AMA: Mikael Cho, CEO and Co-Founder of Unsplash

4 years ago from , founder/CEO at Unsplash and Crew

Hey everyone!

I'm Mikael , co-founder/CEO of Unsplash.

For the last 4 years we’ve been running Unsplash as part of Crew but a few weeks ago we announced that we'll be splitting Unsplash and Crew into separate companies.

Unsplash started as a Tumblr blog with public dropbox links as a way to help Crew grow. Though Unsplash barely worked on day one, 20,000 people signed up after we posted it on HackerNews (though we got plenty of negative comments).

After a few months, Unsplash grew to over 1 million downloads even though we were spending about an hour a week on it. We realized we may be onto something special so my co-founder Luke went on Unsplash full-time to re-create Unsplash as a custom site. Over the last couple of years, we slowly grew the team from 1 to 5 people. And just a few months ago, Unsplash passed 1 billion photos served/month and 100 million photo downloads. A photo featured on Unsplash is now viewed more than the front page of the New York Times and the cover of TIME magazine.

As we've built Unsplash, we've always tried to openly share what we're going through, good and bad. Including things like how much Unsplash costs.

My teammates Luke and Kirill will be joining in here through the day. We're happy to answer anything. Thanks for having us.


  • Nick Bewley, 4 years ago

    Q: Why are AMA's the only socially acceptable form of self-promotion?

    28 points
    • Thomas Michael SemmlerThomas Michael Semmler, 4 years ago

      I wanna see this Question answered.

      0 points
    • Mikael Cho, almost 4 years ago

      AMAs and Super Bowl Ads. But we can’t afford a Super Bowl Ad yet :)

      There are many forms of self-promotion we as a society seem to accept (podcast interviews, guest speaking, blogging, etc.). But the 'acceptability' part is less about the medium and more dependent upon the perceived value of the message to the receiver. The less useful the message, the less acceptable it, the messenger, and the medium tend to be.

      5 points
      • Nick Bewley, almost 4 years ago

        Good points. I'd add that an AMA is more obviously an attempt to give back to the community, whereas linking to one's writing/work could be an attempt to give back to the community, but not in all cases.

        In either case the framing of it is an interesting social phenomenon.

        0 points
  • Jeff ShinJeff Shin, 4 years ago

    Hey Mikael - I'm a big fan of all your team's work, but one that really impressed me was the Crew Cafe in Montreal. I visited a few months ago and was blown away by the beauty of the space and the experience of working for a few hours there.

    I know with the recent restructuring you're probably not working on Crew Cafe as much, but I still wanted to ask - what drove your team to take such an ambitious step, in not just building a co-working space, but also a full service cafe? What were some of the learnings and challenges along the way?


    5 points
    • Mikael Cho, almost 4 years ago

      Hey Jeff. Thanks so much for writing and for the very kind words. The idea for our part office/part cafe/part coworking space came when we were considering our first office space. We had been working remote for a few years so an office seemed like a big cost to us if it didn't add any extra benefit.

      We thought about how we could take an office space, typically a sunk cost, and potentially turn it into something that could be beneficial for freelancers and as a byproduct, help spread the word about our business.

      As a freelance designer myself, I'm used to working remote but finding good places to work from when I was away from home was always a challenge. Before we made our office cafe we put together this little thing called Coffee and Power a collection of good coffee shops we had been to with info. on wifi passwords and plug locations.

      One of the main things we learned from doing our office cafe is how different and constraining a physical product can be. It's not like a software product where we can iterate on a feature and if it doesn't work, kill it. Architecting a physical space is expensive and hard to backtrack on.

      At the same time, those constraints are also one of the great things. We can rapidly test things like sign locations and menu designs. And see immediately what impact those had. We get to physically see our customers and members and how they use something we put out into the space. The feedback loop is instant.

      There might only be 50-100 people in our cafe at one time but when you're there, you can feel the activity and meet your customers. Compared to online, there may be thousands or millions of people who come across your site but you never get to see or meet them.

      5 points
  • Alex Robertson-Brown, 4 years ago

    Will there ever be a premium paid option for Unsplash? Or will it always be free for everyone?

    4 points
    • Mikael Cho, almost 4 years ago

      Hey Alex. A premium or 'pro' Unsplash membership is something we've considered but we don't plan to have a premium paid option any time soon. Our intent is to keep Unsplash photos free and license-free and monetize in a different way that won't hurt the experience.

      Our main question we're trying to answer right now is: 'how big is the market for a product like Unsplash'. The sooner we figure that out, the sooner we'll know what revenue options make the most sense. We have about $5M invested to give us the room to define the best path to building a long-term, sustainable business model that also benefits the community.

      What we don't want to do right now is focus on a specific monetization method, assuming Unsplash will be X size and have Y impact overall, only to miss a more fitting model.

      Whatever we do though, we know that we will layer it on top of Unsplash in a way that doesn't hurt the core of Unsplash and is beneficial to the community.

      That's not to say that we don't have revenue ideas and aren't testing them on a small scale — we are and we will continue to, but we're focusing only 5% of our time on that right now, while we devote the rest of it to figuring out the overall size and impact Unsplash will have in the future.

      We're in a fortunate position in that our investors back Unsplash wholeheartedly and believe, like we do, that the market is drastically changing. When there are huge changes in a market, new business models become viable, that wouldn't have made sense previously.

      For every business it is different obviously — so take what you will from our example. We're still figuring it out.

      4 points
      • Bryant ChouBryant Chou, almost 4 years ago

        Very insightful! How is Unsplash generating revenue at the moment? Those hosting costs & the headcount must mean you guys at least have a pretty decent revenue model at the moment, or building something on the path towards revenue growth?

        0 points
      • Kimberley Hansen, almost 4 years ago

        I'm interested in this as well. The path to monetization for unsplash seems like a tough one. It's too bad you can embed tracking pixels in jpgs, then you could ask folks for cash based off of how many times they'd viewed and enjoyed the work.

        0 points
  • Callum Hopkins, 4 years ago

    Thanks for all the superb work you and your team have put in to unsplash over the years. It's become a core part of the overall improvement in stock imagery on the web and has saved my bacon a few times when I've need to use really beautiful stock images. I'm really glad to hear you guys and continuing to grow and expand as a team and as a company, so thanks again for everything!

    4 points
    • , 4 years ago

      Thanks Callum. Really means a lot to hear this from you. We owe so much to our community of contributors who continue to offer up their beautiful shots to be used freely.

      1 point
    • Daniel GoldenDaniel Golden, 4 years ago

      It's become a core part of the overall improvement in stock imagery on the web

      This is true, and really one of the greatest contributions unsplash has made.

      3 points
      • Luke ChesserLuke Chesser, almost 4 years ago

        Thanks Daniel. That was actually our original vision for Unsplash: "Make the web more beautiful". It's been amazing seeing how the community has pushed that to a whole new level though — the difference in quality of the photos that we started with vs the photos on Unsplash now

        0 points
  • CJ CiprianoCJ Cipriano, 4 years ago

    Long time user, thank you so much. Unsplash has been incredibly helpful throughout all of my jobs for the last few years. My question would be, how do you guys manage to keep such a cohesive style amongst your photos while maintaining so many different contributors?

    Thanks again!

    1 point
    • Luke ChesserLuke Chesser, 4 years ago

      Hey CJ!

      So we have a couple of really talented people on our team — Annie and Martine — who go through all of the submissions on Unsplash and Made with Unsplash every single day (that's over 500-1000 submissions a day). They sort the photos into different 'buckets' and based on those buckets, plus a few other factors, our system pushes those to different feeds.

      Photography is really interesting in that everyone has an opinion on it and there is no 'right' opinion. Often times, photography sites highlight photos that are considered the most 'right' because they're the most 'technically' advanced — i.e. they're perfectly sharp while taken under very difficult conditions.

      While that might appeal to some people (mainly expert photographers), we've found that the thing that appeals to most people, regardless of their background, is authenticity.

      Photos that are 'technically' perfect can be authentic, but so can a lot of other photos. At the same time, photos that are 'technically' perfect can be inauthentic.

      We've tried to set an internal standard that whatever we promote on Unsplash be authentic.

      The main thing that makes something authentic is that it communicates and makes you feel something. That's a really powerful thing, especially these days, given that we seem to be overwhelmed with inauthentic visuals and advertising. That (hopefully) makes browsing Unsplash a little more fun, but it also means that whatever you or the community creates with Unsplash might feel a little more authentic too.

      1 point
    • Annie Spratt, 4 years ago

      Hello CJ! I'm Annie :) As Luke mentioned, my lovely team mate Martine goes through the submissions to Made with Unsplash daily, and I go through the submissions to Unsplash daily.

      One of the key part of the process in keeping the quality consistently high is that every single photo (or remix in the case of Made with Unsplash) that is submitted is carefully studied by a real person (and for around 335 days of the year by the same real person).

      Another key part of the process is feedback from team mates. The Unsplash Team is really open and supportive, and if someone on the team has feedback, thoughts or questions on a specific photo submitted they will come to me to discuss it.

      We have a system that automatically flags up images that need closer looking in to, for example they may appear elsewhere on the internet already, and in these cases we look further into this personally. We've embraced the DMCA and we actively (and again personally) look to verify photographers identity in such cases.

      I hope that answers you questions CJ - if you want to chat further about this, drop a reply here or drop me an email at annie@unsplash.com :)

      2 points
      • CJ CiprianoCJ Cipriano, almost 4 years ago

        It does! Your time & effort in curation is always so well reflected on unsplash, really fantastic. Thank you for all of you work :)

        0 points
  • priyank mistri, 4 years ago

    Hi Mikael,

    I have been using Unsplash since last 6 months. Today I uploaded my first photo on the platform and then after connecting my account just kept looking for more information about the website.

    After reading everything I can about Unsplash from the website I ended up going to Crew's website and then read your one of the most powerful article named "Why I never wrote down our company values." and from there ended up here from your tweeter profile.

    After reading your profile and articles, Just wanted to say Thank you from bottom of my heart and inspiring people all over the world.

    1 point
  • T S, 4 years ago

    This was a comment I posted on Product Hunt when you released Unsplash 5.0.

    "@mikaelcho Could you please create a blog post or tell more about the stack or behind the scenes of Unsplash? Having 1 billion views per month and 3 downloads per second is not a joke and it would be really great to learn what and how you have done for everything to work smoothly. Thank you!"

    Hopefully, a quick summary can be made. Thank you!

    1 point
    • Luke ChesserLuke Chesser, 4 years ago

      Sorry we missed that comment Kris!

      We write about our weekly challenges with building the product on our Medium blog. I'd love to get some more technical posts up there soon — we've had some very fun and interesting challenges, what with our engineering team being very small.

      Our stack is fairly standard, but here's a little bit about it to give you an idea of what we do:

      • the main app evolved from a standard Rails project into a Rails API with a React frontend. We opted not to use react_rails for building the frontend and instead split the web experience into its own React + Express app, that consumes the API. We feel like for our team and given our constraints, it gives us the best of both the Ruby + Rails world and the best of the Javascript ecosystem.
      • the rails API is fronted by Fastly and handles about 500M API calls per month, both from unsplash.com, source.unsplash.com, and more than 5k 3rd party apps. Working on the Rails API we have Aaron, Bruno, and Roberta
      • we have a separate data pipeline that processes about 100M events a day, and is handled by a single data engineer (whatup Tim)
      • the React app is built by our frontend engineer, Josh and our designer Kirill and was migrated page by page from our old Rails app. Once enough pages were migrated over, we flipped a switch and turned on React Router to make it a client-side app.
      • we use the standard rock-solid databases: Postgres, Redis (for caching, background jobs, etc.), and Elasticsearch (for search)
      • we use a lot of 3rd party services so that we can handle a lot of complex features and sheer volume, with a small team: Imgix handles all of our image processing and delivering (can't say enough good things about them), Stream handles our feed processing (1B+ feed updates last month), Heroku for deployment, and Looker for data analysis and data democratization.

      Our main engineering philosophy is to focus on our core competencies, which at our current size means focusing on powering growth of the product, not necessarily building or maintaining our own set of cool technologies. Nothing about Unsplash's technology should be unique.

      3 points
      • priyank mistri, almost 4 years ago

        Some of the stuff from above is pure gibberish for me but good to know what goes behind one of the most amazing user experience providing website.

        0 points
      • T S, 4 years ago

        Hey, Luke!

        Thank you very much for the answer. It is great to know a bit of the "inside" of such web app, which has a lot of traffic in every direction, but still works very well. Good luck to all of you with Unsplash!

        0 points
  • Virginia Hughes, 4 years ago

    Hey guys, first and foremost thank you for introducing such amazing platforms into the creative community. I've utilized Unsplash countless times and am always amazed by the generosity and quality of photos!

    As both Crew and Unsplash have grown significantly over the past few years, was the separation of the two an option earlier on? Or did shift come unexpectedly due to rapid growth? Secondly, how has the team prepared for the changes? Did you face a lot of internal adjustments or was the transition perfectly smooth?


    1 point
    • Mikael Cho, 4 years ago

      Hey Virginia. Thank you! The first thought around splitting Unsplash out actually came a year ago but it took us a while to sort out how we would go about it and what legal/financial things we'd need to do.

      We were cautious with Unsplash. Maybe even a bit overly cautious. Though we saw big growth from Day 1, we wanted to make sure it was sustainable and repeatable. When Unsplash kept consistently growing over years with minimal attention put toward it, that's when we decided it was time to make a decision.

      Also, as Unsplash grew, the community using Unsplash started to move away from the main type of customer that used Crew. So the cost of Unsplash to Crew was growing but the referrals to Crew from Unsplash were slowing down. That was another catalyst for the change.

      We've always aimed to be as transparent as possible with everyone on the team no matter what's going on. So as soon as we saw what was going on and knew a decision would need to be made soon, we had a full team call to let everyone know. Then, once we made the choice, we brought everyone together again and chatted through everything. We had lots of one-on-ones and many other meetings to discuss what's going on and thinking through the decision. I think overall the transition went well. And in hindsight, it was the right choice for both Crew and Unsplash.

      1 point
  • Scott Webb, 4 years ago

    Hey Mikael, would you consider Unsplash Inc. & Crew to be 2 separate cultures now?

    1 point
    • Mikael Cho, 4 years ago

      Hey Scott. We still operate both Crew and Unsplash under the same cultural value where we aim to create an environment where everyone has the autonomy, tools, and support needed to do their best work.

      So whether you work on Crew or Unsplash, we don't care about the time you put in. It’s about what you do in that time that matters. And Crew and Unsplash still work together in the same office and Slack :)

      The main difference is both Crew and Unsplash focus on their own paths now. We don't split resources anymore between the two. Everyone on Crew focuses on Crew. Everyone on Unsplash focuses on Unsplash.

      1 point
  • Alex HoffmanAlex Hoffman, almost 4 years ago

    Hey Mikael, first off, long time unplash user, I first started using it when it was just a tumblr page. I'm curious as to what the original intention was, I'm guessing you guys probably didn't expect the community to be so gracious with their photos. Were your motives similar to a Death to Stock or was it more along the lines of just a fun side project?

    And personally, I just want to say thank you to unsplash, Crew, and all the contributors who've made all of this possible.

    1 point
    • , almost 4 years ago

      Hey Alex. Thanks for the support since the early days. Originally, Unsplash started because we were redesigning our homepage for Crew and we were fed up with the stock photo options. We thought it was way to difficult to find a good quality photo that had a clear license and wasn't too expensive. We didn't have much money and we didn't know after we bought a photo if we would even use it past the mockup stage.

      When we failed to find something, we hired a local photographer and shot our own. After the photoshoot, we figured a lot of other people might be having this same problem. So we thought instead of letting our extra photos from the photo shoot go to waste on a hard drive somewhere, we could put them online for anyone to use for anything.

      We didn't expect it to ever be bigger than us taking photos and giving them away. If I recall correctly, we didn't add the 'submit a photo' link to Unsplash until just before we put the site live. It was an afterthought. Even when we added that link to 'submit a photo' we figured it'd still be us taking our own photos. So when people starting submitting, it was such an inspiring thing to see. We owe so much to our community of contributors.

      1 point
      • Alex HoffmanAlex Hoffman, almost 4 years ago

        That's a great story, thank you for sharing it with us :) Just another thought I've always had, how come you don't have a "Donate" or some other way of supporting unsplash? I was so excited when I was able to give back a little buy joining the Kickstarter for the unsplash book, but even so, I still got an epic book out of it :P

        1 point
  • Leonel More, 4 years ago

    Hi Mikael, congrats about your recent developments in Unsplash. I follow Crew since some time, and so I do with Unsplash.

    Since you work a lot with remote software developers from around the globe, your answer to this question would be very insightful:

    Q: What is the most difficult thing about working with remote developers from outside the USA, after communication?

    0 points
    • Luke ChesserLuke Chesser, almost 4 years ago

      Hey Leonel! Thanks for being a long time Crew and Unsplash follower :)

      Not sure if Mikael will see this, but in case he doesn't, I'll answer on behalf of him.

      We're actually a Canadian company, with about half of our team in Canada (some remote in different parts of Canada), while the rest of the team is spread out, with about a quarter in the US, and a quarter in Europe (one in South America!).

      Communication like you said is definitely the hardest thing. Not because of any language barrier or even the timezone changes — it's just plain hard to make sure your teammates are happy and in sync when you can't rely on the little social queues we all subconsciously pick up from observing people in real life.

      Aside from communication, I think the hardest part is replicating the social atmosphere that an office naturally has. Tools like Slack make it a lot easier, but there really is no replacement for in-person conversations and chance memories.

      To help with that, we organize a retreat once a year (usually somewhere a lot warmer than Canada!) and spend the week working next to each other, play games, and most of all, make memories. It's amazing how a small inside joke from a retreat can continue to connect people years after.

      We're actually leaving for our 5th team retreat in a few days, and we're looking forward to meeting a bunch of new teammates and, hopefully, making a bunch of new memories :)

      0 points
  • Kash Goudarzi, 4 years ago

    Hi, Mikael,

    At Unsplash, how much focus do you guys put on competition? Are you doing your own thing, or are you trying to "take out" companies like Getty Images?

    0 points
    • Luke ChesserLuke Chesser, almost 4 years ago

      Hey Kash. Great question! I know this is for Mikael, but he's currently eating a sandwich, so I thought I'd answer it as best as I can. He might have a different take on it than me though, so I'm interested to see what he says too!

      In terms of strategy, both at a high-level and in our product, we have never focused Unsplash on being the 'new x of photography' or to try to 'take out' any existing product or market — not that that would necessarily be a bad way to think about it. In the past with our products, we've definitely thought of them in a similar way, but I think with Unsplash, it's something entirely new and special.

      Unsplash exists because there have been huge changes in both technology:

      • democratization of high-quality digital cameras
      • cheaper access to bandwidth and digital storage
      • a huge leap in both software and hardware that makes taking great pictures easier and easier

      And in culture:

      • digital copyright has always been difficult and clashed with the principles and use cases of the web
      • the open source movement is growing
      • the creative commons movement is growing
      • everyone and their grandmother's are photographers now
      • authenticity and visuals are becoming more and more important
      • everyone has a use case for photography — whether its blogging, social media, web design, poetry, soundcloud playlists, etc. photo visuals are very important and widespread
      • budgets online are changing (think social media, targeted advertising, etc.)

      So that creates a lot of incentives for both sharing photography and consuming it, in ways that aren't strictly traditional (i.e. Flickr).

      At the same time, stock photography online is a mess, like you alluded to with Getty.

      We think there exists a huge opportunity to build something completely unique that fully embraces the movements and nature of the web, digital photography, and open creativity. Think of the shift in writing online before Blogger came along and created blogging.

      So we've focused our team and our culture on not trying to 'take out' any specific companies, nor focusing on competition. We build and experiment with new ideas for Unsplash, not because others are doing it, others have done it, or others will do it, but because it fits with our vision for Unsplash.

      Personally, as a product designer, I think thats the most exciting company to be in, and while there may be a day where we have strict competitors, for now our team is 100% focused on building something new.

      4 points
  • Jacqueline E, almost 4 years ago

    How do you actually support Unsplash right now? Is the 17k mostly supported by the work you do at Crew, or does Unsplash have revenue in some other way?

    Thanks for creating this. I use Unsplash daily and look forward to seeing it grow.

    0 points
    • Luke ChesserLuke Chesser, almost 4 years ago

      Hey Jacqueline.

      I wrote the "What does hosting Unsplash cost?" article almost a year ago actually (time flies!). Our hosting costs are probably closer to ~30k per month now, and our team has more than doubled to 15 recently — so the actual cost of running Unsplash, as you can imagine, is significantly more.

      As Mikael talked about in "Hello Unsplash, Inc" when we officially split the companies last month, we're running Unsplash as its own company, with its own resources and its own fate now. That means that we sink or swim regardless of what Crew is doing (and Crew is doing some pretty cool stuff might I say).

      To a lot of people, including our team and our investors, this has been a fairly obvious outcome that we've been working hard on for a long time (how you split apart companies especially in Canada has been a very complex process).

      To others though, doubling down on Unsplash might seem like a crazy idea, especially when we don't have any major revenue sources on the site yet or planned for the near future.

      But we have given a lot of thought as to what the best revenue sources would be for the site, depending on how the industry, market, and product evolve. We see Unsplash's success being a combination of a lot of changes in both technology and culture, and we think we're just at the beginning stages.

      As Mikael wrote in another comment:

      Our main question we're trying to answer right now is: 'how big is the market for a product like Unsplash'. The sooner we figure that out, the sooner we'll know what revenue options make the most sense. We have about $5M invested to give us the room to define the best path to building a long-term, sustainable business model that also benefits the community.

      What we don't want to do right now is focus on a specific monetization method, assuming Unsplash will be X size and have Y impact overall, only to miss a more fitting model.

      Whatever we do though, we know that we will layer it on top of Unsplash in a way that doesn't hurt the core of Unsplash and is beneficial to the community.

      We're in a fortunate position in that our investors back Unsplash wholeheartedly and believe, like we do, that the market is drastically changing. When there are huge changes in a market, new business models become viable, that wouldn't have made sense previously.

      1 point
  • Ray SensebachRay Sensebach, almost 4 years ago

    Does Unsplash plan to expand offerings into videos, icons or other digital assets?

    0 points
    • Mikael Cho, almost 4 years ago

      Hey there Ray. It's something we've considered but it's not on the immediate roadmap. We've learned that many digital assets have their own quirks and there's still a lot we need to get right with photos.

      0 points