How side projects saved our startup (and how to do them right)

Posted on Oct 25, 2014

How side projects saved our startup (and how to do them right)

We had no money.

We changed our business model and had three months worth of cash left to turn things around. If we didn’t we were toast. Done.

We needed to find customers. But no one knew who we were.

A marketing budget? Please. We were just trying to keep the lights on.

This was our situation a year and half ago at Crew. We knew we had to grow but we didn’t know how we were going to do it in a substantial way.

Things like blogging work but can take months before they have a big impact. Building a great product to generate word-of-mouth is a must but that takes time too.

Even though we were working on these things, we needed to find a way to accelerate “normal” growth if we were going to survive.

Around this time, we were creating the homepage of our website. While searching for a photo to use, we noticed every photography option was either too crappy, too expensive, or both.

Instead, we hired a photographer and took a bunch of photos at a coffee shop. We only used one photo so we had extras. We thought, there’s probably a bunch of people having the same issue as us so let’s post these photos online and give them away for free.

A $19 Tumblr theme and three hours later, we had a site called Unsplash, with 10 of our best extra photos and a link back to our homepage.

Here’s a screenshot of an early version of Unsplash:

unsplash version 2 archive 730x416 How side projects saved our startup (and how to do them right)

We put unsplash.com live and shared the link on HackerNews – a website that lists the best things found on the internet and allows members to vote on the submissions. The HackerNews community is largely made up of designers, programmers and entrepreneurs – an audience we thought might find Unsplash useful.

What happened next floored me.

Apart from maybe a few hundred visitors to the site, I didn’t think much would come from posting the link to HackerNews. I moved on with my day until I got an email from the photographer who took the photos. He wrote,

“Dude, happy you enjoyed the photos! I don’t know what you did with them but there’s a ton of people on my portfolio site right now!”

I went back to HackerNews to check what might be going on.

Unsplash was featured as the number one site.

Here’s an image of the original submission and comment thread on HackerNews:

Screen Shot 2014 10 09 at 1.16.05 PM 730x106 How side projects saved our startup (and how to do them right)

People visiting Unsplash came pouring in.

20,000 visitors.

10 minutes later, it was 50,000 visitors.

We then saw a huge spike in traffic to our homepage for Crew. A large number of customers came. And a whole lot of love. Substantially more than we ever got from any ad campaign or blog post. Here’s a shot of the tweets that came through the first moments Unsplash was live.


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