In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie camera, giving everyday people the power to capture their favorite moments.
A child’s birthday, that trip to the Grand Canyon, that night when everything felt perfect—without photos, we’d be left to rely on our fading memories. And without photos, the Internet would be a lot less colorful.
What do you do when you need that perfect photo, but don’t have the resources to take it yourself? You take it from Unsplash.
With nearly half a million beautiful, high-quality images—all free to use as you please—it’s no wonder that Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNET, and The Next Web have named Unsplash one of the world’s leading photography websites.
Speaking of Forbes, here’s how they find the most promising young minds for their Forbes 30 under 30 contest.
I spoke with Unsplash Cofounder Steph Liverani to discover her trick for turning side projects into businesses, and what makes a serial entrepreneur tick.
EJ: Unsplash had a rather unusual start. Can you take us back to the beginning?
STEPH: So, Unsplash started off as a side-project built from my other company, Crew.
I remember sitting with our four cofounders in our small, nondescript office, and we were looking for a new image for our homepage. And that’s where we started to experience the pain that people feel when trying to find a photo.
So we contracted a professional photographer, and we ended up with some photos we didn’t use. We decided to post the extra pics as a useful resource for the Crew design community.
At first, we were building up Unsplash as a lead generation tool. We never thought it would end up changing an industry or becoming what it is today.
EJ: Crew got bought out last year, right?
STEPH: Right. Crew was sold to Dribbble in March 2017.
EJ: But even before that, you’d decided to step aside from Crew to focus on Unsplash. Can you tell us about that decision?
STEPH: It’s really difficult when you’re growing two things at the same time that you care so much about.
As cofounders we needed to focus our attention, so we were trying to understand what each company needed to succeed. We thought about what we were personally invested in and what we wanted to be working on.
At Crew, I was managing the design and developer community, and I really enjoyed that. So it was a smooth transition over to Unsplash, where I now lead both our brand and API partnerships, as well as the community side of Unsplash.
The Unsplash API allows other companies to access our beautiful photo library directly in their products. As you know, we’ve just done this with Typeform.
So, obviously it wasn’t easy to leave Crew, but we needed to focus so it was the right decision.
Turning side projects into million-user platforms
EJ: You’ve said elsewhere that, as an entrepreneur, it’s important to have fun experimenting with side projects. Is this something you still take seriously at Unsplash, and how do you encourage side projects within the company today?
STEPH: So with Crew, side projects were always done with the mindset of referral marketing—projects had to be relevant to the community we were trying to build. With Unsplash, it’s the same. We’re still experimenting with interesting ways to help the Unsplash community and platform.
Now, it’s a little bit more disciplined: we do monthly hackathons called the “Unsplash Make Day.” Every month, we set aside 24 to 48 hours for people to work on an idea that potentially adds value to the Unsplash platform. People can split up into groups, or they can do it individually.
One big goal of this is to teach people how to create and refine a scope that they feel they can accomplish within 24 to 48 hours.
Another motivation is that a lot of people have an itch when using the Unsplash platform, and they want to change the feel or experience in some way. So this gives them the chance to build something to fill that need.
EJ: With side projects, there’s always a concern that they can end up being a distraction from the main business. How do you make sure that the time dedicated to these projects doesn’t take away from your primary objective or vision at Unsplash?
STEPH: The first step is to apply time constraints. Restricting the project time forces you to think about your idea in the most basic way.
Second, we’re a really data-oriented team. Everybody has access to our data platform and understands the key metrics that we’re trying to grow. So you can track how your side project is impacting the KPIs for the company, and then make the argument that further resources and time should be dedicated to build up the project.
A perfect example of this is the Unsplash Instant Chrome extension, which came out of a Make Day project. So every time you open a new tab, you see a new beautiful photo. We saw the number of downloads jumping each month, and it really increased engagement and got people coming back to Unsplash. So we decided to dedicate more resources to develop the extension.
Curiosity drives a data-mentality
EJ: You mentioned that everybody there is data-oriented. Is this something that you hire for, or do you train people to have this data-driven mindset?
STEPH: It’s something that you can hire, but it’s not the route that we take. The way we do it is by hiring people who are curious and have a drive for growth. They understand where the company is today and how they can impact its growth in the future.
“If you find people with both of these elements—curiosity and a growth mindset—you can teach them how to be data-oriented.”
It takes guts to be CEO
EJ: You’ve said elsewhere that gut instinct had lead you to where you were at Crew—and that you were very proud of having those guts. Do you consider yourself more of an intuitive, gut-driven person or are you a more rational, data-driven person?
STEPH: I think I’m in the middle. We’re three cofounders at Unsplash and Mikael, our CEO, is the one with the bigger ideas, always scrawling all over the whiteboard. Luke, our Head of Product—the engineer—is very data-oriented and more risk averse.
And I sit pretty much in the middle. I’m married to Mikael, so he has an influence on me. But I also have a mathematical background, and as an actuary I was taught to analyze risk. So I’m definitely data-driven, but I’ve had that influence from Mikael saying listen to your gut and be creative with those ideas.
I married my cofounder
EJ: Mikael and you are married, and you’re also the cofounders of both Crew and Unsplash. What’s it like living and working with the same person every single day?
STEPH: Well, I think it probably wouldn’t work for a lot of people. But to be honest, I wouldn’t do it any other way, this is my dream. Building a company takes a lot of time, and it’s a huge sacrifice.
If one of us were doing it alone, it’d be difficult to understand what the other is going through, or why plans are canceled, or that you can’t go out that night. But being able to have empathy for each other, because we’re doing it together, actually makes it easier.
And apart from being my husband, Mikael’s also my best friend. He’s someone that I trust and really enjoy building a business with. He has a soft approach, he trusts his team a lot, and he seeks out the best in people.
EJ: Do decisions or feelings ever come home with you from work?
STEPH: Yeah, I mean it’s really impossible to leave work at the office. Unsplash is part of our lives and it’s intertwined in our days. So I think we’ve taken a different approach.
It’s not about trying to create a very black and white separation between home and office. For us, it’s really about communicating with each other. Being able to say “Hey, right now I can’t talk about this,” or “Let’s just go out and enjoy our night.”
Making an (un)splash in a saturated market
EJ: Unsplash doesn’t just host photos—you’ve been making a big push with integrations. Can you tell us more about this strategy and how it drives the Unsplash business?
STEPH: Visuals are really the start of a lot of creativity and inspiration. So we want to make beautiful photography available to as many people as possible.
We have a big community at Unsplash. But there are other companies, like Typeform, that have really powerful communities. So if we can get our library of photos to all of these separate communities, it benefits the whole ecosystem.
Making money from a free product
EJ: I can go to Unsplash and download any photo for free. How does Unsplash make money?
STEPH: Yeah, so that’s a great question and I’m surprised we got to it this late (laughs). Everybody asks, and the answer at the moment is that we don’t make money.
Right now we’re in a growth phase. But this year we’re experimenting with a few ideas. One that we’re really excited about is a native advertising model.
Unsplash has become a platform that lots of people are visiting. So we can work with specific brands to capitalize on this traffic. Companies could either provide us their own assets, or they can hire photographers on the platform. This ensures quality so they won’t come across as spammy ads. It’s very early days, but this year we’ll definitely be focusing on monetization.
EJ: Photography itself is largely subjective. But there’s no doubt that the photos you host are beautiful and extremely high quality. How do you keep the quality so high?
“We intentionally slow down the process to ensure quality.”
STEPH: We’ve been a curated platform from the very beginning. Here’s how we work:
When a photographer uploads photos, our editorial team manually approves the pics and determines whether they’re featured on the homepage, promoted in some way, or if they’ll just sit on the photographer’s profile page.
We also look at how the community reacts to a newly uploaded photo. If they’re downloading or engaging with it, this can further increase the visibility and distribution of the photo.
We also apply a “ten every ten” photo limit to slow down the process. We don’t want somebody to come and upload thousands of photos if they’re not high quality. So a new photographer can only upload ten photos every ten days.
Once they become a verified photographer—meaning we’ve approved that they have quality photos—we remove that limit for them. We’ll keep the manual aspect to it because we think that it is a major factor in maintaining the high-quality vibe on the platform.
Getting to know Steph Liverani
EJ: Let’s shift over to you. Who is Steph Liverani outside of Unsplash?
STEPH: I come from an Italian background and I’ve always been very people-oriented. I’m also very much into being healthy. So you might find me playing sports and learning about healthy practices to share at work or with the people around me. I like having a good time, good laughs, and just hanging around good people and being positive.
EJ: Do you have any books you recommend to someone looking to start their own business?
STEPH: Yeah, for sure. My favorite book is Shoe Dog, the story of Nike. It showcases the difficult life of an entrepreneur, the calculated risks you need to take, and the endurance and stomach that you need to have to start a company. So, if there’s one recommended book, that’s the one.
EJ: Your Twitter profile says that you are “living a simple life by owning less.” Can you tell us about this philosophy?
STEPH: Yeah, so Mikael and I don’t own that much. My home barely has any furniture in it—two chairs, a table, a couch, a desk, and that’s pretty much it. My family and our cofounder Luke laugh at me all the time.
There’s a few things that we do to make this work. If I buy something, I have to get rid of something else. I’ve always been this way. For me, the concept of owning is just not something I’m really interested in. I like owning the least amount of things possible.
“Removing things from your life allows you to be more clear and less afraid to take risks.”
If you have to move somewhere or do something new, you’re not tied down to things. You don’t really need that many things to be happy. You should just be happy with what’s around you, as long as you’re surrounded by positive people that you care about and love.