Sounds unreal? Totally. But it’s also doable.

Back in 2015, Mikael Cho had a problem.

His startup was running out of cash, and he had to get a ton of users real quick to hang on.

He didn’t have the cash to buy traffic.

Blogging is also out; it’d take months to get traffic this way.

He had no gurus, no consultants, no friends—no one at all—to point him in the right direction.

99% of startups will crash given the same situation.

But Mikael didn’t. He made things work.

He didn’t just save his startup; he also accumulated 1 billion website views on it without relying on those “conventional” traffic strategies like PPC and SEO.


Using a side project he created by mistake.

In today’s post, I want to show you exactly what Mikael did to save his startup –

I grew this blog from nothing to a blog with 10,000 monthly visitors, working part time and without using SEO.

Want to know how I made it happen? I’ll show you what I did. Click here to get instant access.


First, let’s meet Mikael.

side project case study

Mikael Cho was the co-founder and CEO of, a marketplace that allowed anyone to find designers for their website projects.

Here is what happened back in 2015 to Mikael and his partners.

Their startup, turned 2 years old. It also looked as though it would be their last year.

And it wasn’t even the first time things looked dire.

From the day their startup was born, they had made 3 major changes to their business model, and their company almost died. Twice.

But this time was different. This time was a whole lot worse.

They ran out of cash.

They had 3 months worth of cash left to turn things around.

Failing would mean game over. That meant they needed to find users real fast.

Their options were limited:

#1. They had no money, so customer acquisition through online ads was out of question.

#2. Blogging work, but it takes time to see results this way.

#3. Build something useful to generate word-of-mouth—no guarantee for this one.

Be that as it may, they needed to find a way to accelerate “normal” growth if they were going to stand a chance.

Saving their company

Around this time, they were revamping their site’s homepage.

While searching for a photo to use, they noticed every photograph available either sucked or cost too much.

They ended up hiring a photographer to take the photos they wanted.

At the end, they only used one photo; there were extras.

Mikael thought a whole bunch of people out there probably shared their pain in finding high-quality photos. Since he didn’t need the leftover pics, he decided to give it away for free.

You never know what’ll happen before you try it.

So Mikael went ahead and tried his luck.

A $19 Tumblr theme and 3 hours later, Unsplash went live.

All the site had was 10 photos and a link back to – their startup.

The early version of Unsplash looks way simpler than what it is today.

It looked like this:

side project case study

Getting the news out

Right after Unsplash went live, Mikael submitted the site to Hacker News.

I’ve discussed Hacker News a couple of times on Growthtext.

It’s an influential link aggregation website.

The largest crowd there? People in the tech industry as well as startup companies.

Anyone can submit their website to Hacker News. If you appeal to these people, Hacker News is a great place to spread your story and get visitors.

The front page of Hacker News is the Holy Grail for everyone in our space. It brings you traffic, sales, brand awareness and more—all of which can make a huge impact on your business.

To learn how to get to the first page of Hacker News, check out this post on Growthtext.

When Mikael submitted Unsplash to Hacker News, he wasn’t expecting much, maybe a few hundred visitors at most.

What happened took him by shock.

After submitting, he put that thought away and moved on with his day until he got an email from the photographer who took the photos (every photograph on Unsplash has the photographer credited).

In less than 24 hours the photographer wrote this to him:

“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!”

Mikael went back to HackerNews and saw Unsplash was featured at the top of the site!

Here is his Hacker News link/thread in action:

side project case study

Here is the link.

The monthly traffic of Hacker News hovers between 10 -15 million visits per month. Being #1 on its front page only means one thing to Mikael: people flooded to Unsplash.

Traffic kept pouring in.

20,000 visitors.

30,000 visitors.

It was soon 50,000.

When people saw it on Hacker News, some of them took to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. News continued to spread like wildfire. The crowd was going crazy.

And you know what?

Everything happened within the first 24 hours!

Here’s a shot of the tweets that came through in the first day Unsplash was on Hacker News’ first page:

side project case study

Thousands of photos were downloaded on the first day.

Even more surprisingly, other photographers began submitting their own photos to Unsplash (it was designed to allow anyone to upload photos to the site from the start). That made their photo inventory grow passively without Mikael and his team having to do anything.

They also saw a gigantic jump in traffic to as they had a link setup on the Unsplash header menu to link back to Crew.

A large number of Unsplash users then signed up to join Crew. There were so many of them; they dwarfed each and every ad campaign Mikael had ever run to promote

According to Mikael, there were more people paying attention to within the first 24 hours than in the entire 2015. All thanks to the 10 free high quality photos he gave away for free.

From that day on, they suddenly realized they had accidentally solved a real pain in their industry. That of finding free, high-quality photos.

Fast forward a year

Fast forward a year, and Unsplash became the main source of traffic and revenue for the parent company

According to Mikael, it peaked at around 60% of monthly revenue due to customers finding Crew through a simple ‘Made by Crew’ link on Unsplash.

Today, Unsplash is now one of the top photo sites available online.

Mikael and his partners eventually decided they want to focus on growing the site they founded accidentally.

They eventually sold to Dribbble and started working full time on Unsplash, so it’s now their main and ONLY project.

It’s grown a lot since those early days, with more than 20 million photo downloads every month, half a million free-to-use photos, and integrated into thousands of applications including Trello, Adobe, and more.

Here is the key takeaway:

Unsplash was a side-project for Mikael’s startup in crisis,

Asa creator, he knew that finding beautiful, useable imagery was one of the hardest challenges in any creative project, so he decided to give away his extra photos for free, to be used by anyone for anything.

He setup a $19 tumblr theme, a domain, and posted the site to Hacker News.

What happened next was never short of amazing.

If you need attention, here’s what you should learn from Mikael’s story, before thinking of making money or getting attention- create value first.

Create value for others by creating something awesome to give away— a value that is related to your core business.

Chances are, if they like what you put out there, some of them might want to know more about your core business.

What are you selling?

WordPress themes?

Marketing tools?

Online courses?

Instead of focusing on selling, study your perfect audience. Think about what values you can give away first.

The more value you can give away, the more will come back to you.

Yes, that’s how to get the word out and gain attention in today’s world.

If you think you’ve learned something important, I’d love to hear it.

Leave a comment below if you’ve any thoughts, and don’t forget to spread the word!

11 thoughts on “How Mikael Cho Drove 1 Billion Website Views Without Spending a Dime on PPC and SEO

  1. Hi Verena, fantastic post on growth hacking. These type of techniques are very useful to get traffic without spending big amounts on ads.

  2. The post is awesome and true. Preframing before selling is all that is required for online domination. Thank you for this post…

    1. No problem, Uche. There’s definitely a place for us in whatever we do online; as long as we stick to this rule: create value first; tell them about what we have to offer later. Mikael’s case study is a perfect showcase of this concept.

  3. so, can i ask, how does the site make money giving away free photos ?

    they say no crediting is needed, if i saw the site correctly, but it is appreciated

    but no banners or adsense?

  4. Bill, it’s actually an “accident” that doesn’t make money directly, but has become the #1 referral source to Crew. Now that Mikael and team sold off Crew, they’re still looking for a way to monetize Unsplash traffic. With the amount of traffic they get each month, simply adding ad space on the site, they’ll make money right away. As they’re not doing it now, I believe they have bigger plans.

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