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Unsplash: The Side Project That Saved a Company

It’s found on almost every website, Medium post, or personal portfolio. Open-sourced, free photos to use for commercial and editorial use. No watermarks, no permission needed, and no credit given to the photographer.

But when Mikael Cho first launched Unsplash, it was a simple $19 Tumblr blog that was built in one afternoon.

In fact, Mikael was the co-founder of a completely different project, Crew, an online marketplace that connected designers and developers with projects.

4 years later, Crew sold to Dribbble, and Unsplash is now the second-fastest growing photography website in history behind Instagram.

Here’s how Unsplash saved a dying company 👇

How Unsplash Started

Back in 2013, Crew was connecting some of the top designers/developers with curated projects. The idea was great and people loved it. Millions of dollars were even being produced through this marketplace. But there wasn’t quite enough growth and traction and the team was burning through their $2 million investment.

With only 3 months of cash left, the Crew team was desperate.

No money for marketing. No time to grow through blogging and SEO.

They needed a hail mary.

They decided to look for projects around solving real pain points, specifically by drawing on their own experience, and could be built with little-to-no code (Crew was built on Mailchimp + a Wufoo Form).

One thing they remembered was how hard it was to find photos for their website, especially quality ones. They looked through free-use stock photos but thought they were all low quality. Instead, they hired their own photographer.

They ended up only using one photo and had a bunch left over.

“Hey, maybe other people have the same problem. Let’s give these away for free.”

The first Unsplash

Within one afternoon, they had a Tumblr blog with a few Dropbox links to the photos. At the very bottom, a link to Crew.

They posted the link on HackerNews, a forum built for Crew’s and Unsplash’s intended audience. The team didn’t look to share Unsplash with photographers. Instead, they shared with a community of builders who might have had a similar use case as them.

20,000 visitors immediately began showing up and Crew had the most amount of traffic it had ever seen.

Why Unsplash Works

Over the next few months, Mikael and his team would continue their focus on Crew. Every 10 days, they would curate 10 photos that users submitted through the Tumblr Blog.

This kept the quality high and only needed an hour or two to work on.

But why do photographers, or brands even, post on Unsplash?

It’s because Unsplash gives you credibility and brand awareness. Some of the most viewed websites rely on Unsplash and almost every blog post features images.

Photographers get millions of views on their work and will get directly get clients that hire them. A business blog catered towards small-medium businesses might have a photo of Square’s easy-to-use payment system. While brands like Boxed Water had huge collections of photos featuring themes around environmental safety and nature.

Square curated photos on Unsplash attaining over 100M+ views

Eventually, Unsplash launched its formal API which integrated with Google Slides, Medium, Ghost, Facebook, and so many other creator-based platforms.

Millions of photos were downloaded each day and it become the top referring source to Crew.

Continuing Side Projects

The Crew team began to realize one thing with Unsplash:

Solving the pain points of our target audience is good even if it doesn’t make money. Unsplash didn’t have any advertising early on, but the immense traffic (1M+ visitors a month within a year) brought a ton of customers to Crew.

So why not continue to do it?

Mikael ended up building 4 more side projects with his team all focused on targeting engineers and designers:

  1. Launch This Year: a collection of weekly business lessons from founders such as Naval, Hiten Shah, etc. They grew this list to over 20,000 subscribers.

  2. How Much To Make An App: A short web survey that helps you estimate the cost of building an app with X amount of features. It was responsible for 25% of Crew’s project submissions and had over 1 million visits.

  3. Moodboard: A website that allows you to share your website design ideas via links, which grew to over 100,000 email subscribers and was a top 5 referring source to Crew.

  4. Crew’s Blog: This ended up getting over 50,000 visitors a month but required over 85 posts over the course of a year.

In total, the side projects accounted for nearly 40% of Crew’s total revenue.

Eventually, Crew sold to Dribbble in 2017 and the team worked full-time on Unsplash, which sold to Getty Images in 2021.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this helped you or you found it interesting! If you want to give some feedback, you can either respond to the poll or reply to this email.

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