How To Build A Community Centered Product

We recently hosted a conversation between Mikael and Elliot about how Unsplash put community at the center of their product.

Don’t have time for the full webcast now? Catch the webcast highlights and tips from their conversation in our companion blog below

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Elliot Susel’s conversation with Mikael Cho, you may download it.

How To Build A Community Centered Product

Co-Founder & CEO of the photo-sharing startup, Unsplash, Mikael Cho, spoke with Lean Startup Co. faculty member, Elliot Susel, about how a simple problem with photo access filled the needs of a community of photo lovers.

The most successful startups often tap into an unfulfilled need that nobody has gotten around to filling. Unsplash did just that in the photography space. Mikael, who comes from the design industry, saw a problem that needed solving before he ever planned to start a company from the solution. When building the website for his design business, Crew, Mikael quickly realized that finding good photos that didn’t cost a lot of money was “a really crappy process.”

He wanted a way to remove the licenses from photos so users could have access to high quality photos without paying a lot or jumping through hoops. The easiest solution was just to take them, themselves. They hired a photographer.

Left with a bunch of unused photos after the shoot, Mikael wanted to use them to create a photo-finding experience that would be the opposite of his own bad one. “We made the ideal experience for someone who wanted to use photos, and we could use our own,” he said.

With a $9 domain name for Unsplash and a Tumblr theme for $19, they threw up a simple website in three hours with one goal: to upload ten new photos every ten days for anyone who wanted to use them. From there they used public Dropbox links hooked up to a MailChimp newsletter and a Google Docs sign up form.

Their website was so simple Mikael says they were actually embarrassed by it and didn’t plan to share it too widely. The only bit of advertising they did was to post a link to Unsplash on Hacker News, a site where they’d never had much success, so if it flopped, it would be no big deal. Instead, what followed, Mikael calls a “happy accident”: tens of thousands of people signed up on their Google Doc and began accessing the photos.

“We made the ideal experience for someone who wanted to use photos.” Share on X

Keep Expectations Low and Start Small

Keeping their expectations low forced them into a kind of efficiency or “constraint” as Mikael called it. “That constraint ended up being one of the biggest strengths of it.” Mikael said he was expecting one hundred people, not tens of thousands.  He’s under no illusion that if they had tried to put up hundreds or thousands of photos quickly, the site would not have succeeded. “People would immediately [think] it’s just another free photos site, and the photos are kind of ‘meh.’”

Of course, with a success as vigorous as theirs, it was inevitable that they’d see some copycats who would try to approximate the model with nine photos every nine days, seven every seven, and so on, but Mikael just saw this as a sign that he’d hit a nerve and was on the right track.

Encourage the Community to Participate

For the first eighteen months, they did very little to grow the company except continue putting up the reliable ten photos every ten days. One day they tossed up a “submit a photo” link to see if people would contribute their own photos, and the response was huge. “This is even bigger than just a repository of our own things,” Mikael said. “People are contributing to it. Now this gets really interesting.”

Community is key, he quickly realized. “[It’s] just as much a part of [our success] as any code that we can write on the site.” They put a lot of effort into designing the best ways for community members to submit their photos so they get tagged properly and made searchable for other users and they continue to look for new opportunities for contributors to submit and participate.

They took the idea of community literally, as well, organizing live events where people can come together in person. Mikael said that they could have built a chat room, but they realized their users are action-oriented. “People who take photography, they’re often adventuring…and so that really fits with being connected with people through walks in different cities and that sort of thing.”

This they also did in a Lean way, by hosting gatherings wherever they already happened to be traveling, in such places as New York, San Francisco and even Korea. Knowing they couldn’t sustain that level of travel, themselves, they let ambassadors take the lead—community members who independently lead such gatherings, though they do stay in contact with them.

“If you go and make something and do something cool, we support that. That’s the type of community we’re building,” Mikael said.

“If you go and make something and do something cool, we support that. That’s the type of community we’re building.” Share on X

How to Make it Sustainable

But how can a company that offers free photos be sustainable? Initial funds came from the sale of Mikael’s other company, Crew, a site that connected high quality designers and developers with high quality projects. Now, they’ve got some pilot projects, such as partnerships with companies like Medium and Trello, which feature Unsplash, and they’re considering brand sponsorship. Mikael suggested a case where the sponsors of a particular brand of backpack, for example, displayed in a photo, could fund a wider distribution of that image to reach more users.

Trust Intuition but Seek Feedback

Mikael highly prizes intuition, and feels that Unsplash’s success has had a lot to do with trusting his. “Intuition is literally just a whole bunch of data that gets put into you over time…and you have a complex algorithm that’s running in your head.”

Of course, you also have to know when you’ve reached the limits of intuition and come back to the time-tested process of getting customer feedback. “When you just start guessing, that’s…the signal…I’ve limited my intuition. Now it needs to hit another person who I think sees value in it so I can hear what they say,” he said.

On the same token Mikael chalks some of Unsplash’s early success up to being his own customer, essentially. “Creating products that solve your own problems are often the best things; you can loop those things really fast.” But he acknowledges that eventually that original use case changed, and he had to move beyond his own needs and ideas.

“Unsplash is now being used by a whole bunch of other people, and I don’t pretend to know exactly what they want,” he said. He relies upon input from the team and people who use the product in unique ways. “So you’re not just relying on this pure, random intuition from four years ago when the site was originally created.”

Be Useful

Elliott compared Unsplash’s approach to Wikipedia—which convinced people to essentially work for free, uploading information instead of being paid to write encyclopedias, and wondered why people are drawn to such community-based projects. Mikael said that he feels people are natural born storytellers, and photography is just another form of storytelling. “We’ve all become those visual storytellers again. We’re sharing them because we want to share that feeling…[or] maybe to kind of relive it a little bit.”

Unsplash is not only making that possible, but also making the photos useful to people because they can be used in whatever way the consumer wants.

“I believe the more useful you are, the more everything that you want to have happen is going to happen.”

Being useful also means being excellent, looking for the way to succeed with the smallest number, the most efficient process, the best quality product, without trying to make money as the first priority.

“Don’t build a car that’s half falling apart; build the most bomb ass tricycle that anybody has ever seen.”

Thanks to Jordan Rosenfeld for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.