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When his company was running low on cash in 2013, Unsplash founder and CEO Mikael Cho and his team set up a basic website that offered 10 free HD photos that anyone could download.
That site — Unsplash.com — now receives more downloads than all of the major stock photography companies combined, including Getty, Shutterstock, and Adobe Stock.
If you’ve ever added a free photo to a Medium story, Squarespace website, or Trello board, you probably pulled one of the million images from Unsplash’s contributor photo library.
To give you an idea of Unsplash’s size: the petabytes of data flowing through the site incur a hosting bill just shy of $100k a month. That’s how much it costs to support 50 million image downloads a month — with pageviews on pace to overtake Wikipedia in a few years.
The site’s sudden and continued rise is due in part to Cho’s ability to say “no” and stay focused. The biggest “no?” His decision to part ways with his first company, Crew (a hiring platform for design and development talent that he sold to Dribbble in 2017) to go all-in on Unsplash.
Now, at 11B views per month, Unsplash is ready to turn on the cash faucet.
“We needed to get to a certain scale for our business model to work,” he told me. “Until this year, we focused all our attention on getting to that scale.”
In our interview, Cho hinted at how he plans to monetize Unsplash. We also discussed lessons he learned from the acquisition of Crew, managing meteoric growth, and how to ruthlessly experiment to maintain a sense of clarity as an entrepreneur.
A sign in Unsplash’s Montreal headquarters.
When a side hustle becomes the main hustle
How was Crew doing when Unsplash launched?
Literally, we launched Unsplash maybe a week or two after Crew. We were building a two-sided marketplace business model that had vetted designers and developers and we removed all the nastiness that gets in the way of creative work like budgeting, legal, and contracts. We knew it would take time [to grow].
In the meantime, we knew we needed to attract projects and designers and developers. We couldn’t do that solely just by messaging enough people and turning up the volume. So the idea was, “How can we come up with something that would be 10 times better than a blog, or 10 times better than a cold email?”
And that’s where we started looking at a lot of the little problems that people would have before they had the problem that Crew would solve. So, before you hire a designer, you’re like, “I have this idea for an app. I want to make it. I wonder how much it’s going to cost. I wonder how to make it.” Images are part of that.
Even if I’m making a personal site that I want to turn into something bigger, I probably need images for that. It was a little problem. We ended up making a lot of little products to solve those problems. Unsplash just happened to be, by far, the wildest one at tip-off.
When was the moment you realized Unsplash had more potential than Crew?
A year after it was up, we were still basically doing nothing with it, just picking 10 free images to share once a week. But we noticed no one was unsubscribing. It just kept growing 10% week over week. And we weren’t doing anything. So there was this gravitational pull for this thing to exist.
Photo by Lucas Gallone featured on Unsplash.
Fast forward two years after that, Unsplash downloads in that time 32x’d. There were a lot of people on it. So, there was this decision. We only have capital for one company. What’s right for each business?
Getting acquired by the “Berkshire Hathaway of the internet”
Crew was acquired by Dribble in 2017. Did they approach you, or did you approach them?
Once we made our decision [to sell], the idea was to get Crew in a place it could operate in the right way.
One of the first people I called was Andrew Wilkinson, who I’d only met once before. At the time, he said, “There’s something we could do [with Crew].” And the Dribble team saw an obvious huge connection to work together. I didn’t know that Wilkinson had just bought Dribble. [Check out our profile of Wilkinson here.]
What did you learn from that acquisition?
The whole focus was, How do we take care of the company and the people that we have, and keep Crew going towards its vision? And how do we do that as quickly as possible, because we only have this much capital? For all those questions, Andrew was the perfect partner. In a very Warren Buffet/Berkshire Hathaway way, they just don’t negotiate. They say, “This is what it is.” And he even writes that. “We aspire to be like Berkshire Hathaway. This is the deal. Take it or leave it. We don’t do this crazy diligence process.” So that’s how we were able to do it so quickly. It was a great fit for what we were trying to accomplish.
Measuring early-stage success
What are your monthly active users, or how do you measure success?
We focus on downloads. Why do people come to Unsplash? To find a useful image. And the signal is finding something to download. We do 50 million image downloads a month right now, which is bigger than Shutterstock, Getty, and Adobe Stock combined.
Unsplash’s Image Requests In Its First 5 Years (In Billions)
Unsplash photography has supported 70 billion image requests in five years.
It’s become a very, very big thing. And it’s almost a top 500 site, just from the traffic that comes directly to unsplash.com. We don’t focus on traffic, because you could get meaningless traffic—people who are coming for the wrong reasons, the wrong content. You could SEO-juice that stuff. So really, the driving factor for us is the download.
When Unsplash started to scale, did any of the entrenched players like Getty or Shutterstock reach out with any offers or any counter-marketing tactics?
It was funny stuff. Like our tagline—10 photos every 10 days, I’m pretty sure every entrenched player started using that. Adobe Stock used the same exact tagline that we had with sets of their images.
We’ve spoken with everybody. But I think we’re taking a totally different approach coming into this world. We were just trying to make something useful from the beginning.
Monetization and growth
How does your company make money?
We haven’t announced it yet. We’ve got something going on on the site that hints at it a bit. Right now, you might see some of the brands that are posting imagery. They’re getting involved in the site [itself] so you’re not seeing shitty banner ads that someone’s just posting out. They’re contributing their images to be a part of this. We’re looking at the ways that those could potentially be sponsored. This allows us to keep the site free. This allows us to keep building into the different creative products and partners (1,060 right now) that we have integrations with. We want to keep it open and free. The best way to get people to create is to make the images open and accessible.
Contributors don’t get paid for their work. How do you balance treating them right while at the same time giving away free access to their photos?
I look at it as similar to blogging, except it’s a visual story. Today, everyone has the ability to take photos more easily. A lot of people have a nice camera built into their phones. But because of that, there’s been so much supply of images, it’s getting harder and harder to see good images.
The conditions that led to things like Instagram, where you’ve got all these digital tools for sharing stories, have caused visuals to be everywhere. And that has also changed what people are paying for images. If you look at licensing images, it’s a totally different world right now than it was 10 or 15 years ago when people didn’t have their own cameras. You had to hire a photographer.
Photo by Martin Sanchez available for free download on Unsplash.
If I look at how the creative industry has evolved, especially around photography, custom is still where most of the money is made. And if you can figure out a way to present your work and leverage it in an interesting way to potentially get the custom work, that is really where the value sits in photography.
What do you think Unsplash will focus on in coming years?
It’s really clear—building an open library of high-quality visuals so that we can enable everybody to create.
When you look at the problems in the world, all of them get solved by creativity. The more people that can be creating, the more problems you can solve, and the more things you can move forward. That all comes back to the fundamental building block of making imagery accessible to all creative acts.
There’s so many things that we could do. We could build a bunch of different tools, like supplying photos when something happens around the world. But we are being really narrow and focused on being known as the place that people can come with great ease and get great quality photos over and over. We want to be very dependable around that.
You know how movies use product placement? You have gorgeous photos, and then you could have a little product placement—and companies would pay for that. Have you thought about that?
Brands are part of our lives, right? Most shots we take of something, there’s going to be a brand or product that’s there. So, it is an interesting, natural way. I think we felt, when we looked at everything and what was happening, there’s so many branded elements inside of these images already. There’s potential to involve brands in this. And we could make the whole engine really work in a really sound way.
Is Unsplash still humanly curated? Are the photos that appear on there all hand selected?
Yeah. I have a referral team that reviews images. And our community is involved as well. So, everybody still submits. And then, you’ve got different processes as the images go through.
Is there something that you’ve done, an initiative or feature, where you’ve added it to the site and it didn’t work out?
Early on, we weren’t sure if Unsplash should be a place where people connect, like a social network, and follow people and communicate with each other, or if it was more for search and discovery.
One time, we added a following feed and the ability for people to follow their favorite photographers. It didn’t really click. It wasn’t the way people were using Unsplash. Unsplash was basically a pure utility tool that people were coming to when they wanted to use something, not necessarily coming to connect with a lot of other people.
That sounds like the problem with Google+. People don’t come to Google. They come with a search-and-discover mentality to solve a problem.
You would think stuff like social search might be interesting where your friends are recommending searches. A lot of that stuff has been tried. But it just never clicked the way Google search has. And I think that’s just one of the things we learned. We still have some of the features—they’re just de-emphasized or they’re not there anymore, in favor of that clarity of focus around search-and-discovery images.
I’d like to ask you a few questions about your work as a founder and the habits and tips you have. How do you get to a place of clear thinking, where you’re in a state of ‘flow’?
I write everything down. And I don’t write them all in just one place. I’ll get random ideas of stuff I want to write or tweet one day. That goes in a notes file called Tweets. That’s just to get it out of my brain. I like that I had the thought and I know I could go publish this, but it’s largely a distraction. Maybe later. So I throw it in there.
I have a “creation penalty” for every time I sign on to social media. It helps me avoid mindless scrolling. If I go into Twitter, I have to create first. Every time I go, I must create. I’ve got to write something instead of just being lazy and looking at other people’s stuff. And it’ll immediately either knock you out, or it will make you create something and actually form a thought around something.
I only go through Slack probably two or three times a day. Or I’m in it only if we’re working on a project and I’m working really close with two or three people. Otherwise, it’s shut.
I have a personal Trello board which has things that I believe I’ve figured out. I call it Systems Running. It has things like how does the week look, what I’m doing for food, how I’m thinking about working out. Each has its own thing. I look at it every so often, especially when I change something in my life. It’s like a software update.
What is your routine?
At the beginning of the day, I have running to-dos in a DM Slack channel with myself that were left over from the day before. I leave it all in there, leave my inbox, leave everything. I make my list of what I think is most important based on that day, without trying to think of too many things. I’ll go into the different sources: email, Slack, family, text messages, calendar and l synthesize all of that and put it on the list for the day. Pretty much anything that comes up throughout the rest of the day is moved to tomorrow. When those things come up, I put it in Slack for the next day.
I’m routine with some stuff, like I know what my body does automatically. I know my best times to work, usually in the morning. I know when I’m going to hit a lull, potentially in the afternoon. But I know how to overcome it with very specific snacks
I’ll use avocado to feel full, plus mix that with an egg or two or something like that. I drink decaf coffee only. It’s more a ritual thing. I tested it once, and I found I don’t really need the caffeine. I’m pretty sure it’s just me having the coffee and that taste and the smell that gets me in the mode of working. I don’t drink any coffee unless I’m working. When [the coffee maker] is on and I smell it, my brain just knows it’s time to work.
Wow, you’re like a machine. What happens when you have a baby?
I have a baby child board called “baby.”
OK, so let me ask you: How do you balance work and family? How do you turn off work?
The challenge is usually in the transitions. If I’m solving a really difficult problem at work, and then transitioning to family—if the work problem is incomplete, the Zeigarnik effect kicks in and you want to keep thinking about the problem. To transition, I use triggers.
Once I leave the office, I go outside and start moving—that’s the start of the trigger to power down work things, not look at my phone. It’s not always easy.
Mikael (right) and Unsplash co-founder Stephanie Liverani (left). They are married and just had their first daughter, Brooklyn.
I’ve also cut the learning and self-improvement, too, because you could just do that forever. That can really eat into your family time. You’re just reading stuff, under the logic of it’s helping you be better. But I have to filter all of that into work.
Trends worth watching
What do you see as something that other entrepreneurs or investors should be paying attention to?
Alternative food is interesting. I have a complicated diet. It’s kind of like vegan/pescatarian. It’s interesting where food can solve a lot of the problems with where the world is going with how many people we have, and how we’re going to feed everybody right. Not a lot of people are paying attention to it. But I have a soft spot, and probably a sweet spot, for it.
It’s also interesting where creative industries are going, especially advertising. This whole conversation about subscription vs. advertising. I think it just depends on what you’re building: Are you’re thinking through the strategy and the dynamics in each industry? It’s hard to say, “Subscription will always work.”
I don’t agree with the “everybody hates ads so make your thing subscription.” That’s not fully true. A lot of people like free service. You can make a way of monetizing that doesn’t get in the way of the free service. The challenge is a lot of products do not do a good job of it. So the pendulum has swung the other way.
For example, the most viewed stuff on YouTube is actually commercials. Good commercials. You tell a good story, that’s the bottom line. If you tell exceptionally good stories, people will listen. You can tell good stories with ads.
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Take it back to the initial stages of solving the problem. Usually, the idea that you have feels so big. How do you tackle it?
To me, the biggest thing is just starting. Most ideas can start without you needing to know how to code. There’s enough things that you could stitch together yourself. It might not scale. It might not be the big thing that you imagined. But you could start with two or three people.
Unsplash was that way. The first version took us three hours. We used Tumblr. We hired a photographer and shot our own images. What about the back end? Dropbox. I didn’t know how to set up servers or anything. But it was enough to get the first version done. You have to be clear on the three or four things that really need to exist—for you to use the product to solve the problem for yourself.
Any advice for more experienced entrepreneurs who are wanting to scale?
Focus only on one or two channels and go deep. When you start to really scale and grow, the number of channels opens up –How do we get press working? How do we get referrals? How do we get SEO? How do we get paid user acquisition?
They all sound like low hanging fruit — if we just do a little bit of this, we’ll get it to a bigger level, and everything will be good. This applies to features as well, such as, “Oh. There’s a lot of people doing this other thing. How will we build this?”
But that’s a distraction. For us, it didn’t work that way. And I’ve never seen it work that way. You have to find your one channel, maybe two, and get really, really good at it.
With Unsplash, we’re 20 people and we continue to be very focused. The decisions behind why we do certain things—everything relates back to the core aim of the company. So there are no loose threads in different places. And I think that’s the biggest thing—that ability to focus.