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Instagram's Origins & Insights
How Instagram took off in the mobile photo-sharing market
I first downloaded Instagram in early 2011 when a grad school friend of mine told me to check out a classmate’s profile. Facebook was the dominant social network at the time, but to me it felt like a high school reunion that lasted an hour too long. Instagram reminded me of what it felt like when I first got Facebook after a half-decade of using Myspace. It was more exclusive, the photos were more interesting, and the people were more relevant. In hindsight, I was exactly the kind of user Instagram was designed to attract.
Instagram was borne out of a classic startup pivot. The founders — twenty-something Stanford alums Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — had been working on a check-in app called Burbn that helped people see where their friends were hanging out. Burbn had a feature that let people attach photos to check-ins, but its main focus was checking-in. Once Kevin and Mike realized their community wasn’t growing fast enough to support a business, they decided to pivot: instead of focusing on check-ins, they’d focus on photos.
When they told the Burbn community about the pivot, many refused to go along with it. They didn’t want another photo app, they wanted check-ins. Despite the blowback, Kevin and Mike had conviction and decided to move forward with the pivot.
The Mobile Photo-Sharing Market
The conditions they saw in the mobile photo-sharing market in 2010 weren’t much different than what someone building a new photo-sharing app might see today. The market was saturated with new apps and dominant incumbents — even at the time Apple and Facebook had a vice-grip that seemed impenetrable. Friends and family questioned their decision; after all, who really wanted another photo-sharing app?
But Kevin and Mike had tried every competing product and knew that people had problems they could solve. They chose to focus on 3 specific problems in the market and build their community around people who cared most about those problems.
Problem 1 — Slow upload times
Mobile networks were much slower in 2010 than they are today, so photo files took a long time to upload. People also liked uploading many photos at once to their albums online, so the slow pace of upload caused people to just wait until they were in front of a computer.
Instagram’s solution was two-fold:
Target people sharing single photos in-the-moment instead of albums after-the-fact; and
Start the upload as soon as users selected photos instead of waiting until after editing.
This strategy opened up a base of travelers and socialites who didn’t have great options for sharing photos widely while on-the-go.
Problem 2 — Poor picture quality
Again due to the limitations of mobile networks, photos often got degraded during upload and left them looking worse for wear. Kevin and Mike developed a few beautiful filters that obscured imperfections and applied their iconic square formatting so people would know where the photos came from. Unlike unedited mobile photos, Instagram photos looked distinctly like the Polaroids that had transformed a previous era of photography.
Inside the app there was no backdoor around filters: users had to consider filtering their photos to share them. By branding Instagram photos beautifully and making them accessible, Kevin and Mike opened filtered photos to a much wider audience on the Internet than the passionate early-adopters who used them at the time.
Problem 3 — Sharing cross-platform
As remains true today, iPhone users in 2010 had many different platforms where they could share photos. The platforms were different (Tumblr, anyone?), but the problem remained that it was tedious to switch between apps when sharing photos. Kevin and Mike reasoned that they could get users who wanted to share faster by helping them post their photos to other platforms all at once. In a 2016 interview, Kevin compared this part of their strategy to the Lord of the Rings (“One ring to rule them all”); in his eyes, Instagram would be one photo app that shared to all.
Armed with solutions to 3 pain points, Kevin and Mike still needed to solve the cold start problem. No one would care about sharing on Instagram unless it had people and photos worth looking at. They knew some Burbn users would make the leap, but many more would not. This was a bet-the-company decision. Who would be the anchors of their new community?
They started their beta by emailing 100 creative professionals — primarily web designers, photographers, and their friends. The choice was crucial because they needed people who already had tasteful audiences. If they could convince a handful of creatives that Instagram was worth adding to their toolkit, they could also convince hobbyists and casual observers to join as well. The strategy worked like a charm. Hoping for 10,000 users within the first month, Instagram attracted 25,000 users on its first day.
Insight 1 — Scale doesn’t matter early on
The first insight from Instagram’s origins is a counterintuitive point about scale. Founders of social apps usually spend too much time worrying about how to get massive numbers of users. Some of this is downward pressure from investors who want evidence of network effects, some of it is their own intuition about what product-market fit looks like for social apps. Instagram showed that people don't get their sense of community from scale, they get it from regular interactions with a relatively small number of people. They didn’t start with billions of users, they started with 100 creative professionals. From there, they segmented their audience further and came up with solutions for segments of their user base. They didn’t focus on being massive until they were already there. If it were true that social apps need scale to get off the ground, none of the giants would exist.
Insight 2 — Antisocial actions can work
The next insight from Instagram’s success is that successful social actions are often quite antisocial. Imagine a teenager sitting alone in a car editing a photo they just took. That’s probably not a scene any of us would think of when describing the most “social” people we know, but it was one of Instagram’s primary drivers of social growth. There's not much fundamentally social (in the sense of forming deep, lasting connections) about posting filtered photos of yourself, recording videos of yourself lip-syncing and dancing to songs, or writing pithy faux-intellectual messages. And yet these behaviors each form the basis of giant communities online. Many of the app-based communities that we're familiar with promote similarly antisocial behaviors. We’re willing to stomach antisocial activities because we want convenient connections, not because we want the underlying social action.
Insight 3 — Young users are more social
The third insight from Instagram’s success is about targeting. Instagram took off with a relatively young base of users. The same was true for Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, and host of other social apps. Younger audiences tend to have a lot more time on their hands to worry about their social lives and experiment with behaviors that aren't naturally appealing to adults with full-time jobs and children to care for. Starting with a younger audience actually helps social apps attract busy late-adopters because it gives them a different vector for evaluating the social behavior. Instead of wondering why they should bother with another app doing another thing they’re unfamiliar with, they wonder what the crowd of kids is looking at. The late-adopters are like drivers who slow down when they see an accident surrounded by first responders on the other side of the highway.
Insight 4 — Don’t be afraid to pivot
The fourth insight is about the importance of bold iteration. Kevin and Mike could’ve done what many other overly optimistic founders do and held onto the belief that Burbn would unseat Foursquare. Given Burbn’s base of users and VC funding, no one would’ve held it against them if they had continued to iterate on check-ins. But instead, they decided to scrap most of their product to run a new experiment. Their experimentation wasn’t random though, they pivoted towards their most compelling use case and they were willing to fire users to run a good test. Milquetoast pivots rarely work in early stage social apps. Had Kevin and Mike been unwilling to take bold action, they’d likely have become an acquihire or ended up in the graveyard along with most of the other check-in apps of the era.
Insight 5 — Hardware updates open new doors
The fifth insight has to do with timing. Instagram launched months after the iPhone 4 came out with a high-resolution screen, a powerful rear-facing camera, and its first first front-facing camera. These features greatly expanded the utility of mobile photos by making them prettier and empowering users to take selfies. Just as people began to realize they could take near professional quality photos with their iPhones, Instagram came along and gave them a killer use case. As the number of iPhones grew, so grew Instagram as the default broadcasting service for iPhone photos. There’s a lot of luck in choosing the right time to launch a new app, but new development platforms generally provide better growth opportunities for small developers than legacy platforms — especially in social media.