Founders Talk – Episode #54

From side project to $7.25M for Unsplash

with Mikael Cho

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When Mikael Cho started Unsplash from its small beginning as a Tumblr blog and side project, he had no idea it would have such a huge impact and ultimately disrupt the photography industry. In this episode, Mikael shares the backstory of Unsplash, how it got started, keeping things focused, levers of growth, flipping the marketing funnel, turning free into a business, raising $7.25 million to build a new economy for photography, and the impact of an API.

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So Mikael, we have a similar path to beginning. We both began as side projects; you know, Changelog Media, what we do here, a side business, a side project... We both began on Tumblr, so there's something to be said about small beginnings. I think they're underappreciated to some degree, but small beginnings... What do you think?

Yeah, I think culturally, making a big thing of things is celebrated... So quit your job and go do the thing, or quit this and go on American Idol. It's like this big, altering shift thing, and often times what happens there is the stakes increase and they get really high. You feel that you have to right away replace any path that you may have been going on, and it always creates a prison for creativity for you. You become obsessed immediately about how does this become a business and support maybe my full-time livelihood or my family, and all of these things... But that really can hurt a lot of projects that are fragile and too early.

Of course, the business we're talking about is not Crew, it's Unsplash. Crew is the thing you were doing at that time, right?

And Unsplash was the side project turned to be your main full thing, the thing you're doing now.

Maybe I can share my version of what I think Unsplash is, and you can fill in the gaps.

Yeah, sure.

Maybe that's what we could do, just to be fun about it, to switch the roles here a little bit. Unsplash, to me now -- there's like five years of history here to go back on, but I look at it as a place that, as a consumer or a user, you can go and get free royalty photos that are super awesome, by pretty much anybody in the world... And as somebody who may be that creator/creative, it's a place for me to share my photos, whether I want to sell them or not; I think it's all free licensing.

[00:04:07.14] So it's just a place to share, have liberated photos that don't have any finances trapped behind the licensing model of a photo... And as a user of a photo, I can go there and find pretty much anything, because you have a great tagging system. I can go there and find pretty much any photo, whether it's the color red or a canoe, or a certain tree... I can pretty much find some sort of photo to fit my needs and use that freely pretty much in any form of media. Does that somewhat summarize the utility of Unsplash?

Yeah, that's exactly what it is, and what it's meant to be today. It's really an open photography place, and that means people can freely come and go in terms of using the photos, or adding to the library that's growing... So yeah, that is what it is today and we have views towards the future of other types of potential visuals and other things. But right now, it is definitely about open photography and enabling people to create with photography, and enabling people who are visual storytellers to showcase that, and their view of the world, and get that on a platform.

Now that we got at least an underpinning there for the audience catching up -- because not everybody is going to know about Unsplash... Listening to this show, you may know, for sure, Unsplash. Some of you may be catching up like, "Oh, Unsplash, sweet, I love this. This is awesome", and you're five years post the launch of this thing... Humble beginnings, though. Going back to the beginning, this was a side project that saved things for you. If I understand it correctly, you had a story of like you were getting photos for your business, Crew, which you could describe if you like to... But you did a photo shoot, you only used one of them, so you had all these spares left over and you're like, "What should we do with it?" and born was the beginnings of Unsplash. So maybe go back to 2013, to this launch, to this timeframe, to what Unsplash was to you so we can dig into the small beginnings.

Yeah. The previous company, Crew, which Unsplash was spun out of, also had similar beginnings – humble, trying to figure things out. It actually started as a MailChimp newsletter with just a WuFoo form... And what it was is we were trying to figure out a unique way of connecting talented designers and developers with high-quality projects. So my whole background, I had worked in an agency, I worked in a design studio, I've been a designer myself, and I just saw these problems and this issue of finding creative work and getting creative work done with all of that extra legal, financial, timing, and project management stuff that often gets in the way.

So Crew was like, "How could we remove all of that and just make it easier to do creative, work and for good people to connect with good projects?" And So when we started the site, first, it's about how do you figure out how to find projects. That's the biggest problem that any independent designer and developer, studio agency is going to have anyway. Unsplash basically fit into that as the idea.

Originally, we didn't know what that idea was yet, but what we did have is, you know, after we launched that first version of Crew, we were building the first version of the site, trying to find photos, and we were always thinking about how could we potentially solve a problem that people who would be coming to Crew, who might hire a designer or even designers who were looking for projects, what could be just really useful for them? And when we were doing these photos for our homepage, we were like, "This is still a really crappy process, to try to find good photos that you could very clearly use."

[00:07:59.17] So when we did a photo shoot and we had all of these leftovers, we thought, "What if we just created that ideal site that we just kept looking for and couldn't find?" Every image was high resolution. All of the photos were under the same conditions. You could just freely use them. The original tagline we had was, "Do whatever you want." We just wanted to be super clear that there's no strings attached. Even the sizes - there's no low res, or watermarks, or any of that stuff.

So we built that in just an afternoon, with 10 photos, and we were going to do 10 photos every 10 days, because we actually didn't know how we were going get any more photos than that. So we figured we could keep up with 10 every 10 days if we needed to ourselves, and I just put a little "Submit" link on the site. Unsplash was actually available as a domain, so that was 9 dollars, and the Tumblr theme was 19 dollars. So in total we spent 28 dollars and about three hours putting it up. I actually put it up on Hacker News, didn't think anything of it. I thought maybe a few hundred people would find it useful, and that was good enough for me.

And then, a few hours later, I actually got a text message from the photographer that we worked with, and he was like, "Oh, did you do that site you were telling me about?" and what we were going to do with the photos... Because my portfolio site is just blowing up right now. And I knew I only put it on Hacker News, so I went back there and it was number one. So we had 20,000 people signed up within those first couple of hours. I was using a Google Form and Google Sheets to track the sign-ups, and we actually crashed the Google Sheets, because the number of rows at that time was maxed out at 20,000.

Yeah. There was all these crazy things we had -- even the photos we hosted with public Dropbox links... So all of these things were – we didn't necessarily plan for it to be this really big thing, and then when it did blow up -- we could figure out those things later, but having those lower stakes was, I think, very key to making sure that you get Unsplash out the door and live. So that was sort of the beginnings of it. And what ended up happening is Unsplash became the number one referral source for Crew. In that first year, it was referring almost 80 percent of the projects that were coming to Unsplash. And even over time, two or three years when it was still a project within Crew, it was referring between 30 and 50 percent.

This is different worlds though. So you got photographers - sometimes, they're designers... But is Crew kind of like... The two angles here – designers and developers – that's what Crew's business is? It's like crews of freelancers who are either designers or developers, not photographers.

Right.

So it's even like an off-access referral?

Yeah. There was so much traffic on the site that even the subset of people who would come to Unsplash who weren't designers and developers, but they needed photography to build a website, or to build a mobile app or whatever it was, those were the people who would then end up posting a project on Crew to hire a designer or a developer.

Interesting. So this is a part of the story... I've done some research but this is not – this is a curveball for me. I was not planning on this here. Let's talk about the side effects, I guess, of that business growth, because that's kind of insane. So Crew is not owned by you anymore. You eventually had that acquired. Are you a part of it still yet, or is that something you're completely out of?

Yeah, it's completely separate. The Crew was sold to Dribbble (the design community) last April, April 2017. That's when we moved on Unsplash full-time. So we've really only been on Unsplash full-time for a year.

[00:11:57.16] Wow, okay. But all this time, you've got four years of really nice growth curves because of this side project. Crew grew, and you sold that, so you profited there... Earlier this year you announced funding – your first round of funding – which I think is just shy of eight million dollars... So you're now in this first year of focus – I guess maybe new focus, money-driven focus... Because you don't make any money, you don't have a product, you're not selling something with Unsplash.

Right. With Unsplash, the original intent was to be a referral source for Crew, and then the business model of Crew would be basically the business model of Unsplash.

So Crew making money could sustain Unsplash not making money, and it'd be a fun, a lot of referral-driven process, a real nice sibling in the business family, so to speak.

Correct. You could approach it very similarly to a free blog that a company might produce, and ideally what they're trying to do with that is refer some people or generate awareness for the brand... So Unsplash was like a blog on steroids. It was more useful, people could come back and use it many times, and in the end game though, it still did the same thing – it would refer people and raise the awareness of Crew.

I guess I'll ask the million-dollar question here (or how many millions of dollars question), why sell Crew?

What happened in the last few years - we were growing and we were looking at the trajectories, and actually, Unsplash was growing even faster than Crew, but the referrals actually started to change. What happened is, as Unsplash grew, it moved into all these other use cases for people. People weren't just using it for websites or mobile apps; they were starting to use it in presentations, blogging, and graphic design – pretty much everything that needed visuals. So there was about 80 percent then of that new usage that was going to Unsplash. It wasn't necessarily a fit for referring to Crew. So though Unsplash was growing, the referrals to Crew weren't necessarily growing at the same rate.

I guess the motivations of having this free thing, that was a nice sibling for a while there, is somewhat divorced from its original bonuses, like this happy access, so to speak, to Unsplash – a lot of referrals, a lot of growth for Crew because of it... But over time, they started to divide and divorce from their parallels in business, or as products.

Yeah, and before Crew was built -- there's a lot that you need to build in, so if you're thinking about automating project management, helping people find projects, and doing that in a scalable way with software, that takes a lot of time to build. So we knew Unsplash would be the front porch people could hang around before Crew was ready. A few would come in, and then over time, Crew would eventually take over and go its own direction with the people who are ready for… [phone ringing] Sorry. Sorry about that.

That's okay.

I'm just gonna put this on airplane mode also...

This happens every once in a while. A little cameo of phone calls, no big deal. [laughter] It's all good.

Yeah, so we knew that would happen eventually... So when we saw that written on the wall in terms of the numbers, we did think a lot about, "So what does the future hold for both Crew and Unsplash? How should these things co-exist? Should they be separate things? What could Unsplash really be?" Unsplash - we hadn't really had that forward conversation yet about it; it was more built into the Crew system. And so when we saw that shift in where things were headed, that's when we started to look at, "Okay, there may be something very life-changing and interesting with what's going on with Unsplash. Let's really study that and understand what's happening there and where we actually see it going... And could there be a business here?"

[00:16:27.14] Remind me of the timeline again... So Crew was an acquisition in 2016, right?

  1. What part of 2017 – first part or second part?

April 2017.

Okay... And so you announced this new round of funding, which I'm assuming is going to give you some financial runway into 2018... So you're April-ish in 2017 with the separation of Crew. Then it seems like you spent some time to really think about the kind of investors you wanted to go work with, so that actually takes some diligence – not just like, "Hey, let's just divide these things and go conquer, and get some money, and boom, there you go." It's a lot more articulate than that. Can you define the articulation there of that process?

Yeah. With Crew we had raised funding as well, so I'd been through the process. We have existing and supportive investors who are also coming into Unsplash. Basically, what we did is we set up a mirror. Crew and Unsplash were exactly the same. All the current investors owned in Unsplash what they owned in Crew, and then we started from there to think about how do we now raise investment for Unsplash. And you're right, a lot of what we thought about was "Where do you want this to go?" So largely, thinking through that philosophy that we believed in first, and then working our way backwards and saying, "Cool, this is the philosophy we believe in. Who are the investors that would fit with this philosophy?"

When you're going into fundraising, that's the ideal case - where you can pick from the investors who are great, who also align perfectly with that philosophy. But once you start fundraising, some of those things become difficult to maintain, because maybe some of those investors aren't actually as interested, or you have to go a different direction and really like someone else who you thought might like a different philosophy.

So we went through -- it was basically an eight to nine-month preparation. Setting up, understanding the story of Unsplash, what is it that we're really building towards, what do we have not and where is that going, who do we want to invest and really setting up that list, figuring out how we can reach those people, because many of them I didn't know... I didn't go to Stanford, I'm not in San Francisco, not in New York, so figuring out how to reach those people and setting up that whole process. And then starting to just go and try and see how this fits with people's minds.

It was a relatively long process, and we went through... And being from Montreal and having this difficult to categorize photography business. Is it open source? Is it like Wikipedia, or is it like Instagram? Is it like VSCO Cam? So that were some of the challenges that we had in articulating what we had and making sure that we did have the right investors. Basically, starting in the fall of 2018 is when we started to talk to people, but everything from that beginning of the year of 2017 to that fall was preparation to go into talking to those people.

One correction – you said fall 2018, but I think you meant fall 2017.

Sorry, fall 2017.

[00:19:59.22] Because if it's fall of 2018, then you're in the future. [laughter] I think it would be a whole different conversation.... One I'm down to have, but it makes more sense to focus here. Okay, that's interesting... So fall 2018 -- or sorry, you got me mixed out now... Fall 2017, now you're ready; you've done the necessary prep. You spent six to eight months of preparation to understand your brand, who you are, what you are, what your direction is, how to describe your company... Because you're right – it's sort of this interesting to describe photography business that I don't even know... Do you even produce the photos yourself? Is it all community-driven? I'm sure it is, right? You've got your own profile, but you've got ten photos on this, so you're not a heavy contributor. Sure, you're being used, but you're not the majority of the community, or a minority, although you're a founder.

So you're in fall 2017, you've announced funding early this year, 2018...

You spent three or four months fundraising... What's fundraising like for you?

Usually, in the past it has been pretty quick. This one was much longer, and I didn't really expect that because Unsplash had been growing really well... But I think there's a whole bunch of factors at play. I think the main one - I don't think you should push too much on external factors. I think you should always first try to look inwards. When I look at myself, when I started pitching and talking about Unsplash, I wasn't as refined as I was until five months later, when we started to get the first term sheets from investors who were interested.

When I first started and I look back to that, I was probably 30 percent of the quality of where I ended up at towards the end of our process... And think about that for a moment, because it took us six to eight months to get to that level. That first 30 percent and being where we thought we were ready, I still was nowhere near the level of quality where I think that we ended up towards the end of that process.

What do you mean about quality – like quality of investor, or quality of story, or quality of you?

The quality of our ability to communicate what we're doing. People talk a lot about it's all in the quality of the deck, or in the quality of your numbers, or all these things... And I think it matters more or less depending on the stage that you're at. But from my experience, this is basically -- I've raised money in the seed to series A, to series B... So the earlier stages, the four years younger type company stages. And from what I can say from that, the conviction of the storyteller is probably the biggest chunk of the pie, that matters the most. You have to have something. Yes, you have to have a business sort of backing that up, but depending on the level of risk factors that you have... Unsplash didn't have its own revenue model. We didn't have that pedigree of coming from San Francisco or New York and fitting as sort of a consumer product.

There's a lot of preconceived risks that we weren't able to check off, and I think we got better and better at people getting over those once they saw our conviction, and we communicated a lot of other things better. We communicated why our strategy is a certain way towards those things, why does it really matter for this business to be based in San Francisco or New York, why haven't you monetized yet, or what are you thinking around that? I think we just got so much more refined and convicted around that, that it helped build trust with people that we spoke to later in the fundraising process.

[00:23:59.19] Some questions I have too around that is -- from my understanding as an outsider, because I'm only a fan, not so much an insider, even knowing what you're doing... But I see Unsplash as like, okay, so it's free for me to go and use any photo; so the creators aren't getting paid, the users aren't paying to license anything. It's a great economy, in terms of there's lots of users and lots of use. You've got 400,000 photos on Unsplash that have been downloaded more than 310,000,000 times – lots of growth, so it's not like you've got a user or a product market fit issue, but what you don't have is sales. And so often you go into these kinds of investor meetings and it's like, "Okay, well, you're not making any money... Why?" So what was your why? Why hadn't you attempted to, or maybe you had a model but you hadn't executed on it yet? What was the state of making profits and being able to actually turn this into a business that had not just users and use, but also some profit?

Yeah, and that was part of it. I think the timing was something... We had just spun out of Crew, and because Unsplash wasn't where it needed to be yet from a business model perspective... We knew we were raising funding, and we were raising that funding a little bit early, knowing that we didn't really have much progress on a business model, but we felt we were in a position where we needed to continue executing on something really well, and one thing that was going really well was the growth.

So we really focused on, "Let's make sure we have outstanding growth, versus diluting our resources and maybe having average growth, and maybe a little bit of progress on monetization." So that was the thinking behind if we have outstanding growth and we can communicate better about how we're thinking about monetization, that's the better story and package to begin the process with. That's where our mindset was.

Now, when we're thinking about how we're monetizing the site and how we communicated that, again, early on we were just very early on, and even as a business. We made a ton of progress while we were fundraising. Probably about three months in we'd been signing pilots. We had a much clearer definition of what are the economics that could actually work to turn this into a strong enduring business... Because we had multiple ideas, but there wasn't really one that was super refined that we were convicted on – not just in the way that we spoke, but we had proof... And so we went through those.

The pilot that we did have was actually with Google. It's a partnership with Chromebooks, which is their computing, and what they're looking to do is associate Chromebooks with high-quality computing. So we were able to leverage Unsplash in a way to do that with them using photography in a really interesting way that's unique to Unsplash. In the future, basically Google Chromebooks, or one of our partners like this, would be paying for that distribution of the photo. So the number of people who were downloading or seeing that photo - that's how we would be monetizing the site, and you could basically look at it as a visual Google.

So people go to Google, you search for what you're looking for, you have some sponsored results that show up above the different search results, and that's how we were actually looking at Unsplash. So you'll go to Unsplash, you'll search for different things - you might search for shoes, for example - and then on the top you might see some images that Nike is sponsoring, or another brand is sponsoring.

[00:27:51.15] The really interesting thing that we see behind that is it adds value to the platform, so that image is not just showing up in your feed. You see this a lot of times with Facebook or Instagram - something gets interjected in your feed and you don't follow that person... It's just an ad, you don't expect it, you kind of feel like it's getting in the way. What we're seeing with Unsplash is because you can actually download and use the photo, it's actually deeper than the view. We see a lot of people who are actually already choosing to download photos that have branded content in it.

Interesting. Is this business model being executed on now? Is that direction, or is this something you're thinking of?

No, we're moving forward on it now. It's still in the early stages, so we don't have the clear numbers and everything, and how it's all developing... But it's moving definitely in the right direction. So we're very excited about what it looks like, we've got some early results that I can't talk about yet, but it's aligning a lot with how we see the world and what could basically sustain the platform and be great for everybody who's involved. It's great for any advertising partner, it would be great for our contributors, it's great for the users, and it supports Unsplash.

So the state of the company, essentially, is you're in what I would consider - and correct me if I'm wrong – is a post-raise race, based on what you said before... You didn't have a model you were executing on to sustain yourselves, and now you are... So in this moment, at least post this first raise, you're trying to define either one or several models that help you live as a company.

Correct. Our focus is in two main places. There's still a lot of room for us to grow, so we're continuing to throttle on the growth. We know how to do that and where that can come from. Then the second piece is on the business side, and monetizing. So yeah, exactly. We have many different ways of how it could be sliced and how it can work, and we're just looking for the best fit for the ecosystem.

So this model you've just described now is one of several, I'm sure.

Yeah, there's a few that we have. But we're trying to focus, and not go and try to do three or four things at the same time. We have a strategy that we thought about that for how those different things could affect growth, and how those different things could affect the resources that we have and the number of people, because we have a small team – we're only 17 people.

Do you have revenue currently?

Not yet. We are on the cusp of it with a few things, which will -- yeah, as soon as we've got something going, we'll talk about it with the community and share it publicly. So we're close to that, but not there yet.

Now, a post earlier this year – I think it was just after your raise post that you shared – it talks about blockchain. The listeners of this show may not be perfectly intimate with blockchain, but we as a podcast network, are intimately familiar with blockchain. There's a lot of people who look at blockchain as a great way to solve some really interesting problems... And that was described quite a bit. This model you're talking about or we just talked through was not talked about at all. Is blockchain part of this model? Is blockchain at all involved in what you're focusing on now?

[00:31:39.07] Yeah. The lead investor for the round that we just closed in April 2018, that was a Simple Token. So yeah, it's a blockchain company, and how that happened is we had been talking with them about potential ways that we could partner. We didn't necessarily look at this like blockchain is going to be the savior for charging for photos. We looked at it as blockchain may enable some of these ideas that we're already thinking about in terms of monetization to be significantly better for everybody. That's largely how we're looking at it.

So any idea that we talk about from a monetization perspective, we're also thinking about how could blockchain make that easier, faster, or better? That's largely the marriage that's happening there, and it may enable something totally different, but that's kind of how we're thinking about it. We're looking at what are the unique things that blockchain would enable within maybe an existing idea or strategy that we're talking about, or could it enable something totally new.

What are some of the unknowns there around blockchain? Obviously, it's newer, it's still proving itself in lots of places, but it's certainly got great use cases. How is it being applied here?

Yeah, I think we're still figuring out the use cases where blockchain would be so obviously better than anything that you could do with fiat currency. We've seen some of these consumer platforms where people get paid to contribute, or these sorts of things, and there's tokens that are created in exchange... But you can also ask the question of how much better is that -- if Reddit Gold, the token system that is inside of Reddit, what if that was run on blockchain? Would it be significantly better than the system that there is now? I don't necessarily see that as being significantly different or better, but I think there could be a combination of things that happen, and we're looking into a bunch of little interactions that happen on Unsplash.

We look at the download, and the interesting thing that we have with our download is, because people don't have to credit, the photos can end up anywhere all over the internet. So is there a way that we could potentially figure out the line of creation? There's this original photo that gets posted and then all of these things get made with it after. Is there a way that we can connect all of those people somehow? Right now, technically, it's uncertain, but could there be something within blockchain technology that could allow us to do that better? Maybe.

There's also different things that help the Unsplash ecosystem function really well, for example photo tagging. As you were mentioning, when you search for a photo, the library is getting better and better. We actually have a lot of people who will tag the photos just as their contribution to Unsplash. So is there a way that we could help those people be recognized? Maybe there is a token ecosystem where we can break that down into micro transactions that would be significantly better than doing it with cash or some sort of fiat system.

Let me understand this correctly then... These seem like two different models, or two different thoughts, but not two different models, where you have, let's say, Nike for example... You used them in your analogy... Of sponsoring, let's say, some of the results. It could be they're sponsoring the photo. I'm not sure who the money actually goes to, if it's just you, or the photographer, or whomever, but that's where the money comes into this system. And say I go and tag a bunch of photos as just somebody who loves to tag, and because you have this cryptocurrency blockchain-based model where I'm getting tokens or some sort of digital currency because, hey, I've put some effort into tagging 10 photos a day, because maybe I earn five bucks a month – just something, just whatever; I don't know what the money actually is, but is that the model then?

[00:36:02.28] So you have sponsored things from brands, which makes sense because that's how images work, and Instagram has proven that model being very valuable, and then the money gets spread around by either creators or contributions into this economy, and they get paid through blockchain-enabled cryptocurrencies.

Yeah, so we look at it as -- there's different people who participate in Unsplash. There's the contributors, there's the consumers, there's potentially the advertising partners, we have API partners who've integrated the Unsplash library into their products, and each of them have this spend-earn-buy ability, and that's what we're thinking through. How could an API partner earn and then what could they spend that on? The same thing for the person who downloads photos - how could they potentially earn and what could they then spend that on? So that's the thought process that we're going through, and that's building this whole ecosystem for all the people who were involved.

Break

[00:37:14.01]

Let's talk about levers of growth. We talked earlier about like, hey, you don't really have a growth problem. Every business has a how-do-you-make-money problem, and that's just natural. You're going to be in front of investors, like you've mentioned, and you're going to be talking about that growth story really easily and, "Here's our upside, because here's where we've been going, here's our trajectory, but here's where we're on the financial side," and we've talked through that... But let's talk about some of the levers of growth. Let's get into the details of things you're intimately involved in and how do you grow Unsplash.

You've mentioned that you've got different types of customers, you've got API customers, you've got potential future sponsors, you've got contributors, you've got all of these different stakeholders, so to speak, that are a part of the Unsplash community. How do you pull the different levers of growth? What are some of the common levers for you?

For us, the big focus is the photo download. So if we had to pick one thing that we're really focused on driving forward, it's that. That is because it's a measure of the main use of the site. If we're not driving photo downloads, are we really delivering value for anyone?

Ultimately, what we're trying to do is push the impact of photography, and pushing the impact of photography further means more downloads of that photo, which means more people are seeing that photo. The same thing for people who might be using these photos - if people aren't downloading them, then maybe they're not useful. So we really look for driving that forward.

And then, how do we do that? This can get really complicated. People run through all these different referral strategies and all these different things, and how do you layer on a social graph and get people to refer five friends, and all of these things.

Multi-level marketing.

[00:39:54.09] Yeah. But if you look back at the things that took over a new sort of behavior and how people were acting in a new way towards an industry, there's two main things that happened. One was the search wars – so Google against Yahoo! and AltaVista. And then the second was video – so you had YouTube and Vimeo, and the different platforms that were competing there. Ultimately, what happened in both of those cases is the company that built the better way to discover and search the actual library and had the better library were the ones that won. So that's really our focus.

It sounds boring and simple, but basically how that breaks down to us is build the best search and build the best library. And as a third unique thing that we have, because the photos – they go through the API and we can distribute those in a unique way off of Unsplash, we also drive that third piece forward. So it's API partnerships, building a better search and building a better library.

I definitely want to earmark the impact of an API, which I want to dive into specifically a little later on, but I'm glad you touched on that, because that's something that people don't often think about. The reason why YouTube wins or has won with videos is because creators - it's a great place for them. If I'm researching pretty much anything – a new barbecue for the backyard, a new camera, a new computer, a new interface for audio, a new microphone, a specific XLR cable... Literally, for any of those examples, treasure troves of content on YouTube. They found a way to monetize that themselves, they found a way to pay the creators, and so the YouTube model is definitely a rinse-repeat model for platforms like yours. So is that your – for lack of better terms – poster child of, "Hey, we're going to follow this. This is what we're going to do" but whatever else you're also gonna layer on top of that.

Yeah, I think we take inspiration and just try to learn from a lot of these things that happen, because it's like every 20 years the older platforms get shifted to newer platforms and new paradigms, but the human behaviors roughly stays the same. So I more look at what are the human behaviors that are still consistent and that won't change and that haven't changed. Those more define the playbook than, "Let's just copy and paste these different business strategies." That may have worked at that period of time, but it wouldn't necessarily work right now.

Let's talk about the basics of that then though. So you've got creators... And I want to talk on this too because I did some research, and part of my research was on YouTube... Are photographers, creators getting taken advantage of is a question being asked by some of the community and I want to talk about that, but let's talk about the basics. So you've got a platform, you've got the library, so you've got plenty of phenomenal great photos... I haven't dug that far, but I've never seen a bad photo on Unsplash. That's a good thing. Maybe that's a brand thing. I don't know how you do that, but whatever you're doing to do that, keep doing it...

So there's no real bad photos that I've seen. You've got great content. But then you've got the layers of search, and then you've got the creators who are creating that content, which is photography, photos. So while you may not be copying and pasting YouTube's model, you may be at least trying to find ways to pay the creators. Let's talk about that, paying creators. Is it part of this model you're working on?

Yes. When it comes to people who are providing photography - and we've provided photography; I have a few up there... I'd like to put more, but those are my 10 bests by far... [laughter]

That's so funny... I'm not jabbing you, I just think it's funny that you're the founder, creator, and you got 10, which is great. I've seen it in many places, but I think it's funny that you've got 10.

[00:44:07.18] Yeah. I try to give love to the people who are way better than me, and really pushing that forward. I try to build a platform that can help make those other photos sing and reach as many people as possible. And ultimately, when we look at how does photography monetize, what's the right opportunity? Where are those different things going? When we look at charging for the photos, when you look at licensing, that's all kind of trending to zero. It's really not that useful today to be licensing the photo.

If you go up on Instagram, how many people have Instagram accounts that are getting contacted by people to license a single photo? What's happening now is we have these great high-resolution cameras basically built into our phones. If someone can find something that's good enough, maybe they'll go out and shoot it themselves, versus licensing a photo.

The photo still has a ton of impact and a ton of value. We're seeing that with Unsplash. Arguably, I think today it has more value and impact than it ever has. Everything is becoming super visual, bandwidths are increasing, everything can support high-resolution... So that's what we look at - how can we take the impact of that photo and turn that impact into great things for that person who contributed it? That can be multiple things.

We think there's something much bigger than getting the hundred bucks for the photo, and we've seen this happen many times, where even you wouldn't get that hundred dollars for the photo; what you're getting when you post something on Unsplash, you might book a thousand-dollar or 500-dollar photography gig from somebody else, or you might end up getting a full-time job from a company that saw your work there and then they found out that you were actually a videographer and you took photos on the side, and you're sort of this visual storyteller.

So we looked at it more as a form of storytelling, and then how could you turn that form of storytelling into something that opens up a whole bunch of opportunities for the person who told that story. In a way, it's actually very similar to the phase that blogging went through. In the beginning, when people started writing online, people were like, "You're just going to give this writing away for free? It's going to kill the whole value of a story."

But what ended up happening, I think, is people learned, "Okay, I could give these stories that I have away for free in the service of something else. I might be able to increase the exposure of my core business, which is worth way more than I could ever charge someone for just telling this history story of Crew and Unsplash. Instead, I can reach 10 times or 100 times more people by publishing online and giving it away for free, and because I'm reaching so many more people, there's a larger number of those people who may actually find the core value of my other work where, I make money elsewhere, as the thing that's really useful and valuable to them from a monetary perspective."

So we look at a lot of that. How can we use that initial photo as basically the introduction to this contributor? And that contributor may be a photographer, but they may be another type of creator. They may be a developer or a designer or a writer. But you've reached people, you've connected with people through that photography, so how can we grease the wheels for different opportunities that that could create for you?

[00:47:55.23] One of those examples of somebody who's not a photographer that I know of is Jeff Sheldon. I think he's been an example in your posts. Sheldon is interesting. He's really good with photography, and he's got a great studio, he's got a cool brand – lifestyle, developer, designer brand... If you're not familiar with Jeff Sheldon, his brand is ugmonk.com. I've bought shirts from Jeff, I've met Jeff in person, he's a great guy... So that's an interesting impact of Unsplash kind of person that has – I don't even know today how many photos he shares, but it's a small handful... His Iceland trip, his office, different things... And he wasn't able to quantify his personal gain from sharing on Unsplash, but he has no regrets. His personal brand, his products and his shots are out there. It's around awareness, things like that. He didn't go on there and say, "How can I leverage Unsplash to build my business?" It just was this accident.

That's a hard thing to explain to creators though, and that's where I think the question of like, "Are photographers being taken advantage of?" comes up, because it's like, "Well, you've been able to grow your platform, you raised money..." It's all these "you, you, you's" kind of thing maybe that's happening... But there actually is a lot of value translation here that is just hard to describe, hard to pin back. The Jeff Sheldons, for example, are hard to say, "Hey, Ugmonk has grown X because of Jeff's sharing on Unsplash," for example.

Right. And this is the problem that people have faced in the shifts in advertising over the last 10 years. Everybody thought cost per click is so obvious... I can pay a couple of cents and get people to click directly through on this thing and buy something. But what we really do – and if you look at your own behavior, nobody really shops like that anymore, especially today. We don't expect to see an ad and then we go and click it and then we buy the thing. We're floating around.

I see it as we're in this ambiance and we're going around on the internet, and we're floating through different things, we're seeing opinions, we're seeing different things here and there... And the useful things are the ones that grab our attention. When you have that attention, that is becoming the most valuable thing today, because everything is so open. If you're just creating useful things and you have people's attention, that becomes a way to push that into potentially something that is monetizable.

We saw this shift, it's happening in a lot of creative industries. We saw it with music - things moved to streaming, and you weren't making as much as you used to on a single song or album... But what a lot of artists did is they shifted from expecting to make everything from each individual song, and instead they said "I could leverage this music as almost a way of storytelling for the more lucrative parts of my business", which is merchandising, or concert ticket sales, those sorts of things. And you saw this with Chance the Rapper, he just gave music away. He was posting different things and he was using SoundCloud, and that accelerated his growth into a place where he could push more of that attention and audience into things that he was able to monetize.

So yeah, I think there's that shift that's happening, and I totally get it. If you've made money in one way for a long period of time, and then there's shifts or changes that are happening to that, you're looking at who are the people who are causing that to happen and where is this all going to go... And so we do look at that as that's a responsibility for us to figure out how does that shift towards the future, because we do have a platform that allows people to share photography openly.

[00:52:10.23] When you started this, did you think that what you did in 2013 as a side project would have such a huge impact, and then quite literally disrupt and change the photography industry, at least the way that licensing has happened with stock photography, for example? You made it free, it was open to everyone to contribute as well as use, and there were questions of whether this round of funding would say, "Okay, well now Unsplash turns into a Shutterstock 2.0", or whatever... Did you think that when you started that thing back in 2013 that this would be the effect?

No way. I think you could tell from the original way that we built the site – Tumblr, Google Sheets, public Dropbox links... Just that alone. You know, with a public Dropbox link technically you're not supposed to even have more than, I think, 50 to 100 people seeing that. That's not the intent. So that was sort of where my expectation was, and I thought it was just too early. At that time still the minimum resolution that we had for submitting photos on Unsplash could not be hit with mobile devices; you needed to have a high-quality camera to shoot the requirements that we had. Now, with your iPhone, you could 4x the minimum that we had at that time. It's pretty crazy to see all of the external things that lined up all at the same time.

I think Unsplash was almost even better off being part of another company where it could build up in the way that it did. It kept the quality really high, the community really strong, the ideals are really strong, and I think sometimes if you accelerate through those steps too fast, the foundation under the company isn't strong enough to withstand things that happen later. I look back at all of that and I actually think all of those, that perfect storm, was actually helpful to getting Unsplash to where it is now.

I love that first homepage. I was telling you in the pre-call that I've been a fan of Unsplash since the beginning. I can remember that original homepage, and I can remember you saying 10 new photos a week, and you actually delivered on that. That was pretty cool. They kept being really good.

I didn't have an exact use for them every single time, but I was always like, "Wow, okay, they keep adding to this library, so likely when I come back there might be something here for me and particularly if I have a use for it." I was always impressed with your minimalism, your humbleness, your focus and your ability to deliver on that original promise, which was great photos.

And then only with the shift towards phone these days - what a perfect storm, as you said, that now we have a professional camera pretty much in my pocket, your pocket... Anybody who can buy a smartphone these days is going to essentially 4x, as you said, the minimum resolution required to post to Unsplash. That's crazy.

What's the correlation to Instagram? Because I went back in my time in my research, I was thinking Unsplash in 2013, I remember my first post to Instagram was 2010 – October 12, 2010 actually... And I know that Instagram pre-dated 2010. I don't know how many more years before that it was. I think I was sort of early-ish towards using it, but it wasn't until a couple more years later that Instagram really became more and more popular. What's your parallel? Do you examine that?

[00:55:58.05] I think Instagram is a visual storytelling platform, and it does connect people in that way. It doesn't have that same utility side as Unsplash... So we look at photography in two ways - there's the entertainment side, and then there's the utility side, so actually being able to use the photo and make with it. What's happened with Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, as you were saying, through that 2010 to now phase, there's been a lot of progress that's been made around entertainment of photos. Now people are just pouring billions of dollars into figuring out how to make that more entertaining in that whole experience... But what's lacking is that other side, the utility of the photo.

What's happening is that it has grown at the same rate, but there hasn't been that same level of, "Let's move this forward and make it so much better for people to create with photos and then the people who are supporting that ecosystem of photography at the same time." So that's really where we sit. That's how we view photography, from an entertainment and a utility perspective. There's some similar feels to Instagram in a way we present photos and certain things like that, but that unique thing that we always have is that ability to download that photo and go and use it.

So we talked about disruption on the photographer side of things, but I'm curious on the business side of things... Maybe you can share some of this, maybe you can't, but I'm curious what happens to the Shutterstocks? What happens to their competitors? I'm not even sure who competes with Shutterstock, but maybe iStock is one of the things I think I've used in my past, Shutterstock... There's probably several more out there. What happens to them, to their model?

There was a big consolidation on all of those that happened about 5-10 years ago... The main two ones, Shutterstock and Getty Images now.

Getty... Yeah, that's another one.

Yeah. We're actually double the scale of both of them now. We're the size of Shutterstock and Getty combined, which is pretty crazy to think about.

I mean Getty is the incumbent, right? You look at anything out there in press, it's got "by Getty Images."

Right. I think when you look at photography, there's still different use cases, largely around some more corporate use cases where they've got the membership and those sorts of things around Shutterstock and Getty... But I think that the future is just moving so much more towards the digital use of photos.

When you look at where stock photography and the models around Shutterstock and Getty, and how to understand the usage of those photos - all of it came from print. How is the person who is making something for a presentation or writing a blog post supposed to necessarily know this exact size that they need, or how many people are going to see this blog post? Because that affects the licensing price.

So it doesn't really fit with where the usage of photography is going, and I think there's always going to be a subset of certain use cases. Getty has some interesting things because of the access to events... Like you were saying, they can get to the royal wedding, or they can do the Olympics, for example. Access is something that is a very useful thing when you're communicating through photography.

[01:00:05.09] But I think over time, I could imagine the ability for Unsplash photographers to have access to the Olympics. I can see this happening. These are the sorts of opportunities that we want to create for the everyday photographer who knows how to tell a good visual story.

That's interesting. That's probably the one missing component, it's definitely the access... Because the access is relationship-driven, sometimes it's invitational, sometimes, it's political... Not so much like in government politics, but who you know, for example, politics. That's not an easy thing to build. That takes time. That's not a microwave. That's low and slow roasting.

Yes, right. That depends–

Are you working on that kind of stuff now? When you said that, "I can see that happening," was that a hint towards the future, or is that a hope?

Yeah, that's to me down the future. It's something where you can leverage what you have. There will be more people -- there's already today more people seeing a photo on Unsplash than any other platform, including Instagram. So it really depends where the motivation lies of the event. If they're looking to make money directly off their photo, maybe they wouldn't choose Unsplash. But that depends on how lucrative that is, versus "If I could get this photo seen by every single person in the world multiple times, versus getting X dollars for it", that's going to be I think the trade off in the future, and that X dollars for it is decreasing.

So I see that fits with that model of the future of the world where that capturing of attention is one of the most useful things, and we see that in different places where people are giving photos on Unsplash. An example with Jeff Sheldon, if we go back to that - one of his newer products that he made that he did a Kickstarter project for, he had some of that product photography and he posted it on Unsplash.

I think Jeff's size is doing that same math. He's like, "I could try to charge for these photos, or do I want a thousand times more people to know about this product and then buy this product? That's probably worth way more, and then I'm gonna have a customer relationship long-term, versus this single-use for a decreasing amount of value that I could maybe get on charging for the photo."

Maybe even more particular with Jeff, who would buy them? If they are to market his new product, who's going to license that? I don't know... Maybe a small handful.

Yeah, and you see this... We know the distributions of what this looks like in stock photography. There's the top 1-2 percent who actually make the most, and then everybody else is making almost nothing.

The math that we did last year, it's about 600 bucks that you would make on a full collection of photos. So if you took every single photo you had and uploaded it on a stock photography site, the average is 600, and that's based on a normal distribution curve. That curve is actually skewed. Most likely you'll make 10 times less than that, unless you're a really good photographer.

So is the motivation to share on Unsplash - is it for notoriety then? What motivates somebody to contribute, specifically their photos, their creative work?

[01:04:00.01] Yeah, I think there's a core few sets of reasons that drive everybody. If we look at most things that we do, there's often a couple reasons that make up that why, and I think people have varying percentages of how that pie shakes out.

Someone who contributes a photo on Unsplash - it may be 20 percent they just want to actually just give to the project. You can tell that there are some people who don't put any link in their profile. Even their name is just their first name, so they're not trying to leverage the photo for anything. They're actually just trying to give to the platform. Their pie is probably the most altruistic. They probably have 90 percent "I just want to contribute to something bigger than myself."

And then you might have a 50/50 split from somebody else, where they said "I've gotten a lot of value from Unsplash. I download the photos, I use it a lot... My way of giving back is to now contribute to the site as well, and maybe I'll be able to drive a little bit of recognition for my other work." So they might be a 50/50 split. So that's roughly what it is.

There's probably a combination of recognition, of contributing something bigger to yourself, and then the third piece might be, "How can I turn this into a specific business objective?"

Well, I promised that we would come back to the impact of your API, because I think this is a big deal for you. I imagine that's the underpinning of most of the tech you're building upon, because you've got partnerships being built on this thing...

Somebody might hear API, "Okay, great, no big deal. Let's just code that up, and boom, it's there." This is a big deal. You've got to keep this thing up, you've got stability... I'm sure it's probably a part of your powering your search... This is a big deal to you. Can you describe to me how you knew this was a need, and then the first steps to understand the impact of this API would have for you in your future?

Yeah, the first step with the API was we just felt it would be useful. Unsplash.com covers single use of a photo. So I need a photo, I'm going to go grab one, two, three maybe. But what if I wanted to grab a thousand for something that I'm making? That's what sort of what we looked at at the API - how could we solve that use case for getting tons of photos for something that you might create?

Maybe you're building up puzzle game and you want to use an Unsplash photo, and be able to rotate those images, or maybe you need backgrounds for profiles, or maybe you even need to seed an app with some images before people start using your products, so there's actually something useful in there. Those were the use cases that we were looking at when we thought of how could we make that really easy for a developer to be able to make off of it? So it really just started from a perspective of usefulness.

And then over time, we realized how useful it actually was. When we moved off Tumblr and moved it to a custom site -- Unsplash now runs on our API as well, so it is the core, the beating heart of Unsplash. We have 500 API partners running on it now. Some of the biggest ones are Medium, Google Slides, Trello... And powering all the photography inside of those products. So yeah, it's a very unique way of distributing photos, and nobody's really done that because the licensing of Unsplash is so different. It allows us to put photography everywhere, and this fully lines up with our whole thing of how can we take a photo and make it be as impactful and more impactful than it's ever been in history.

[01:08:02.14] So Medium, Trello, all these different partners... Are these relationships where they're going back to what we talked earlier - are they part of a paying model, or is this free access to your API to use them just how they feel and it's around a larger distribution story?

Yeah, so it's free access, and what we require in our API guidelines is attribution back to the original photographers in Unsplash.

So if I went on Unsplash now and downloaded the photo no attributions required, but via the API there is attribution.

Yeah. We look at it as, if you're going to be displaying the Unsplash library en masse and using a technical way of getting them -- even unsplash.com... Essentially, under every photo we're giving credit as well. That's how we look at it. If you're pulling these en masse, there's a different exchange that we see happening there. The real value then, especially for not charging for it, is to make sure that we're giving that recognition.

Back to the earlier part of our conversation, I said what are some of the levers you're pulling? You said the main one is downloads.

So this is 100 percent focus on that goal for sure, because the resilience and the effectiveness of your API to -- for one, you have great quality images, and I'm sure there's something else that makes that happen, but if your API is sturdy, maybe these partners can easily download photos as they see fit for whatever the reasons are, and so long as you're following your guidelines, you're hitting your core metric, which is downloads.

Right.

What's the impact there?

In the last year, it's grown from being 10 percent of the total views and downloads, to almost 60 percent. During that same period, we've grown about 7x overall. So there's a huge amount of growth that has come through the API in the last year.

What's the burden? What's the team size for your API?

Two. [laughter] Okay... 60-ish percent of your displays are powered by two people, and you said you're a team of 17?

17, yeah.

Alright... They need to get paid more or something, I don't know... Because they're doing a lot of work -- no, I'm just kidding. It's a lot of work, and people underestimate the team required to actually make it work. You're doing it great with two, but clearly, you've seen the impact.

But there's a bunch of people -- I would say nearly everyone touches the API to some degree, but we've got the two people that you could basically consider them full-time on the API. But everyone's kind of part-time on the API.

Nice. Yeah, if it's becoming as important as it is, then I'm sure that it would -- everybody wears the same hat in this company. It's not like "That's not my job." It's everybody's job.

Right, exactly.

That kind of mentality... Cool. I knew that this API was a big deal to you, I just wasn't sure how much... So just reading from some stats on the site to give some credit here... You've got almost 948.7 million requests per month. Am I reading that right – 948.7 million requests per month?

Yes, that's right.

Moving on to the next stat, 568.3k free photos and 89.8k photographers.

That's a lot. So this is open to anyone? How do you get access to it? How does it work?

[01:11:41.25] The API is open. If you're doing something special with it, we just have an email on the API site... So unsplash.com/developers is where all that info is. Yeah, we keep it as open as possible, and then once you're scaling up, we figure out how we can help with either opening up that access even more, or trying to even do something together to share what you're working on.

And if I understand you correctly, you intend for this API to be free, unfettered access.

Yeah, it's totally free. It's open to use, and it fits totally with what we're trying to do and we want to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Cool. Mikael, is there anything on your horizon -- this is a question I didn't prep you for, but anything that people may not be aware of, or it's completely unknown? Something on the horizon you've got going on that you can announce here on the show?

I tend to over-share. I get really excited and I drop things on Twitter, so I don't know if I've dropped anything... Yeah, I think we've spoken about most of the stuff. We don't have anything necessarily…

No secrets?

Yeah. And it'll be up there on Twitter, if anything, probably before anything else.

Let me ask you in a different way then... What's the next big thing for you in the next month, that you can tease?

In the next month, we do have an interesting thing that's coming up... We're actually trying to solve the creative use of "not safe for work" content.

Oh, okay... Alright.

That's an interesting project. So obviously, we're doing certain things with safe search, but I think we've got a pretty unique creative take on another element to it that nobody's ever done.

Good luck with that.

Thank you. Yeah, you might hear the name. The name has a ring to it.

Are you going to say the name, or are you going to keep it?

Oh no, we'll keep that. You'll know the name.

Stay tuned... Alright, cool. Well, Mikael, I have nothing else. I loved going through your history. I know this call ran a little longer than I even expected to. I really wanted to cover a lot of stuff. The only thing that we didn't talk about that was on my list – and I at least want to link it up and give it a namedrop... It was Flip The Funnel, from the CEO and co-founder of MailChimp. I think that's pretty interesting, his perspective...

I discovered that as part of learning about you, what Ben shared about why he hates funnels and how you flip it; instead of saying, "Hey, you've got all your leads and you've got all the spend-the-heck-out-of-everybody kind of mentality, and then [unintelligible 01:14:39.26]" I'm sure that based on this conversation you took that to heart. There was even a Twitter stream that you shared, which we're already talking about... We'll spend two more minutes talking to this.

I'd like the point five, six and seven. You said "Instead of seeking to hire lots of new people, focus more on helping your current team be great." Two, "Instead of seeking out lots of superficial new relationships, focus on going deeper with the ones you already have", and point seven was "New and more isn't always better" -- I love this one, by the way. "It might seem easier to get a new one rather than work on the one you already have, but the best of anything is found at the deeper level."

Rather than trying to grow more and bigger and better, focus on what you got already. Focus on the customers you already have already, focus on the customers that love you... That to me really resonated with me, so I appreciate you sharing that sentiment from Ben. I had not known about his tiny letter, which I love, by the way... So I'm just earmarking that for me. So anything you want to share about that in closing?

[01:15:49.01] Yes. I think it's something that you can think through for everything that you're about to do. Reversing the funnel is so counter-intuitive to everything that we're taught to do. We're taught "Once you solve this problem, go on to something else." You go to the crying baby, instead of the one that's calm. But if you reverse that mentality, you're doing something totally different than what most of the world does.

Actually, most of the good stuff is sitting in there. Spending more and more time with your great customers than the ones that are always giving you trouble over the small things - that's sort of an example. What does that balance look like? Because you've seen this... Good people tend to hang out with other good people, and so if you're nice to the good people, the chances that you're going to get another good potential customer out of that increases.

And it's an interesting thing with a lot of things -- like, the one with seeking new relationships, I think you see this at networking events all the time. People will disregard you; they will literally shake your hand and you will be in there trying to have that conversation, and there will be a moment where they just turn away. They've sort of got this internal clock, "I see 200 people in this room. I need to meet all 200 of them. That gives me one minute per person."

Yeah, speed dating.

I don't think that way at all.

Speed business dating.

Exactly. I would rather meet one, two, three people in there, have a meaningful conversation, and then expand upon that over a lifetime... Because the superficial stuff, if you've got a bunch of those, then what are you to those people? They're just superficial back. That's where you see those things where people have a million Twitter followers, and 10 people like their thing, because there's nothing there. There's no depth or substance to it.

The subscribers doesn't match the views, so to speak. That's what I see on YouTube all the time, like "Hey, great, you've got 150,000 subscribers, but you get consistently two and a half to 10,000 views on your videos... Well, then you don't have 150,000 subscribers." That's a great easy answer back to that one.

Well, Mikael, thank you so much for sharing that Tweet stream - I'm going to link it up in the show notes to this - and even more so for exposing me to Ben Chestnut's TinyLetter. I'm not sure if he keeps it up, but I've subscribed. And this one in particular was from 2013... This is the beginning of Unsplash, so what a great time for him to share that.

Yeah, I think I look at it every year. I end up back on that post again.

It's a constant reminder for you.

Yeah, I can see that.

Well, thank you so much, Mikael. Thank you so much for what you're doing for the disruption of the liberation of photos and finding ways to sustain your business, finding ways to provide value to not only the creators, but the users... And I love what you're doing. I'm really glad having been a fan for so long, getting a chance to circle back, dig into what you've been up to, and then have this conversation with you. It's been a real honor. Thank you so much.

Thank you and the same for me, it's been an honor. Thank you.

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