of thousands of subscribers later, Death To Stock is committed to breaking pretty much every established rule out there‚ especially when it comes to inventory.
Sherry explains that DTS is in a unique position when it comes to inventory, because their product is digital; it’s able to be effortlessly bought, remixed, and used in a different way by each and every customer who downloads it. Its digital form also allows them to sidestep the typical inventory issues that most small business owners encounter.
DTS Chief Operating Officer Shaun Singh says, “It breaks every single rule. Storage costs are a fraction of what they would be and there’s no depreciation of our inventory—it actually increases with value the more assets we add to it.”
That’s because DTS has taken a different approach to marketing their inventory, they don’t sell the product (an image) individually like most stock photo sites do, they sell a story instead.
“If you want a specific photo, like of a dog eating an ice cream, we’re definitely not the people for you,” laughs Singh, “We cater to people who aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. They might just have a theme or a vibe to go on…We take our photos and group them into photo packs with clear stories—about love, ambition, exploration—and with those photos they can choose to take it a step further.”
Grouping photos together to tell a story, evoke a feeling, or encompass a particular theme in order to inspire their customers towards creation is something that DTS founders feel is just as important as the product itself. Without it, they’re just another stock photo company. With it and their offbeat, upside-down approach to business, however, they become the catalyst for creativity, rather than the last step in the creative process.
Sherry explains this by saying that that typically, people access a stock photo site as the last step in a project, and with a specific image in mind. They search the archives to find it, and then purchase it for use. But through interacting with their subscribers, DTS started seeing a different opportunity, an opportunity for their inventory to position them as a source of the story rather than just an illustration for a story already written.
“People started saying ‘Man, I really like these photos. What can I create with it?’ And we saw that it was flipping the entire buying behaviour model around,” says Singh. “It’s like seeing a really great ingredient at the supermarket and saying hey, what could I cook with this?”
That feeling, the desire of a company run by creatives to fuel creativity, has infused virtually every business decision since. The photos found on DTS are great quality and impeccably shot, but it’s the way they are curated, packaged and delivered that sets them apart.
“It’s like seeing a really great ingredient at the supermarket and saying hey, what could I cook with this?”
“From the outside, we’re viewed as a resourcing company, and that’s how we got our foot in the door,” Singh says. “But we’re moving much more towards a concept we call internally ‘creative caffeine’. Resourcing is just a small component, it’s much more about inspiration and motivation.”
Ironically, continuously stretching the business model towards growth and creativity sometimes means limiting their customer’s access to the products they’re selling. Singh shared how DTS experimented briefly with allowing customers to segment or narrow down their photo picks by theme or subject, but says ultimately they decided against it.
“[Segmenting] kind of killed our magic a little bit because one of our core values is discovery…if you have the chance to segment, that’s assuming you know exactly what you want. If you know exactly what you want, you should be going to Shutterstock or Stocksy.”
And if you’re surprised to hear a company directing potential customers to their competition, don’t be. DTS is very clear about who their customers are and they operate with a heartfelt “if you love someone, let them go” philosophy.
Singh says, “Eventually what happens—and we always want this to happen—is that they get really, really good at their craft and they end up leaving. Either because they’ve honed their creative eye and end up taking their own images or now they know exactly what they want so they go to buy one-off images.” And far from scrabbling to claw their customers back, Death To Stock celebrates their departure and counts another happy customer off to join the ranks of major companies—and hopefully be a great business connection in the future.
“People have always said ‘What are you going to do with those people?’ but we’re just like proud parents watching them graduate,” chuckles Singh. “Obviously we’re sad to see them go, but that’s exactly what we want them to do! They come to us when they don’t know what kind of creatives they want to be, we help to nurture that, guide that, and those people are now our biggest advocates.”
By having the guts to kill old, outdated business models, Death To Stock has successfully built a business around breathing new life into the way we think about inventory. It’s a big-picture approach, and it’s beautiful.