Mikael Cho

Founder of Crew/Unsplash

Featured photos by Crew.

What was once a small company struggling to keep the lights on, Crew has turned into a platform for some of the world’s most notable companies to connect with freelance talent. Over the past three years, businesses have trusted Mikael and his team to source freelancers for over $30M in projects. 

How was that transition pulled off? They figured out the greatest marketing tactic of all time: creating tremendous amounts of value. 

Mikael’s level of tenacity in his work, alongside the amount of value he and his team have collectively provided for the entrepreneurial community, all leave me introducing him with the utmost admiration. We had a great phone call, and it was an absolute honor learning from him. Here’s more from Mikael on creating valuable tools, the advantages of transparency, remote working, and what it takes to be a part of Crew.

Crew is always up to exciting things. Was this the first business you founded? 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.

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.

Unsplash: free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos.

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.)

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.

“that’s what all marketing is about: creating value for people.

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.

Crew has such a great team. Are you still hands-on with the hiring process? Yes, very much so. There was a point in time where we would receive an influx of expected applicants for Crew, so much so that we created a separate page now called workat.crew.co, that explains everything from how we work, why we work that way, our projects, and an introduction to the kind of people you’d be working with. There’s actually no email there, and we did that on purpose. 

What we’ve found, is that the people who tend to be the right fit for our team, will be resourceful and are able to find one of our personal emails to write a personal message to get our attention. Those are the kinds of people we look for, because that speaks to how they create work. They’re resourceful, they’re authentic, they speak to us like we’re people, and they know they have to do better than to write us a generic email to make it past the noise.

You guys share so much as a company. What are some advantages to being so transparent? So I actually published an article recently that was titled Authenticity vs Beauty, and it spoke a lot about why I believe there’s such a big shift in the way we’re all thinking, and how our trust in businesses has changed. With the internet and all the outlets people are now able to share on, we have access to so much information. That used to be rare, because back then, there were only the same 5 or 6 channels; we only had information that news channels wanted to show us. 

Now, there are so many voices, and so much has erupted over the years that trust levels we have as people have changed. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote in that article: “Trust is at an all-time low. As this 2013 USA Today poll suggests, two thirds of Americans polled said they were suspicious of others. This is double the rate of distrust since the survey was first done in 1972.”

With this in mind, I now think it’s really important to be open, and that vulnerability actually creates trust. We’ve all heard the same story play out far too many times, where a company that’s doing so well, is apparently providing so much value, and is two weeks later found to be committing fraud or has been doing something nobody knew about. The same thing happened with the mortgage crisis back in 2008, so people’s trust has been destroyed.

I think you have to value people’s perspective on how business is done and how they can interpret information, so I believe transparency in a company gives people the opportunity to see the good and the bad firsthand, and they can relate as real human beings who understand that life is not always great.

“you have to value people’s perspective on how business is done and how they interpret information.

I love that. Let’s talk about Collective & Café. I’ve heard you guys recently opened? Yes! We opened two months ago. We turned a part of our office into a public café as well as a co-working space. So far, it has exceeded our expectations by… A lot. When we started this, we thought we were going to give it at least six months before a good amount of people were gonna find out about the place. I told the team we would have to work in the actual café for a bit, so that people could find out we’re here. But within the first day, we actually ended up having to leave the café because so many people showed up. I can’t even really sit in the café because it’s so packed, but I’m really excited about its growth and the impact that it’s already had in the community. Being able to take part in celebrating Montreal, which is known to be one of the most creative cities in the world, and being located in what was once one of the original banks of Canada, has all just been really exciting.

Congratulations! You wrote in an article you wanted to turn this into the best place to work from in the world. Perhaps you could explain what differentiates a good workspace from a bad, or why we work the way we do in certain places? Great question! Let’s look at our senses: what we feel, what we hear, what we taste, what we smell, and how we’re postured. All of those senses are significantly impacting our work. I’ve written different articles and have experimented on myself over the years and have tried to figure out how I can create an optimal work environment. 

With our café, we could have chosen to double the amount of our seatings, but we chose not to. Part of the reason is that it’s important for people to switch and move. If you’re working any more than three or four hours, you need to incorporate a lot of movement into your day, because your brain works in cycles. Most people work in 90 minute cycles, so we really have to reset accordingly and take breaks from work. We’ve actually set up these spaces that are designed almost like spaceships in the café. Since we are set up in an old bank, we’ve turned the space where you’d used to stand and fill out your bank slips into standing space. We also have comfortable seatings, as well as private seatings for you to switch throughout your work day. It’s really important for you to alternate between spaces. We’ve given people all these different settings and now their brains are constantly looking at something new and the entire place is set up to be very comfortable. All chairs are angled at 125-130 degrees, which when you’re sitting, is one of the most optimal positions for your posture to prevent lower back pain. We really do pay attention to every detail.

Ultimately, I really do believe the design of workplaces should be functioning a lot like athletic games, and hope that some day it happens. If you look into professional sports teams, you’ll understand they pay a lot of attention to psychology. I’ve read a bunch on the Golden State Warriors basketball team, and have found they have all these data scientists who figure out the optimal times for players to be flying, based on when their next game is. Everyone’s thinking about recovery workouts and other things, but I think going to that extreme could have a much better impact on performance. All in all, we all should really treat our bodies with care if we want to get the most out of our work. 

Even when it comes to food, there are specific things we’ve payed attention to in the café. We’ve started serving this salmon-avocado dish that’s made with all natural ingredients. That avocado will start your day with all your essential healthy fats, accelerate your brain, block off some of the hunger that distracts you from your work, and keep you sustained for a long period of time. The salmon will also provide you with those essential fats, as well as a good amount of protein. These are very specific things that we’ve put on our menu to help fuel creativity and create the best possible work environment for people.

“we all should really treat our bodies with care if we want to get the most out of our work.

I understand Crew has a few of its team members working remotely. How much of your team is remote? We’re a team of 40, and about a third of our team is remote. 

Remote is really interesting to me. It’s another small challenge we face because a lot of our team just happens to be in Montreal. The company was started here, so by nature, we do share a lot with this community. A lot of local people know about Crew at this point so we do get a bit of higher volume of interest in Montreal. And it does get challenging trying to balance our remote and home teammates.

A lot of companies actually have said it’s either one or the other, that you have to be fully remote or have everyone in house. But we still try. Even though we have a space, we treat it very much so as if it was just another cafe in our neighborhood. I don’t look it as an office that our team is forced to go into. Before our office space opened, a lot of us were already working from home, so our company was already built with remote in place.

How does the initial process of welcoming remote members on board work? Do you provide a workspace for them? So we cover a percentage if teammates want to work from home or a second workplace; we’ll cover a certain amount a month, as well as provide hardware if they want to get a space. 

We do a 45-60 day trial period for initial remote members, just so we can make sure they are a good fit. 

I’m sure a lot of trust has to go into team members working remotely. How have you found it best to identify whether a person is on top of their work or if they’re slacking? That’s a great question. It’s actually very hard to figure that out upfront, with either remote or in-house members. But that’s another reason why we have the 45 day trial period. Let’s say you wanted someone on your team because on paper, they sound great, and they come from the greatest companies such as Google or Facebook – it’s still very difficult to really know how well they perform until you’ve had them on as a teammate. It’s hard because you don’t know what specific projects they worked on at those previous companies, what kind of people they worked with, and all those dynamics you can’t see on a résumé. Their experiences might even be outdated. Those experiences could have taken place five or ten years ago. Philosophies can change even within two years. It’s hard to know this much about someone upfront, even with in-house members, so we test everyone.

“Philosophies can change even within two years.

As a founder, what do your roles look like now, as compared to what they did when you first launched? In the beginning, it was a lot of hands on making, doing, and creating in mostly every area. Sales, marketing, product development. Although I still touch up on a lot of those areas, I now see myself as more of an editor versus someone who goes 100% into everything. I would say my role in creating has been reduced to 10%. Our team definitely has grown. We’ve brought in people who are great at handling projects, and I work directly with them to bring those projects to the level they need to be. 

It has been a big shift. Some of the challenges I face now are making sure that I actually have the brainpower to take on a new project, switch to a new project, and switch between so many things to give input on. Sometimes there are so many different tasks at hand that my brain actually procrastinates by doing more work – just different types of work that I know aren’t at the top of my priorities. So I have to remind myself often that the biggest impact I can have is giving input in a project and not diving all the way in, because the best way to grow as a company is to give our teammates the power to make a lot of the decisions, and I’m there to help make suggestions.

“the best way to grow as a company is to give our teammates the power to make a lot of the decisions

At the beginning of this year, you published an article saying you never wrote down Crew’s company values. I’d love to learn more about this. We see it so often, but when companies try to solve their value and culture problems, they’ll write their “values” on the company walls in hopes of their employees looking at them. The truth is, nobody looks at that stuff. They’ve seen those same values posted on other walls far too many times. 

What happens if your company changes? More importantly, what happens when you grow and evolve? Those values are not only now irrelevant, they make you feel obligated to stick to them. I think if you are going to write down values to pass along your team, write down “continual learning” as one of them. Make it clear that your company has the right to evolve. 

You can’t make sensible business decisions based on a cheesy poster on the wall. When I’m running back and forth between 20 projects a day, I have to make my decisions based on what I believe is going to push us forward – that’s the reinforcement. Not what my company wrote down as its “values” five years ago. 

The same principle even applies to starting a new company. You can take all these business classes and read all the best books in the world, but until you’re actually in business, you won’t really understand how to flip priorities or make decisions for the survival of your business. It’s a completely different world.

“Make it clear that your company has the right to evolve.

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