Instagram’s Billion Dollar Idea Wasn’t Photos After All

I wasn’t alone in almost spilling my coffee mid-drink when I discovered Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion. Much has been covered on this, including talks of another bubble or irrational exuberance.   A billion?!  As a startup CEO, it’s sometimes hard to grasp how these types of platforms, which openly opine they are not concerned with making money can end up in such a successful outcome.

[So to all the investors out there, I guess we shouldn’t be focused on business models and making money, should we?  I digress…]

Yet the more I thought about the acquisition and the entire startup experience in general, a few lessons came to me that in hindsight are blindly obvious but bear repeating.  As founders, we tend to get lost in our vision.  We tend to over-think and over do our product to the point where our initial value proposition loses it’s inherent value to the market.

What do I mean?  Well, most likely you bloat your product with way too many features.  You also convolute your value proposition based on the latest moves of your competition.  You think if they jab right, you should jab right as well.  You then confuse your users as to why they should be using your product.  This is probably the main reason why your 15 month old startup is not fielding attractive acquisition offers.  It’s because there is no clear place in the market for your company so you just get lost in all the noise.

Instagram didn’t do that.  They kept it simple.  They kept is so simple that I had to write about it since I think most of us don’t realize how powerful a needle point actually is.  Needles cure disease, hoses don’t.

Here’s my view of how Instagram positioned their product for a massive acquisition from Facebook.  All startups, no matter what industry need to keep these principles top of mind if they want a positive business outcome.

Do One Thing World Class

Intagram has been referred to lately as a mobile social network, but in reality they are a much less than that since social networks just collect around specific things.  Instagram chose to focus on photos – and determined to do it world class.  They identified weakness in the current user experience of taking a picture with an iPhone and trying to share that with your friends.  They found the process was way too slow and cumbersome.  They realized the most important thing to people was how quick they could complete the process.  Optimizing how photos were uploaded sped up the process and greatly enhanced the user experience.  Instagram quickly became known as the fastest and easiest way to take and share mobile photos with your friends.

Interestingly, the precursor to Instagram was Burbn, which was what the founders built before changing to “Instagram.” Co-founder Kevin Systrom explains how they launched the service primarily as a checkin, social geo-location app full of hoards of features, on which users could quickly upload photos and share them with friends. (Heres a great interview on the background of Systrom and Instagram)

Burbn had attracted a core following of users, but was not exactly taking off. Upon further evaluation the founders noticed that photo uploading was the strongest and most used feature. Instantly, they cut all other features, kept with uploading photos and moved forward with the newly minted Instagram.

Systrom resisted being all things to all people and in the end sold his 15 month old company for $1 billion.  Think about that  for a second.  By removing most of his product and getting down to the essential, he drastically enhanced its value.

Do you have the stomach to gut your product down to the bare essentials in order to make it more attractive?   You need to find the needle.

Networks of Distribution

The success of any product or service greatly depends on people actually discovering it.  Instagram beautifully leveraged the major distribution networks of today – Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare – to quickly gain user traction.  Take a picture, instantly shoot it out to your friends and followers… People click on it, see Instagram and think “that’s cool, I need to use Instagram.”

You may be thinking this is obvious and being a technology blog most people should understand the concept of leveraging social channels.  Well, this is not about leveraging “social” channels, but rather about finding the appropriate networks of distribution for your specific product or service.  Too many businesses think they need a “viral strategy” when their user experience is far from viral.  Lost in the noise about Twitter and Facebook are all the other options your company may be missing.

Neil Patel does a great job of explaining how to co-brand with a leading brand, illustrating how Spotify jumped onto Facebook and instantly saw millions of new users.  He also says, “besides reaching a wider audience, co-branding your work will also propel your brand faster, double your strength, give you someone to lean on and adds credibility.”  Well said Neil.

What adjacent platforms or companies are sitting there waiting for a strategic partnership with your company?   Are there existing distribution networks already perfectly placed where your user experience will greatly benefit all parties involved?

Aimed Directly at Competition

Systrom and company did something amazing which seems to be overlooked by most startups: find a gaping hole in a major player’s armor and expose it right on their front lawn.  Facebook, being the largest social network and the primary place people connect and share photos with friends, was embarrassing lacking an adequate mobile solution.  They were pretty late to the mobile game and when they showed up, their mobile experience was flat out clunky.

Instagram was built from the ground up as a mobile platform, specifically around photo sharing.  They not only identified there was a hole in the market, but they filled it and shoved it right in the Face of Facebook showing them how much better Instagram was than Facebook at the mobile game.  Zuckerberg knew it the whole time and from what we can read about the situation the latest $50 million raise was the last straw.  He pulled the trigger and bought the company knowing Instagram was a growing problem for them.

Here’s the point:  Don’t go build “another similar product” copying the competition simply because you are lazy and they showed you the market wants what they are offering. The outcome is typically not very good.   Why not study the market, find the hole and then go do that specific thing?  Own that thing.  Be known for that thing.  And do that one thing world class.

Using Instagram as a perfect example, that’s the billion dollar idea.



One thought on “Instagram’s Billion Dollar Idea Wasn’t Photos After All

  1. I been waiting for a simple analysis of Instagrams rise to fame like this in keeping with their business model for a while. It’s so simple it hurts but truth is if you stay focused on what’s important you will be a success. I trying to do a start up at the moment and reading this made me erase half of my todo list.

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