A Creative Side Project Saved This Startup: The Unlikely Story of Unsplash

Slingshots are short stories of side projects that led somewhere unexpected. Our show’s premise is simple: We want more people to trust their intuition. Slingshots are quick-hitting examples of people who do so.

Mikael Cho is the co-founder and CEO of Crew, a marketplace that helps you find designers and developers for your website or app. And at one point in the business’s history, he says they were running straight towards a brick wall. They had three months of cash left in the bank, few customers converting and even fewer investors willing to take a meeting.

So, being a creative entrepreneur, what did Mikael do? Did he search for some mundane, well-wrought tactics on how to convert new business? (I mean, probably. Wouldn’t you? I mean your entire company is about to go under…)

But along with all those things, Mikael did one seemingly small thing: He published 10 stock photos that they just happened to already own onto a site for anyone to use.

He called this site Unsplash, and nobody on his team thought the project would do anything for the business. Today, the site generates 1 billion photo views every month, driving more paying customers than any marketing initiative in the company’s history. Apple uses Unsplash photos on its iPad pages. TIME Magazine generates fewer views for its cover photos than Unsplash’s top-ranked photos each month. The project is, on no uncertain terms, a massive success.

And yet Mikael didn’t aim for massive success. In fact, it was Unsplash that helped him realize what a side project is truly great for, whether you’re trying to find meaningful as a creator … or trying to save a startup.

Hear the full story below or wherever you get your podcasts.

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LINKS TO KNOW:

unsplash.com

Mikael’s company: crew.co

Mikael’s Twitter: twitter.com/mikaelcho

Jay’s Twitter: twitter.com/jayacunzo

Jay’s Snapchat: snapchat.com/add/jayacunzo


FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Jay Acunzo:

Welcome to Unthinkable. I’m Jay Acunzo and it’s time for another slingshot. Short stories of creative side projects that led somewhere unexpected. What actually happens when people follow their intuition and turn it into action. That’s what we’re exploring today.

Mikael:
We were very, very focused on growth at the time because we did only have six months left of money and we weren’t making anything. We figured we weren’t going to get a dime from anybody every again. In order to grow at all I knew we had to do something kind of weird.

J. Acunzo:

[00:01:00] This is Mikael Cho the co-founder and CEO of a tech start up called Crew. They’re basically an online marketplace to help you find designers and developers for your website or your app. Crew is the maker of a popular project called Unsplash. It’s a library of free high res stock photos with no use restrictions. Today, Unsplash is used by millions, but when the project began Crew had barley any cash left to keep their core business running. As they were revamping their website, Mikael uncovered an opportunity.

Mikael:
I started taking photos for our homepage and we said, oh, okay, this is really a hard process trying to find good photos. We eneded up hiring a photographer. We only used one. I remember writing on Skype to my co-founder, I was like, hey you know what would be great? We have all these extra photos. They’re just literally sitting on my desktop right now. Instead of them just sitting here, why don’t we give them away? I know that we’re looking for an extreme way to create value to hopefully help people find Crew. Why don’t we do something. Let’s take it a step further.

J. Acunzo:
[00:02:00] So they gave themselves just one afternoon to launch this side project. They didn’t want to waste too much time away from their core business. Mikael had made a choice here. Because of those restraints this wouldn’t be a Crew branded project, nor would it be part of their usual blog or usual marketing.

Mikael:
So there’s like a balance. We could have thought too much about it. We could have watermarked photos and all those things but I thought that that would have ruined the entire thing of what value it was providing. It kind of towed the line.

J. Acunzo:
The entire thing cost him a whopping 19 bucks. Even a start up struggling to stay alive can afford that. On to the site he uploaded the remainder of those stock photos that they had purchased for their website build out. He took a deep breath and he launched the site praying it would work.

Mikael:
So I only put it in one place. I put it up on hacker news. That was my initial witness test. We’ll see, I’ve never had any success on hacker news at that point.

J. Acunzo:
[00:03:00] Just to explain quick, hacker news is a content aggregator and comment board, almost like a Reddit for startups.

Mikael:
I put it up and I actually went away from the site and i just continued working. I was actually so embarrassed by what the first version of Unsplash was. I don’t want to put this anywhere yet until I could just see if there’s any input. Even two comments coming through. Then I got a text message from the photographer who we hired to do that shoot and he’s like, “Hey where’d you put those photos because my portfolio site right now is just blowing up.” I started thinking I only put them in one place. I went back to hacker news and it was actually number one by about 20x.

J. Acunzo:
And that was great. Unfortunately …

Mikael:
The number one comment was actually, “How is a stupid little Tumblr blog number one on hacker news?” It was like a really kind of degrading thread, actually.

J. Acunzo:
[00:04:00] But then Mikael watched as the numbers behind his core business steadily grew. He realized that was just one conversation happening around Unsplash. There were others who had viewed the project must differently, they just weren’t showing up in the comments. They damn sure showed up on Unsplash itself.

Mikael:
There was 20,000 downloads in the first day.

J. Acunzo:
Plenty of people loved the project and a small number because actual paying customers. In fact, Crew as a business received three times the paying customers that day that they’d seen in any day prior. Every 10 days for a full year Mikael would take an hour and upload ten new photos to keep the site going.

Mikael:
When we’re talking to people even today a lot of people know Unsplash and they might not know Crew, but since they know that we’re the makers of it then we’re able to start a conversation.

J. Acunzo:
The question that was most on his mind was is this deeper than a single project?

Mikael:
How could we scale this? Could we do another one of these constantly? We should always be working on one of these. They seem to be really efficient.

[00:05:00] J. Acunzo:

Side projects have driven about half of Crew’s business. Half. It helped them grow 30 percent month over month early on, on the heels of Unsplash. Which then help them close around adventure capital. Which then helped them hire and build and acquire more customers. Which then helped them hire more talent. Which then helped them build better products to acquire more customers and then build more side projects, and so on. As for Unsplash …

Mikael:
It kept growing. It was growing at this crazy pace even though it was still so simple and dumb. I was like, Okay, well what if we just did a little bit more.

J. Acunzo:
The site went from that initial 20,000 downloads to now 4 million downloads per month. In fact, if you were to get a photo featured on Unsplash today, it would be viewed more than if you appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Mikael:
It’s like way, way, way bigger and we’re just trying to do what we can with it to almost seize it’s own opportunity at this point.

J. Acunzo:
[00:06:00] Mikael says that because nobody actually thought it would work, he unintentionally put constraints on it. They gave almost no budget to it. They did not put their brand on it. They gave it almost no time at all to build and they only really promoted it in one or two places. But these constraints ended up being really, really important.

Mikael:

[00:07:00] It simplified everything. It simplified the site, reduced the expectations, which, actually is the formula now for all of our projects that we do. I think so constraints have actually gone on to be strengths. Now I look for people saying that that’s stupid. It forces you not to build too much and you know in our world today, every services is trying to become the next big massive platform that does everything for everyone. There’s too much of that so our brains are literally changing. We went from, I believe it was 12 second attention spans to 8 second attention spans just in the last ten years. Our brains have literally changed. It’s less than a goldfish. Goldfish is nine seconds. You have this very small micro window to get people’s attention. When you overbuild stuff it’s hard to get people’s attention because you’re trying to explain give different things. I always look at it as a nice constraint and challenge to pretend almost like you had no design and development team that you could lean on and try to see if you could make a project. Ultimately it’s the opportunities that you choose that make you successful. It’s almost like constraints, even when you have an open playing field are your strengths.

J. Acunzo:
When we think about creativity, especially side projects, we think the goal is to experience total open ended creative freedom. Maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Keep your big wide open creative field and give me the box any day. Real creativity, real innovation requires some constraints. To a craft driven creator like yourself, constraints are your strengths.

 

Now THAT is Unthinkable.

 

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