Update #7: The birth of a zebra

aurel_blog_rund by Aurel Vogel, May 2021

What is Fairpicture? Who are we? What do we stand for? What do we want to achieve? These questions have kept us busy over the past nine months. Not only in terms of the product and photography, but especially in terms of what kind of business and organisation we want to be. Are we a nonprofit? A startup? A social company? Or part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who are unwilling to accept the current categories?

In October 2020 we had to make a decision. Do we continue with Fairpicture as a nonprofit despite unsuccessful foundation fundraising or do we pivot into the for-profit world and become a startup? After a year of applications and negotiations, we realised that Fairpicture is too “entrepreneurial” for many foundations. Additionally, we received feedback from both photographers and clients that they were not waiting for another nonprofit project but a reliable and sustainable partner for fair photography that is here to stay.

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Photo: Roshni Lodhia / SolidarMed / Fairpicture

From nonprofit to social entrepreneurship

Since we have always wanted to develop a self-sustaining business model, we didn‘t have to change our business plan much. A little tweak here and there and we had a business case that maintained our purpose, made a profit, and was attractive to investors. With all the money around, an easy game—or so we thought. As we were getting to know the startup world in the following months, we realised that while there are a lot of startup programs and angel investors, institutional and private investors who are looking for startup investments with an impact dimension remain pioneers and are hard to find. 

This is not a new phenomenon. In 2017 the founders of Zebras Unite wrote: “For young companies pursuing both profit and purpose, the existing imperfect structures […] can be prohibitively expensive. The expense comes […] in the consumption of a founder’s most precious commodity: time. Months are lost searching for aligned, strategic investors who are both familiar and comfortable with alternative models.”

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Photo: Rosa Panggabean / Transfair / Fairpicture

Impact investors and impact startups: two needles in a haystack

These “aligned” impact investors face their own challenges. Foundations and nonprofit investors on the one hand are used to working with “classic” nonprofit projects. Investing in impact startups requires innovation and creativity, which often comes with a new way of thinking about impact and sustainability. 

Private investors and venture capitalists on the other hand have to integrate impact into their return calculation and recognise that a 10x (financial) increase in their investment is not always feasible.

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Photo: Fatoumata Tioye Coulibaly / Helvetas / Fairpicture

We quickly realised that by focusing both on profit and purpose, Fairpicture stood out from the crowd. Every medtech, proptech or fintech startup promises high financial returns. But few can show an impact on the other dimensions of sustainability. Fairpicture’s purposeful and transparent business model opened many doors. Our values of fairness, transparency, and accountability resonate with many investors and they agree that we have momentum on our side. But finding those pioneering investors is challenging and time consuming. 

It is interesting to hear the same from the “other side”, from impact investment funds that have difficulties finding opportunities that meet their requirements. So it appears that, at the moment, (early stage) impact investment is one huge haystack with a couple of needles trying to find each other …

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Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.

Zebras fix what unicorns break, Zebras Unite

The zebras are coming: A new generation of startups

What we have also learned is that we are not alone. There is a movement of (young) entrepreneurs who are looking for and are building a third path between nonprofit and for-profit. In contrast to the disruptive “unicorn” startups that put profit above all else, “zebra” startups combine profit and purpose and strive to build sustainable businesses that make a real difference. Zebras aren’t content to build another online shop and a recommendation algorithm (they call it “an innovative AI engine”). They aim to change the system to improve a part of society—while building a financially self-sustaining business model. 

At Fairpicture, we combine business and impact on multiple dimensions:

  • On the funding dimension, we work together with both foundation investors and private impact investors.
  • On the business model dimension, we build a platform that is both scalable (business) and integrates fair principles by design (impact).
  • On the revenue dimension, we split profits 50/50 into dividends for shareholders and into a Fairpicture fund dedicated to visual creators and the Fairpicture mission.

Since May 2021, Fairpicture is part of the Social Impact Accelerator, the first accelerator program in Switzerland that explicitly focuses on the needs of Zebra startups. We are grateful and excited for this opportunity.

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Slide: Stephanie Frick, Sens Suisse

Where we are now and what our next steps look like

We have steadily organised assignments all over the world, from South Africa to Syria, from Brazil to Honduras, and from Indonesia to India. In addition to photography, we are increasingly working on video shootings. 

Our network of video journalists and photographers has increased and currently counts 85+ selected visual creators from 45+ countries in the Global South. 

We have also been working on our processes and are about to start developing the first version of the new Fairpicture cloud platform, which will allow creators and clients to directly collaborate and communicate with each other. 

On the organisational front, we had the privilege to welcome Lara Messmer to our team, who has been an invaluable support and inspiration from day one. We are also about to finalise the change of the legal entity and establish Fairpicture in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, to be closer to decision-makers in the international context. 

In terms of funding, we are optimistic. Besides having a couple of investors and foundations on board, we are invited to several pitches in the next two months and have a crowd investing campaign planned in August. Some investment opportunities are still available, so don’t hesitate to contact us if you are interested in being our next investor! 

With that, I want to close this article and say thanks to everyone who has supported us throughout the past year. Special thanks go to Essi Fischer, Urs Guggenbühl, and the company be-advanced for making us fit on the business dimension; to the team of the Social Impact Accelerator for their inputs on the impact dimension; and to the Leopold Bachmann Foundation for their financial support that allowed us to continue developing Fairpicture. 

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