The Modern Block: Mikael Cho of Crew/Unsplash

This post is courtesy of Dallas based “The Modern Block,” a weekly online publication of conversations with today’s most influential founders, creatives, and makers. Says Jason Vo, Founder & Editor of The Modern Block: “I believe there’s a tremendous amount to learn from spending time around people that you simply won’t learn in traditional business literature and articles.”

Mikael Cho, founder of Crew/Unsplash

The Modern Block: Crew is always up to exciting things. Was this the first business you founded? Mikael: Yeah, it was the first time I actually founded a company. I had always tried my hands, joined other people with little ideas, and dabbled with smaller things part time. When I finished university, I really felt like I wanted to create something, but the transition was really difficult for me, at least to fully getting to understand how to do it.

When I moved to Montreal, I finally was forced into the position of having to learn. I pretty much wasn’t able to find a job, because almost every position here required me to be bilingual in English and French. That was a big event in my life, as it created an obligation for me to do something. I had to create something.

Alongside having such a great product, you guys market that product really well. And you have such a unique approach to doing so. Side projects, you mentioned in a blog post, is what saved your company. I’d love to talk more about that. So I’ll get into the backstory of how that came together. We were starting Crew, we had raised a bit of funding, and had very little money to survive. We actually only had six months to stay alive. We didn’t have a good product, didn’t have a marketing budget, didn’t have enough money to spend on ads or anything. We knew we needed to pick up some traction; to get people to notice who we were, and what we were doing. We also had to do so in a short period of time.

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We wanted to create something so different from a marketing perspective; something that people would pay much more attention to than they would a good blog post.

So, what did that look like? Products. Products that would stay over a long period of time, and people could use them over and over again.

We were thinking about the best way to go about creating this product when the idea for our first side project was discovered, Unsplash. The result? We moved barriers, and were able to reach so many people creating this. A huge advantage too, was that we didn’t have to turn it into an actual business. We just got people to it, and redirected them to our actual business. It was very interesting.

Amazing! What would you consider a side project is, and how do you go about creating one? All of our side projects are built under the same philosophy. Firstly, put out something very simple (no accounts, passwords, payments or anything,) and secondly, turn it into something people could come back to use repeatedly.

Let’s start with the first part: building something simple. Build it on a platform that already exists if you can, and try not to do too much coding or designing. For instance, Unsplash was built on Tumblr with a $19 blog theme. We just dropped in the initial photos, and people found they were able to use it over and over again because we said we would release 10 new photos every 10 days (which was the second part of building a side project: building repeatability without having to do too much extra work.)

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Whatever your side project is, figure out how to get people to use it repeatedly, but also factor in that it can’t take a lot of time for you to maintain long-term. Unsplash was very simple- people didn’t have to create accounts, we didn’t charge for anything. We didn’t want to build something with a bunch of features, or something we had to spend half our time working on.

Your thoughts on the “Side projects make your company look distracted” misconception? When we started to implement side projects into our business, there was a big conversation going on, especially around notable people in the startup scene, talking about the distraction of side projects. I think we had to take one step back to discuss, well, what exactly is a side project? A lot of people were saying that a side project is something unrelated to what a company is building. However, for us, although a side project isn’t our core product, it definitely relates to it. We’re obviously not gonna build a Kanye-emoji app. What we are going to build, though, are little products that solve small problems for our customers, before they might have bigger problems Crew’s able to solve. So if you were to think about it that way, that’s what all marketing is about: creating value for people. Sometimes that value comes in the form of an ad or a blog post. We’ve just gone the extra mile to create ten times the value an ad did; we raised the bar and created products that are much, much more efficient than any blog post could ever be.

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How have you found it most effective to launch a side project? Hackernews, Reddit, and Product Hunt were places we submitted our products to early on. People within our own community also helped a lot. We actually have a whole list in our company of people we know – people we’ve built relationships with – who might be interested when we release new products. I think it’s really important to build real relationships with people, partly because you never know who knows who. Another strategy is we always strive to build a nice following of people who support our company. Once you build a following within your community, no matter what you create, they will be interested and will support.

The rest of this interview can be found at The Modern Block. If you would like to see more of this type of content, please let us know in the comments below, or by sharing it. If you have specific individuals in mind for future interviews, let us know. And thanks again to The Modern Block. Glad you’re in Dallas.

Featured photos by Crew.

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