Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Instagram's Tips for Success

In this talk given by the founders of Instagram, co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger discuss what they say are the myths of entrepreneurship based on their personal experience in building and starting Instagram. With the recent acquisition of Instagram by Facebook for $1 Billion it seems maybe we should be taking notice of what they have to say.

Firstly something important to remember is that they didn't just create Instagram from nothing and turn it into a company valued at $1Bn over night. Their first venture was an app called Burbn, that allowed people to check in different places and then share pictures and video of what you were doing. They admit themselves it was a huge failure. But what is most significant is how it lead them through those mistakes to work on Instagram, with this acquired knowledge. They soon realized that what people liked most about their original idea was sharing images of what they were doing.

Here are the myths and lesson they feel they have learnt from their adventures.

1. You cannot learn entrepreneurship from and book, blog or talk.
A day on the job is worth a year of experience. It is important to learn how to make snap decisions in the face of uncertainty. Only experience can teach you to make better decisions. It is important to listen to what you know and what your instincts tell you. They suggest that you trust your gut, and chose your investments on those feelings. Then see those ideas and investments through to the end. It is a good idea to have many side projects that can be running at any one time to learn from. It is critical to do something you can feel passionate about, and are willing to invest the time in to get things done, expect long hours. Remember it is not about being a entrepreneur but about the end product and what you deliver to users that really matters.

2. Startups only come from computer science students.
Neither of the Instagram founders were computer science students. They taught themselves enough to get initial prototypes built, and get things rolling. They believe that having the mindset of not knowing the answers but spending time finding those answers is important. Questions such as "what do we need to keep people using our product?" and thinking about scaling is critical in the initial phases of setting up. Networking socially is helpful in finding the right people that can help you. Try and find cofounders that compliment your skill sets. Generalists are great for startup companies, the ability to wear many hats helps.

3. Finding the problem is the hardest part.
Finding solutions is far easier once the problem is well defined. Instagram spent time writing down the top 5 problems people had with mobile photos. Such as, bad quality pictures, uploading and sharing. Then they looked to see how they might solve those issues. Solving problems people actually have is far easier to work on than making up something from nothing. They set about addressing something as trivial as uploading by reducing the image size, and starting the upload while someone writes the caption. They set about delighting people with their application by making it seem easy and seamless. You should verify you are solving the problem people have, and the only real way to do that is get your product in people's hands for use and test your hypothesis. Many people wait to long to test and invest to much into unknowns. Don't be put off by having simple solutions to simple problems. You don't always need to solve huge problems, and sometimes the small problems at scale are hard enough and worth solving.

4. Stealth Start Ups don't give you feedback quickly enough.
In order to test the thing you are working on is working, you need to put it in front of people. Build the minimum viable product is a good thing to aim for. Don't build past what you need to build to answer the questions. Start everything as "what is V1 of this feature". Fail early and fail often, make failing as cheap as possible. You need to fail to find the right solution. You need to fail your way to success. It is notable that the Instagram guys gave their initial prototypes to people that had large twitter followings in certain communites. Especially the designer community and people that would have an interest in this type of iPhone app. This is something that Malcolm Gladwell talks to that helps spread an idea quickly. Finding those influential people that have many contacts and push over other people. They go on to say that although it proved successful, they still believe that the fact that the product was useful and usable were the most influential factors of why it became such a success.

5. Start a bidding war among VC's with a slick pitch deck.
Raise only what you need to get of the ground. Optimize for people not for valuation, if you have a great idea it will do well and it will most likely get a great valuation anyway. Seek out the people you want to work with, don't just hire people on their resumes. Raising VC, is like hiring people to be on your team, find people who believe in what you are doing. Do not assume you need a lot of money to get going, Instagram raised only $60k to launch their first version. Focus on the prototype and gaining traction do not waste time on a fancy pitch deck. Bringing a prototype into a meeting speaks louder than graphs predicting future earnings. Prototypes are tangible and something that people can understand and talk about.

6. Starting a company is the same as building a product. Starting a company is only 50% of the work you'll do, starting a company is also about bank accounts, building and managing a team, raising capital, paying taxes and getting insurance. The other stuff is a lot of work. As Jim Collins suggests in his book, bringing in the right team and having the right people on board can change a company from good to great, it applies in start ups as well. Building a company is not like building a product. Growing at the right stage is key to keeping at the right size at the right time, don't be larger than seems right at the beginning, without testing out the ideas first. You should work hard but not long, or else you will burn yourself out. Remove distractions, be productive. Always be aware and you find that work and life blends into one state of consciousness. Watching people use your product, using it yourself in the field, these are all part of the process.

7. Ideas don't hit you in the shower. Ideas are the result of a lot of iterations. Ideas in the social space are often combinations of other ideas. Allowing ideas to mix and fold with each other with an eye on the problem space, allows more useful solutions to come to mind. Sharing and discussing ideas is part of the process, also getting the ideas in front of people is critical to knowing if you have something they may want to use. The first idea is not going to be the last one, you will have many ideas. It is important to explore the solution space. Certain themes will follow you. You will find yourself attracted to certain problems and ideas. Teach yourself the skills that help you grow in that domain of knowledge, try out ideas and explore. It will not be an overnight success but will evolve over time, often years. Most companies are not overnight successes. Make sure you know what question are you answering. It never gets easier or less busy, it is a lifetime commitment, so make sure you love what you are doing. It is a good attitude to realize that things change and it helps to be excited by those challenges and alterations from the original course. It helps to think about smaller goals than the end goal. Look to the next hill not the destination.

As they say there is no better time to start than now, starting a company is a huge learning experience and you have nothing to loose in terms of knowledge. It is critical to have the hunger to build stuff and put it in front of people.

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