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Mar 4th, 2013 Share: Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn

Anatomy of a Startup — Instagram

A lot can be learned from those who came before us. Putting a startup under the microscope, slicing it open and carefully dissecting its innards can not only be entertaining but also highly informative.

With that in mind — let’s reverse engineer one of the most recent heatedly discussed startups: Instagram. Tons of people have discussed, mocked, applauded the sweet price tag Instagram fetched when it sold itself to Facebook. I don’t want to even try to argue for or against the price point (the market is what it is) but dig into the question what made Instagram so successful in the first place.

As a quick reminder: Instagram was not first to market (a theme which we will see repeat itself again and again in future startup anatomy posts). They did not invent those funky photo filters. And yet they outcompeted the, at the time, fairly well established competition such as Hipstamatic. I believe the three things which Instagram did which made them so successful were (and granted — there are a bunch of other factors involved; including that healthy dose of sheer luck):

(1) Instagram makes taking pictures easy. It’s normally hard to get a decent photo, especially with a cell phone. People don’t like to share stuff which looks crap. But by applying one of the Instagram filters pretty much any shot turns out to be a little piece of art. And Instagram puts this one feature front and center. It’s not hidden, something you apply optionally but essentially the only thing the app did. This makes you take pictures and share them in the first place.

(2) Instagram puts your photo front and center. When you click through to look at an Instagram photo there is nothing which detracts you. The only thing you, as a viewer, can do is to like the picture and leave a short comment. No “other pictures from this person”, no ads, no complicated sharing features, no overly strong Instagram branding. Your picture is front and center of the experience. This makes you share pictures enthusiastically.

(3) Instagram is free. Lower the barrier to trying something out to zero and there is no reason why I shouldn’t give it a shot. I see an awesome looking picture, beautifully presented on a webpage and easily shared on social networks using this new app called “Instagram”? Heck — I want that app too. This is how you grow exponentially.

There you have it: I believe Instagrams success is mostly due to the fact that they executed absolutely brilliantly around the notion of “take a picture, make it look awesome (both the picture and the way it looks when I share it) and make it trivially easy to share it — combined with a zero dollar barrier to entry.

Now think about your own startup: What is your Instagram-feature? Which feature is the main use case for your app? Is it front and center? Trivially easy to understand, simple to use and does it delight your user (both the person using your app and potentially people it touches outside of your app)?

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