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10 secrets to Instagram’s success

Thursday, 12 April | By Michelle Hammond

feature-instagram-thumb-aIt’s fair to say Instagram has dominated news headlines this week, after being acquired by Facebook for an astounding $US1 billion.


With 30 million users on iOS alone, it’s easy to see why Facebook was so keen to get its hands on the photo-sharing app, despite the fact it is yet to generate revenue or turn a profit.


Based in San Francisco, Instagram was founded by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, both of whom are graduates of Stanford University and will now join the Facebook team.


It’s understood the $US1 billion is being paid out with a mixture of cash and stock.


Systrom owns 40% of Instagram, giving him $US400 million, while Krieger holds 10%, with a $US100 million downfall.


These figures aren’t bad for a company that’s only two-years-old, but they haven’t been achieved without hard work and creativity. Here are 10 secrets behind Instagram’s success.


1. Teach yourself tech


Systrom is one of a growing number of self-taught programmers, and his success highlights the value of learning to code.


Prior to Instagram, Systrom used his evenings to work on simple ideas that would help him learn how to program. One of these ideas was combining elements of Foursquare and Mafia Wars.


“I figured I could build a prototype of the idea in HTML5,” he said.


“At a party… [I met] two people from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. I showed [them] the prototype and we decided we’d meet up for coffee to talk about it.”


“After the first meeting, I decided to take the dive and leave my job… Within two weeks of leaving, I raised $500k from both Baseline and Andreessen Horowitz.”


2. Don’t be afraid to change


The Instagram service was not the original concept developed by Systrom, who, after graduating from Stanford, worked on Google’s Gmail and corporate development.


He spent his weekends building an app that allowed location-aware photo and note-sharing, dubbing it Burbn. That’s how Systrom met Krieger, who was an enthusiastic early Burbn user.


While the pair didn’t know each other, they had both participated in Stanford’s Mayfield Fellows program, which educates students in successful and failed start-ups.


In a brave move, Burbn was pared down to photos only and dubbed Instragram.


3. Play on emotions


Unlike a lot of tech start-ups, Instagram has created a platform built on emotion, namely nostalgia, which has a surprisingly powerful effect on consumer behaviour.


For example, there is an Instagram filter called “1977”, which gives pictures a square white border reminiscent of a Polaroid photo, and fades out the colours to suggest the photo has aged.


“[With Instagram], we are creating a kind of instant nostalgia for moments that never quite were,” Ian Crouch wrote in an article for The New Yorker.


4. Keep it light


Instagram is famously located in Twitter’s old headquarters in San Francisco’s South Park neighbourhood. However, it subleases its space from another company.


Instagram operates out of Twitter’s old conference room – the entire company is nothing more than a collection of desks in a room smaller than most garages, keeping costs to a minimum.


And with only 10 employees on board, questions have been raised as to why Instagram hasn’t gone out and hired more people, although Systrom insists “we only hire the best of the best”.


A small team also keeps Instagram from burning through cash. Fewer staff means fewer paychecks, which means less pressure on the company to generate revenue right away.


5. Look beyond your own backyard


While Instagram doesn’t actually make any money, it is not without commercial possibilities.


In addition to a growing and involved user base, the app is catching on with companies, including the Ann Taylor clothing chain, Urban Outfitters Inc. and fashion label Marc Jacobs.


All three of these companies have created Instagram accounts and actively use the service to promote their brands.


The app is also popular with celebrities and politicians, including US President Barack Obama, singer Justin Bieber, professional skateboarder Tony Hawk and rapper Snoop Dogg.


6. Prioritise service over new technology


More than a year ago, Systrom announced that Instragram was coming to Android, although it only became available last week. However, Systrom has explained why it took so long.


“We saw an opportunity to be really good at one thing, [which is the iOS app] and it turns out that helped us,” he said.


“It wasn’t because we felt like Android wasn’t an opportunity we wanted to go after… It’s more that we were three people trying to keep the site up.”


“Everything became a priority, and because everything became a priority we had to focus on what was most important, which was to keep the site going and make users really happy.”


7. Keep users engaged


While Instagram is notorious for taking its time with certain developments – namely its Android app – it also makes a point of surprising users with technology updates.


Last year, it introduced a complete upgrade to Instagram’s camera, with a brand-new technology layer. This included live filters, instant tilt-shift, high-resolution photos and one-click rotation.


But rather than throwing users in the deep end and expecting them to work out new features on their own, Instagram regularly offers users tips to ensure they get the most out of the application.


“Instagram Tips is a series that features Instagram-related pro-tips for both novice and expert users alike! Check out the Support Centre for more tips and help,” Instagram says on its site.


8. Hire a community evangelist


In August last year, Instragram added a fifth staff member to its ranks but, unlike previous hires, this one was not an engineer.


Jessica Stollman joined the team as a community evangelist. Zollman was already known to Instragram as a devoted fan – she chased down an invite to use the app during its beta stage.


According to Systrom, Zollman was hired to help manage and nurture all aspects of the company’s relationship with its fan base – a seemingly simple yet underrated job.


“[The role encompasses] everything from community outreach to holding events, to writing on our blog, to helping people with their technical support issues,” Systrom said.


9. Win awards – and lots of them


No start-up should underestimate the value of winning awards, particularly in the early days, when marketing budgets are non-existent and no one knows your name yet.


Instragram has an impressive number of awards under its belt, ensuring its validity not only among users but among prospective investors.


In January last year, Instragram was the runner-up for Best Mobile App at the 2010 TechCrunch Crunchies Awards, and was named Best Locally Made App in the SF Weekly Web Awards.


Then in December, Apple named Instagram App of the Year for 2011 – a major coup for the young company. Both Systrom and Krieger have also been featured in various publications.


10. Remain humble


Despite Instagram’s popularity, Systrom and Krieger have always remained humble, maintaining focus on the task at hand while being honest about their mistakes.


“Instagram is an app that only took eight weeks to build and ship, but was a product of over a year of work,” Systrom wrote in a blog post.


“We spent one week prototyping a version that focused solely on photos. It was pretty awful. So we went back to creating a native version of Burbn.”


“We actually got an entire version of Burbn done as an iPhone app, but it felt cluttered and overrun with features.”


“We went out on a limb and basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram.”