How Unsplash Went From a Tumblr Page To Fully-Fledged Platform

And how we can apply it to our projects.

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Photo by Rubén García on Unsplash

You’ve heard of Unsplash, no doubt. The thumbnail of this very article is integrated straight into this post from the service. I searched it within the text editor and picked one I liked. Boom, my article now has a header.

It wasn’t always this way. I couldn’t always type away and select an extremely high-quality photo straight from my text editor to be used completely royalty-free. It took a lot of work in the right places, over a lot of time.

But before putting in all that work to turn this into what it is today, it had to start somewhere. And starting is where most founders screw up. Starting has the most amount of friction. And taking that first step to publish a piece of work might take a year, several developers, and a lot of anxiety.

Unsplash, however, published its first version in 3 hours with $38. There was no umming and ahhing over the design. There was no unnecessary complexity. The first version was so basic that a teenager posting edgy content on the internet used the same technology — it was on Tumblr.

This is the story of how Unsplash started and how you can use the same principles to launch practically any idea that comes to mind.

The Origin Story

Mikael Cho was presumably sipping his morning coffee when he thought of the perfect look for his newly rebranded startup, Ooomf. Ooomf did many things before rebranding to Crew and becoming a marketplace for graphic designers, illustrators, and software developers.

Cho wanted to find some stock photos for the Crew homepage, but he was frustrated at the absolute cheesiness plastered all over the internet. Sites like Flickr and Shutterstock had models laughing with a salad in their hand, and the frustrating process to even get that image was too much for him.

Cho did what any loving father would do for their startup baby; he hired some help. He got the talented Alejandro Escamilla into a cafe to take the very first high-quality Laptop + iPhone+ Espresso picture, a format that would eventually take over his, at this point non-existent site, Unsplash.com.

This is what the Crew homepage looked like after that day.

That same cup, iPhone, journal, and iPad you see above, would go on to amass 25,000,000 views and over 200,000 downloads as of today. And that’s just from one of the 10 extra pictures from the photoshoot that Cho decided to spin into another webpage.

Deciding to post those 10 extra pictures could have been handled dozens of different ways, but Cho was in “startup mode,” so this is how it happened.

Unsplash: The Baby of Resourcefulness

Cho had just lived the frustrating experience of trying to find stock photos for his site, and just like any successful founder, he decided to scratch his own itch. He wanted high-quality photos and permission to use them, so the assumption was that others would want this too.

In fact, later in 2018, while pitching to investors, he’d define the market for Unsplash with the image below.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Right now, in May of 2013, Cho wanted to promote his startup, Crew/Ooomf. So he decided to give away these high-quality images, completely royalty-free, to drive traffic to the startup. It was the classic resourcefulness that you’d expect from a startup.

Most people at this stage would fall into two camps.

  1. I’m going to post these on social media and get some traffic, easy. Or;
  2. This could be a nice “side-thing.” Let me overanalyze the “launch” and succumb to analysis paralysis when this isn’t even a business yet.

But with the nature of running a startup, Cho was used to moving fast, failing, learning, and continuing to iterate. He didn’t post it on social media; he wanted to “own” the traffic. But he also didn’t waste time building a complicated site for these images — this is what put him off of Flickr in the first place.

Instead, he boiled down what he wanted to offer into the most simple form he could.

Unsplash: The 3 Hour Webpage

“The first version of Unsplash was made in 3 hours with $38, Dropbox, and Tumblr.” — Mikael Cho

We create these massive barriers when we think of an idea. Most founders take the second camp we talked about earlier, they overanalyze an issue, and then a simple thing becomes complicated; not here it wasn’t.

  1. People needed to find the images.
  2. People needed to download the images.

That was it. To solve the problem, you could use a domain, free hosting, and file storage. Yes, there wasn’t functionality for logging in, taking payments, creating accounts, but none of that mattered.

“Remove all barriers. Most existing services are overcomplicated. You will stand out by removing things that get in the way of what your customers want. We removed logins, photo sizes, licensing options. Anything that got in the way of the image download.” — Mikael Cho

This was already super simple, and in 2020, you can create login and payment options even quicker and easier than building the first version of Unsplash. All he had to do now was to promote the service.

The post that kicked everything off.

Cho posted the new Tumblr page to Hacker News, a Y Combinator forum, and the post went viral. Was it lucky? Absolutely. Was it all luck? Absolutely not.

“Launch day, 30k people subscribed from a Hacker News post that went #1. That was lucky. But hitting 300,000 subscribers in the months after with no product changes was not.”

You see, people forget. You’ll see Reddit communities today with hundreds and thousands of followers that’ll upvote an app to outer space. But give it a few months, and everyone’s forgotten about it. What makes people stay?

People use email lists to remind their subscribers that they exist. But getting people to tune in every month or week requires a carrot. It needs an answer to “What’s in it for me?”

Unsplash achieved this with a promise, and one they could fulfill: 10 high quality and royalty-free images every 10 days.

The promise was clear, valuable, and something they could keep. Cho and co. were the only ones to commission and contribute. They ensured that every photo posted on the site was up to standard, and they did this for a whole year before doing anything about crowdsourcing photos.

This is how they used the initial boost from Hacker News to grow the service. It wasn’t lucking out anymore; it was execution.

Unsplash: From Webpage to Platform

Cho had done everything right so far.

  • He had a problem that he needed to solve for himself and decided to make everyone's solution available.
  • He launched this side project without overthinking or overengineering the product.
  • He made a promise that would make people come back, and one he could keep.

And now, with this newfound momentum, he shifted energy and resources towards this side project to kick it into high gear.

Unsplash started adding features.

It was only after there was significant traction that they decided to spin Unsplash into its own company. Unsplash had the kind of momentum that eclipsed Cho’s main startup (Crew) — and that’s when there was enough validation to start improving on their promise.

Dribbble acquired crew, and Unsplash came to the forefront.

On the 14th of October 2014, a little over a year since Unsplash had launched, a developer named Arthur Weill published a search tool so people could use Unsplash and sort by tags.

By January 2015, there were enough images on the site that it was worth it to start tagging and introducing some search functionality in addition to the external tool published by Weill.

  • By early 2016, they had a like button, and it was all incremental improvements with exponential growth from there.
  • Unsplash launches a comprehensive, unlimited requests version of its API a year later.
  • Wired releases a profile on the Unsplash API in August of 2017, and any developer that didn’t know about it now does.

The modern Unsplash.

Sealing the deal on the new standard, in early 2018, Cho announced and demoed the Unsplash integration for Medium in an article on the platform. The partnership would have Medium’s 7.5 million posts at the time, a lot of which already had Unsplash banners, have the ability to integrate them right into the post while writing them.

And now, in 2020, Unsplash has numbers and trends that would make any audience of founders, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts rise for a standing ovation.

Why Does All This Matter?

Unsplash wasn’t a planned success. It resulted from a genuine problem that the founder had, solving that problem for himself, and testing to see if there was a demand for a solution without expending a lot of time and effort.

There are countless objections when people don’t execute on a good idea, and it all links to one thing: Thinking of a complete feature-rich product from day one.

The early adopters don’t care about features, looks, or polished products; they want a solution. Unsplash gave them this solution without all the fluff. It was a Tumblr frontend, Dropbox storage, and high-quality photos — and that was in 2013.

Today we have an obscene amount of free or inexpensive resources to launch entire functioning applications without writing a single line of code. Even the dated link of resources below has enough to get any founder started.

Getting hung up on what the end product should look like always kills the idea before it gets a chance to thrive. The greatest way to counter this is to “pull an Unsplash” and launch the service’s core feature in the shortest amount of time possible.

And remember, if it solves the problem, it doesn’t matter if everything else sucks; people will use it, and improvements will come.

Happy Hacking,

— Sah

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I talk so much, I figured I should write some of it down. Level up with me: 💪 http://sah.substack.com

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