Unsplash Growth Strategies: Turning a Free Product into Billions

If you’ve ever been desperately scrambling for a stock photo, chances are you’ve bumped into Unsplash.

Never heard about it? It’s a platform for sharing stock photography that according to Wikipedia generates more than 17 billion photo impressions per month.

It has been recently acquired by Getty Images. And despite its massive success, it was started as a side project.

Let’s take a look at Unsplash’s growth strategies that turned a free photo product into a robust revenue-generating business acquired by a giant in the industry.

1) Unlock new acquisition channels with free value

Back in 2013, when Mikael Cho founded Unsplash, he had other plans in mind: Crew, a freelance platform.

When they hired a photographer to create visuals for Crew’s homepage, they had tons of leftovers.

So, they decided to give these photos away on their Tumblr page, Unsplash.

They realized that giving photos away was a winning strategy to generate traffic, and they followed the route.

Other people started to contribute with their creations, reaching 250,000 photos in four months.

2) Attract a paying audience by giving away products

Unsplash started to promote their free photos on Hacker News, VentureBeat, and other platforms.

But this giveaway turned into a community on its own of photographers sharing their work.

And millions of people visiting Unsplash.

3) Direct traffic to the paid product

Once they built the traffic, Unsplash added the link to their freelance marketplace, Crew.

This move generated 5 million visitors to Crew, allowing them to monetize Unsplash’s popularity.

They built the audience first. Then they redirected it to their main product.

4) Create a win-win with the content creators

Photographers could add a link to their website, and benefit from Unsplash traffic.

So the platform became for creators a place to get client referrals, to use as social proof, build an audience, and promote a paying service.

This turned into an unstoppable flywheel.

The success led Unsplash to raise $30.3 million in funding, and to the eventual acquisition by Getty Images.

The juice of this post can be summarized in build an audience first, monetize it later.

It’s definitely not a new strategy, and the success of Unsplash proves that it works.

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