I recently listened to an excellent podcast episode from NPR. It’s about how Instagram was built.
The story is remarkable. The founders of Instagram – Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger – launched the app in October 2010. In April 2012 – just one and a half years later – the service was acquired by Facebook for 1 billion dollars!
How could someone make a billion dollars in just a year and a half? It’s amazing.
I learned some success lessons from the story, and I’d like to share them with you. Here they are:
1. Make something people want.
Making something people want is the key to business success. This is something Paul Graham has written about for years. You can only succeed if people want what you have. If they don’t, nothing in the world can give you success in the long term.
In the case of Instagram, people want to share their life stories in a visual way. Instagram succeeds because it meets this desire very well.
2. Find untapped potential.
How do you make something people want? A good way is to find untapped potential, something that could be done but hasn’t been done yet.
For Instagram, the untapped potential was the power of cell phone cameras. In 2010, cell phone cameras had become good enough, comparable in quality to point-and-shoot cameras. But nobody up to that point had made it easy for people to share photos right from their cell phones. Other apps at that time required you to transfer photos to a computer first before uploading them.
The founders saw this untapped potential and decided to make the most of it. They made it easy for people to share photos right from their cell phones.
3. Meet emotional needs.
Finding untapped potential is important, but it’s not enough. For people to really want what you have, you need to meet their emotional needs.
Instagram did it well. First, it meets social needs. Instagram makes it easy for people to share photos with their friends.
Second, it meets self-esteem needs. A pivotal moment in the story was when one of the founders realized it wasn’t enough just to help people share photos; the photos have to make them feel good. So what did they do? They built filters right into the app so that users can polish their photos before sharing them.
With the app meeting users’ social and emotional needs, no wonder people love Instagram.
4. Act fast.
When the founders found the opportunity, they didn’t wait long. They didn’t think too much. Instead, they quickly built a prototype, showed it to some potential investors, and then built the real app. It took just a few months for the app to launch.
You should be aware of windows of opportunity. If you are late, the windows may close. So act fast.
5. Iterate to awesomeness.
Related to the previous lesson, don’t wait until everything is perfect before you start. Instead, get started soon and then iterate on it.
The founders launched the app even when their infrastructure wasn’t fully ready yet. As a result, their servers crashed every other hour in the beginning. But they learned the lessons, kept improving the app, and eventually made the app awesome.
Whatever it is you have in your mind, don’t wait too long. Launch early, and then iterate to awesomeness.
6. Have metrics.
While it’s good to act quickly, you should also know how you are doing. That requires you to have some metrics.
The founders had a collection of metrics that showed them how the company was doing. It covered different aspects of their business. As a result, when there was a problem, they could quickly know what was wrong and take action to fix it.
Similarly, you need to have metrics to show you how you are doing.
We can all learn from the story of Instagram. It’s a story of being prepared for opportunity and then capitalizing on it.
In fact, that’s what one of the founders said in the interview. He said that he believes everyone is lucky at one point or another in their lives. The question is how they capitalize on it. The problem with many people is that they can’t capitalize luck when it comes.
So get yourself ready, and make the most of your opportunities.