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Unsplash: Disrupting the Stock Photo Industry

How one company turned a side-of-desk hustle into a multi-layered business model.

Published by J.P. Holecka on 02.02.2021

Nearly everyone has thought of a potential business at some point in their career. Whether it's a digital product or service, determining how to make a profit can be the most challenging aspect of bringing an idea to fruition. As a product company, we are endlessly fascinated by how organizations craft business models and how those decisions disrupt and shape the future of tech.

Changing Business Models

In 2013, Unsplash, a stock photography website, was initially created as a side project by Mikael Cho. The goal was to use the site as a lead generation engine for a marketplace startup called Crew, matching web designers and developers with businesses.

With no money for marketing, they capitalized on leftover images from photoshoots by giving them away for free and linking back to Crew. "We were doing these photos for our homepage, we were like, this is still a really crappy process, to try to find good photos that you could very clearly use. So when we did a photoshoot and we had all of these leftovers, we thought, what if we just created that ideal site that we just kept looking for and couldn't find?" Cho said.

Unsplash never intended to generate income, yet eight years later, the website is known to almost everyone in digitally creative spaces. While we wouldn't recommend taking Unsplash's monetization path (unless you've got enough financial backing and investor appetite to find a product market fit the hard way) it provides an interesting case study that shows revenue is not always dependent on subscriptions, sponsorships, or in-app purchases.

Unsplash: A Case Study

Getting Started

Mikael and the Crew team purchased the unsplash.com domain for $9, a Tumblr template for $19, and hosted the free stock photos through Dropbox. The idea was to add 10 images a week that would be free to download and share the Unsplash site to other news and design sites to attract others. One of the places that Unsplash was featured was a well-trafficked site called Hacker News. The team thought they would only get a few hundred clicks but after being voted a top story, they had 20,000 people sign up within the first two hours.

Shortly after launch, Mikael and the team realized they didn’t have the time or money to follow through on the promised release of 10 new high-quality photos a week. To help meet their goal, they outsourced to other photographers who were eager to promote their skills. The idea was a hit, and within the first five months, Unsplash had delivered 1 million high-quality stock photos for free. Less than a year later, that number climbed to 10 million. After reaching 1 million downloads a month, it was time to get serious and find a business model.

A New Approach to Monetization

Unsplash left Tumblr and created their own site that had a search function and an improved user experience. They then started to hunt for a business model, all while running the original marketplace startup at the same time. While they were growing with no business model, they disrupted the very lucrative stock photo business on the whole. Photographers and image sites that normally charge handsomely for their photos were losing market share to Unplash's free high-quality images. Charging for photos would have been counter to the concept, and so the search started to find other sides of the marketplace that would generate revenue.

After selling the Crew marketplace in 2017, they focused their efforts solely on monetization and landed on three models to generate revenue.

1. Unsplash for Brands

The model is that when users search for images of laptops or offices etc., there are professionally shot options available with brands like Microsoft and Google, tastefully put into the photos as product placement. Advertisers whose products are being used can track downloads via a blockchain token to catalog the number of impressions their image receives.

"By making images available for open use, Unsplash has become the primary source for visuals on the internet. Images on Unsplash are regularly seen more than the frontpage of The New York Times,” said Unsplash for Brands. “Unsplash puts your content in the hands of people, the creators of the internet. They add context by sharing your visuals with their audiences."

2. Partners

The Partners product provides creative and marketing hubs like Mailchimp, Google Slides, Sticker Mule, and many others with the ability to provide their users with access to Unsplash photos for use inside their platforms. The Partner product fees are generated by charging the Unsplash partners to use their photo library API.

3. Unsplash Hire

The most recent endeavor is called Unsplash Hire, a marketplace to source visual creators and storytellers. “ Whether it’s to find the perfect photographer for your event or to create new images for your company’s social media accounts, you can now connect easily on Unsplash,” stated in their beta announcement.

Breaking the Mould

Unsplash upended the stock photo industry by meeting the needs of consumers and professionals in a unique way. They built a vast library of high-quality images uploaded for free by photographers that, in turn, were free to download by users, resulting in millions of visitors to the site. As they continue to innovate and find new ways to generate revenue, Unsplash proves that a solid service and a little creativity can yield dividends for years to come.