Case Study | Unsplash – How to Start a Business Like Unsplash?

What is Unsplash?

Unsplash is a website that provides millions of “high-quality”, “do whatever you want” photos to users all over the world.

Unsplash was founded in 2013, and has been grew up into a big website generating more than 17,000,000,000 photo impressions per month!

Unsplash was co-founded by Mikael Cho, Luke Chesser, Stephanie Liverani and Angus Woodman.

It was initially a side-project while Mikael Cho working on a new homepage of his another company Crew.

He wasn’t able to find suitable stock photo for the homepage, so he went to take the shot by himself. Afterwards, he start putting those photos on Unsplash and letting people to use them for free.

That sounds like the start of every side-project and side-hustle.

So what’s the key that made Unsplash so special and successful?

What Makes Unsplash Special?

Focus on Quality over Quantity.

Before Unsplash was born, there is already some famous stock photo websites in the world.

These websites also have millions of photos.

However, they mainly focused on increasing the quantity instead of quality.

They still have high-quality photos in their websites, but mostly you have to pay for them.

Instead of the price, it also takes you more time to find them since you have to browse through lots of average-quality photos to find them.

So the high-quality and totally free are the keys that make Unsplash stand out.

Though there are less photos initially, all of them are having a very high quality.

People really love the idea of Unsplash and the photos Unsplash provides.

Creating a Reason for People to Come Back.

To build a successful business, we need to turn first-time visitors into long-term customers.

Unsplash is really good at doing this.

Besides focusing on providing high-quality photos, it also use a special strategy at its early stage.

The Strategy of Creating Scarcity.

The website had only 10 photos on its launch day.

Although every photos are well shot, most visitors will just browse through and forget about the website after a few days.

However, Unsplash told the users that they will upload 10 images with the same high quality every 10 days.

People then subscribed to the email list, and came back again and again when the new photos are out.

Remove the barriers.

The experience of finding and downloading on Unsplash is very simple and intuitive.

There’s no complicated buttons and banners, no irrelevant pop-up ads, no log-in needed and no licensing options to pick.

All you have to do is pick the photo you want and hit the download button.

And that’s all! The whole process is so simple and easy to go through.

Users get high-quality photos and can do almost whatever they want with just 2 simple clicks.

How did they build Unsplash?

Unsplash is a good example of lean startup.

The first version of it is a MVP (Minimum viable product) with simple design and uncomplicated technology stack.

According to Mikael Cho’s word, the first version of Unsplash was made in 3 hours with $38, Dropbox and Tumblr. Let’s take a look at how he did it!

  1. A simple name and domain.
  2. 10 photos to share on the launch day.
  3. A public Dropbox folder to host the photos.
  4. A simple Tumblr blog.
  5. A Google form.
  6. A newsletter using MailChimp.

How did they do the Marketing?

After building up the first version of Unsplash, it’s time to do some marketing and find their first users!

So how did Unsplash do it? — Start from a Hacker News Post.

This is the original title:

“Hated expensive, crappy stock photos so I made this.”

And the current title:

“Free hi-resolution photos for your website. 10 new photos every 10 days”

It was amazing to gain 137 comments with this single post. And making it the top post of the day on Hacker News.

If we search the submissions by Mikael or the submissions about Unsplash, we can see that most of the posts didn’t get viral or even get any comments.

So that makes the first marketing steps even more magical.

There was some criticizing comments beneath it, such as:

10 pictures of a macbook air gets you front-page top placement on HN.”

“I’m no fan of stock photos but I have to say that the few images look pretty much like stock photos. Which is what I don’t like about them. The fact that you don’t have to pay is really not the issue. it’s that particular look (with the blur etc.) that bothers me.”

“I don’t know why this post is up-voted so high, unless your website sells macbooks, watches, or glasses of water, the premise is ridiculous.”

“There are millions (billions?) of stock photos in the world, and your plan is to replace all of them with 10 pictures of a MacBook Air? Even with more pictures it’s unlikely you’ll beat a Creative Commons search on Flickr.”

There’s also many comments showing supports and providing good advices:

“Why the hate guys? he made some good looking pictures and is offering them for free. And the top 3 comments here are people hating. Creative Commons is difficult in most stock photo use cases – there is often the requirement to display an attribution close to the picture, which would look odd in most designs. So please calm down and try to appreciate the effort.”

“I love stuff like this – super simple solution to a common pain point.”

“Even if you do keep this pace, you’ll have a grand total of 365 pictures after a year, covering something like 36 topics. Not exactly ground-breaking. It would be great if you could crowd-source and curate the best pictures.”

“Give people an option to “buy out” an image from the set. For, say, $100 someone can license exclusively an image and it’s no longer available.”

“Nice idea, but without a search/tagging system, how is someone supposed to find relevant images?”

You don’t have to be perfect to start.

The first version was not perfect.

The Hacker News post title was not perfect.

However, the innovating idea and the imperfection drew in people’s eyes.

Readers debate under the post, and driving even more users to get a look at Unsplash.

What can we learn from Unsplash?

Okay so that’s a brief investigation of the early days of Unsplash. It’s really cool to learn how people start their business. Every journey is different, and there’s always something we can learn from it. Here’s some notes:

  1. Offer better, not more.
  2. Give more before you take.
  3. Create scarcity and make people come back.
  4. Remove barriers and make it super-easy to use.
  5. Use existing tools to build your MVP fast.
  6. Forget about perfectionism. Launch and revise quickly.

Thanks for your reading and wish you a good day!

Hope that the stories of Unsplash might help you in building up your business!

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