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Creating Space For Your Mind With Mikael Cho

Co-founder & CEO of Unsplash | Montreal, Canada

Mikael Cho is a prolific entrepreneur and the CEO of Unsplash, named by Forbes as one of the world’s leading and most active photo sharing sites. 

Mikael believes that his self is best defined as “under construction” – that he (and perhaps all of us) have a core identity which is constantly in progress, constantly learning, and constantly curious. When Mikael started Unsplash, about five years ago, he had the impetus to, or rather, the opportunity to finally tap into his mindset – to truly question why he does what he does. You’ll find out that now, with all hands on deck, Mikael and by extension, the Unsplash purpose, is strongly defined. 

Coming from an educational background in psychology, Mikael relates starting a business to one big human psychology experiment; an almost perfect parallel against the basic methodologies in business. When constructing his vision and choosing which best practices to implement, Mikael didn’t only look at the success stories out there. He tapped into the very human basis of his team and his customers, took ownership himself, and went from there.

Unsplash is what Mikael calls a “Wikipedia for photos”; a beautiful collection of images that people can use and create with. Mikael started his career by working at a design agency where he immediately encountered issues deriving elements to create with; in particular, images to create with. Effective stock photos were hard to come by and creative licensing fees could be up to thousands of dollars. 

After doing their own photo shoots, Mikael decided, on a whim, put up the photos that his professional team took to share with the public domain. The first iteration took 3 hours; subsequently, they would put up 10 photos every 10 days, and they called it Unsplash. The domain they purchased cost less then $10, they went into 1st place on Hacker news on day one, and it’s been a rocket ship since. 

Last year, Unsplash was spun out and Mikael dedicated himself full time to it. The team now has 6 billion photo requests a month, with a 500,000+ (and growing) image library at present – and remember, they started with only 10 photos. 

They’ve also developed an Unsplash Chrome Extension, Mac Desktop App, iOS App and thousands of third party integrations to make great photography accessible to the world. This is all an extension of a project Mikael has created because he wants to push the positive impact of photography as far as possible; he wants people to be able to enjoy the creativity of artists, the world afar. 

How does Mikael and his team pace themselves:


“We’ve added multiple pauses throughout the year”


Defining Breaks

Mikael and his team work on a 6 week roadmap, then they take a week to pause and reflect upon that previous period’s progress. 

Seeing checkmarks and items crossed off a list, in Mikael’s words, can be fantastic for a team’s mentality and for their spirits. 

The feeling of being able to cross tasks off, during these regular sessions, and also and to go from there. 

Looking at the business based on a 3 month reflection and yearly recap also allows the team to focus on the long term, providing a counterweight to the day-day. 


“Feels like a pitstop, like when you’re going around a racetrack”



The approach is to move from discovery, ideation and then execution. During the first week, Mikael and his team re-centers. They ask why they are focusing on their current priorities and then filter through.

Everyone contributes during this progress. They write into a common, shared document. They dissect, debate, and discern priorities as a result, through ample, week long conversation. 

People are able to take the time to truly align themselves with team priorities, then as a team, extending into early days of the second week, achieve that forward momentum needed to be successful. 


“You may be doing the right thing, but it’s just to get certain…when you get certain, it’s just a whole different feeling”


Taking the Reins 

If you ever find yourself on autopilot, mindlessly typing into a document, inputting into a process, then you should question if whatever you are doing, whatever you think you’re “focused” on, is really what you should be focused on. 

You must aim to establish certainty, to ground yourself, mentally, in a task and your role in executing that task. 

If you establish certainty then when you move into the execution stage, you can be clear minded and posed. 

Individuals as part of a team, independently doing this is important. But so is creating and maintaining a team environment that promotes open, honest discussion and discourse, which is dynamic and has the conversation move along as the tasks move along – this is exactly the space Mikael has established.


Mikael’s Questions for Kyō:

  1. What do I feel is the purpose of life?
  2. How do I achieve my purpose?
  3. In 10 years what does a successful life looks like?


For the FULL conversation and more insights into Mikael’s mental fitness routines, have a listen to the PODCAST!


Photo by Mikael Cho on Unsplash

Music: Waves – Joakim Karud

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