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By: Jay Acunzo on June 12th, 2018

When You Need to Be Creative, Constraints Are Your Strengths [The Story of Unsplash]

This story originally appeared in “Damn the Best Practices,” my newsletter sharing one new idea or story every week for being better than best practices. Subscribe here.

Mikael Cho (@mikaelcho) is the founder and CEO of a company called Crew. Or at least, he was.

A few years ago, the Montreal-based entrepreneur faced a tough road ahead. Crew, a marketplace for hiring designers and developers to build websites and apps, had just three months’ worth of cash left in the bank from an initial fundraise via angel investors. They were struggling to acquire customers, and VCs had shown zero interest in investing in a new round.

“If we didn’t turn things around,” he told me, “we were done. Toast.”

Naturally, Mikael thought what many of us probably think when the usual tactics aren’t working: “I have to do something creative and new.” This company was his baby. He felt incredible pride in it. After all, Mikael is the founder and CEO of Crew. Or at least, he was.

Now what most of us picture when we hear those words — “creative” and “new” — is the wide open field. TOTAL. CREATIVE. FREEDOM!!! You’re telling me I get to be creative and new? Well then, stand back! I need more budget, more team, more time! I’m gonna hire seven agencies and 17 freelancers! I’m gonna spray this project on every marketing channel ever invented! I’m gonna write our message ACROSS THE SKY! 

…but that isn’t what Mikael did. He didn’t look for the field. He looked for a box. In fact, he put himself INSIDE a box. He realized he had a list of constraints to work with, each of which would have to inform his subsequent work.

He needed to build an audience for his business. (Cool!)

Targeting makers and marketers. (Neat!)

With no outside help. (Wait…)

And no support from his own team. (Hold on a sec…)

And no budget. (WHAT?!)

In the next 90 days. (I mean, what the hell can you even do?!)

Here’s what Mikael did…

He gathered up 10 beautiful photos that the company had lying around from when they’d first developed their website and hired a photographer. “Our audience is in the process of building their websites and apps,” he thought. “They could probably use some good photos.”

Mikael put those photos on a Tumblr site, purchasing a simple, photo-friendly layout that cost a whopping 19 bucks. Even a startup about to go out of business can afford THAT.

“Free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos” Mikael wrote on the top of the Tumblr page. “10 new photos every 10 days.”

Within four hours, Mikael had launched this side project, and he named it … Unsplash.

Think about how constrained Mikael’s actions were up to this point. He spent just a few dollars and half a day creating a side project. It was indeed creative and new, but by no means did he operate like he had creative freedom. In fact, he didn’t have total freedom at all. He had extremely limited resources. He also had to move quickly, since his company could go under within the next quarter if this project didn’t work. He had to stay disciplined and focused and test something small, despite how high the stakes were for Mikael. Remember, he had investors to worry about. He was responsible for a handful of employees too. And most horrifying of all was the prospect of getting — gulp — A DAY JOB. Few things seem worse to an entrepreneur like Mikael. He was far happier being the founder and CEO of Crew.

Or at least, he was.

And so, Mikael built Unsplash in one afternoon. Then he posted the link to Hacker News, a discussion board similar to a Reddit forum, built specifically for tech entrepreneurs. Within ten minutes, the link had been upvoted to the top spot on the page. That generated 50,000 visitors to Unsplash. Over the next 30 days, 20,000 people subscribed via email, which led to a few paying customers who found their way over to the Crew marketplace.

Within four months, Crew doubled their revenue. After repeatedly failing to raise more venture capital, Mikael was finally able to secure $2.1 million to keep the company afloat. They later added another $8.5 million to accelerate their growth. Then things got even crazier.

The tech press picked up the story of how a side project saved this startup. TechCrunch, The Verge, The Next Web, FastCompany, and Forbes all wrote about it. Best of all, Forbes began USING Unsplash photos, placing a little tagline beneath each on their site: “Photo courtesy of Unsplash.” In marketing parlance, that’s called “earned media,” and what a pleasantly unexpected way to earn it.

Within two years of launching Unsplash, it became their top source of customer referrals. What had been just a few hours of Mikael’s time uploading 10 photos every 10 days became a part-time role for his co-founder Luke Chesser. They added som basic functionality, like search and sorting, and grew their young community of makers and marketers even further. All total, 20,000 projects were submitted to the Crew marketplace — not too shabby for a company struggling to get even one such project submitted 24 months prior.

Unsplash’s unexpected rise continued.

In 2016, Unsplash users downloaded photos over 144 million times. In 2017, that number exploded to 3 downloads every second! In fact, if your photo was featured on the home page of Unsplash, it was seen by more people than if it made the cover of TIME.

Unsplash even spawned other side projects that Crew created, like a cost estimator for people considering building mobile apps and a master list of coffee shops conducive to remote work. Ten simple photos on a basic Tumblr page turned into a giant, thriving community on a beautifully-built new website, as well as a culture defined by launching side projects. Mikael was proud. After all, he’s the founder and CEO of Crew. Or at least, he was.

In our work as creators, it’s easy to believe that something like Unsplash was all about creative freedom. But it wasn’t. Indeed, we all want to sprint freely around that wide open field. But we shouldn’t. It turns out that if you put enough boxes down on that field, you can cover just as much ground — and you can do so more successfully.

Mikael realized, “When you need to be creative, constraints are your strengths.”

When you understand your limitations due to any number of factors (time, team, budget, skill, considerations for a project, and more), your constraints force you to limit how much you build. This in turn focuses you on building on the RIGHT stuff. You begin to prioritize testing and learning. But constraints aren’t just helpful when it comes to building stuff. If you back up a step, constraints also improve idea generation. Studies on creativity reveal that people who understand their constraints generate both MORE ideas andmore EFFECTIVE ideas — quantity and quality — at the very same time. Creative freedom doesn’t work.

I’d argue creative freedom doesn’t really exist. Think: If I told you that you can write a blog post about literally anything you want, what’s the first thing you start to do? You think about the topics and stories you want to address. You think about the length and the time of day you’ll write and where you’ll physically sit (or whether you’ll stand) or how many hours you want to write before submitting the piece or whether you’ll write an outline first or use a notebook or a Word doc or something else. It’s far less likely that you’d simply write a stream of consciousness. It’s like your subconscious is telling you: If we want to succeed here, we need to manufacture some constraints.

In other words, when we can embrace our constraints, we begin to scale our work based on results, not theory or trends. Who cares about the big idea in theory … if it doesn’t work for our audience or doesn’t prove fulfilling to us? Who cares about the latest trend if it’s not the best approach in our specific situation?

Mikael Cho fully embraced his constraints, not because he wasn’t creative, but because he WAS. He looked for the box instead of the field, not because he didn’t want to succeed, but precisely because he DID. He wanted to be creative and wanted to succeed more desperately than anyone around him in fact. After all, Mikael is the founder and CEO of Crew.

Or at least … he was.

In 2017, Unsplash became an actual, standalone COMPANY. Luke had been focused on the site full-time for a little while, but Mikael then joined him, along with several other Crew employees. Over the next few months, Unsplash continued to show so much promise that the co-founders decided to SELL Crew! They found a good home in Dribbble (not at typo), the design portfolio site and community. What started as a four-hour afternoon, a $19 Tumblr theme, and a bunch of old photos just sitting in a Dropbox folder turned into the entirety of Mikael, Luke, and their team’s focus. In early 2018, they raised another $7.25M to continue growing their (newly formed) company.

Mikael’s entire journey illuminates the power of embracing our constraints rather than fighting them. If we try to win each little battle and create smaller tests, one at a time, we can continually learn, grow, and thrive — not because we buy into the myth of creative freedom, but because we embrace our constraints. That’s the reality of our work. We’ll never have total freedom, and that’s okay, because that doesn’t really work.

So ask yourself…

  • What are your constraints? If you can articulate them, no matter how frustrating they seem at first, you just might be more creative. Then think:
  • How might you expand? Not from the box to the open field, but from one box to another, in a lifelong journey to launch, learn, and iterate quickly as you grow.

This is just one man’s take. But I learned it from the best. His name is Mikael Cho. He’s the founder and CEO of a company called Crew.

Or at least, he was.


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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.

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