Starting a business – learn from others

Instagram

18 months & 3 simple, not-so-simple steps to $1 billion…

Today, Instagram sold to Facebook for $1 billion. A week ago, when TIME asked Instagram founder, Kevin Systrom, if he would sell the company, he said “It’s not really on the top of our minds right now.”

Kevin is 27 years old and started Instagram 18 months ago with Mike Krieger, in October 2010. The company has grown with just 4 staff, and today has just 9 in the team. With the $1 billion deal that was announced today, was Kevin just plain lucky, or was there some simple steps that he (and others who have had the same luck) have in common?

Here’s three steps he followed. They may not guarantee you exactly the same success – but they will increase your own good fortune:

1. THING BIG FROM DAY ONE – THEN LEARN FROM OTHERS:

It was while Kevin was studying at Stanford 7 years ago that he had the idea of a photo-sharing site, from his passion for photography. That was before iPhones, and before Facebook. Step one is to cultivate your idea by learning from others. He met Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 and talked about his idea. Mark then offered him a job at Facebook, which had just launched (in hindsight, a cheaper option that the $1 billion he’s just paid to work with Kevin). Kevin turned him down but they stayed in touch. He went to intern at Odeo with Evan Williams, who sold Blogger and Jack Dorsey, who launched Twitter. This is where Kevin got to understand the power of social sharing. Kevin later said “Comparing Instagram to photography is like comparing Twitter to Microsoft Word”.

He then went on to work at Google. All in all, it was a full six years after having the idea of a photo sharing site that he worked with others leading the field: Getting paid for his own education before he launched his own start-up. As Kevin says, “I was given the opportunity to be in the middle of a ton of innovation, and meet some of the smartest people doing the coolest stuff in the world. When I finally did it [myself], it just felt so right.”

Who could you (and should you) be working with today to lay your own foundation?

2. KEEP 100% FOCUSED ON WHAT PROBLEM YOU’RE SOLVING – AND FAIL FIRST:

When Kevin launched Instagram in October 2010, he explained in his first blog what problems Instagram intended to solve. He listed the top three problems users were having:

“My mobile photos look lame.”
“It’s a pain to share to all my friends.”
“Photos take forever to upload.”

How would he know these were the problems? Just by talking to people? No, by getting it wrong the first time. In early 2010 he launched his first attempt “Burbn” as a location-based photo app, using Foursquare. It was a one-man-band, but after a year of hard work it had failed to catch on. It was, however, a failure that allowed him to learn from his users what would work, and to attract interest from like-minded people, including his future co-founder of Instagram, Mike Krieger.

By focusing on these three problems, Instagram launched in October 2010. Kevin relates the first moments of launch: “It was 12:15am, October 6th and we had been working on the app non-stop, day and night for 8 weeks. With a bit of hesitation, I clicked the button that launched “Instagram” live to the Apple app store. We figured we’d have at least 6 hours before anyone discovered the app so we could grab some shut-eye. No problem, we figured. Within a few minutes, they started pouring in… The night of sleep we were hoping for turned into a few meager hours before we rushed into the office to add capacity to the service. Now, only a couple months later, we’re happy to announce that our community consists of more than a million registered users.”

What problem are you solving, and what are you learning by failing, that is setting you up for your own overnight success?

3. CUT OUT ALL THE NOISE:

Kevin explains the difference between Instagram and Burbn: “We actually got an entire version of Burbn done as an iPhone app, but it felt cluttered, and overrun with features. It was really difficult to decide to start from scratch, but 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.”

Kevin cut out all the noise. He then launched Instagram just on the Apple App Store (It just came to Android last week) and focused on sharing on Twitter and Facebook (Three platforms that didn’t even exist when he first had the idea). That’s it: Photo, comment, like. No other platforms. No other noise.

Simpler means sharper means easier to cut through the noise. Instagram went from one million users by Dec 2010 to 30 million users today. In 2011, Apple named Instagram the “App of the Year”. Why would Facebook buy it now for $1 billion? Because Mark already knows it will add more value than that to Facebook when it has its upcoming $100 billion IPO.

If you are already thinking big, connecting smart and focused at the problems you are solving – How could you solve them in the fewest number of steps?

A BILLION DOLLAR STORY

It obviously takes more than three simple, not-so-simple steps to get the pieces lined up and timed right for the kind of 18 month run that Kevin has had. But these three show up again and again in today’s stories of hyper-growth, and the ones I will continue to share here on Facebook and at my Fast Forward events.

As an end to this chapter of the Instagram story, here’s how Kevin relates the beginning of his photo-sharing idea. It is at the heart of his journey, as your story should be at the heart of yours:

“When I studied abroad my teacher set what I do now in motion by saying, “Give me that camera of yours.” He took my camera away and gave me a little, plastic camera. I was studying in Florence at the time and he told me that I wasn’t allowed to use my camera for the rest of the class. I had to use this plastic camera with a terrible lens. He said I was too focused on sharpness and “I feel like you’re more artsy than that.””

“He said, “I want you to use this Holga,” this plastic camera with a plastic lens that had this cult following in the ’80s and ’90. I was blown away by what it could do to photos. My photography teacher was totally right. I was too focused on being meticulous with these really beautiful, complex architectural shots. It helps to see the world through a different lens and that’s what we wanted to do with Instagram. We wanted to give everyone the same feeling of discovering the world around you through a different lens.”

It’s ironic that as Instagram hits a $1 billion value, mimicking the feel of these disposable cameras, the biggest producer of them, Kodak, has filed for bankruptcy.

Each wave that crashes is followed by another. The only question is who is already positioning themselves to surf it. Are you up for the ride?

Starting a business – just a tweet away

Billion Dollar TweetHere’s a tweet Travis Kalanick sent in January 2010. The reply from Ryan Graves happened 3 minutes later. That tweet was worth over a billion dollars.

January 2010 was the month Travis was doing a test run with 3 cars in New York for a mobile app that he and his friend, Garrett Camp, had just created.

They had decided it was time to start a company around the app and, needing to find a General Manager to run it, Travis took to Craigslist and Twitter looking for the right person.

Ryan’s reply to Travis came as he was looking for something new. He had some experience at GE, and had worked for Foursquare for a while for free after the company turned him down for a job. He was ready for a new opportunity – and took a chance with this tweet.

Travis replied back, they met, they hit it off, and Ryan joined Travis and Garrett on March 1st as their first hire.

With their new company started, the three of them then invited all their friends to demo the product and they officially launched in San Francisco just 3 months later on May 31st.

That was five years ago.

This week, the team that started with that tweet has built their company, Uber, into a company that is currently valued at over $60 billion (they just announced another funding round of $2 billion this week http://bit.ly/ubers-next-2-billion).

Today, Travis and Ryan are worth over $6 billion, and that tweet from Ryan (who today is Uber’s Head of Global Operations) began a journey which has made him a billionaire today as well.

How are you using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Youtube today?

As a wall of content? As a broadcasting tool?

Or, like Travis and Ryan, as a way to find the resources, connections and opportunities you need when you need them?

Depending on how you use it, social media can make you feel apart from everyone, or one step to anyone.

It can overwhelm you, or empower you.

It can be a time waster, or a time saver.

“Never confuse motion with action.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

What do you need or who can you help today? It may just be a tweet away.

Of course, there is no promise that one connection or one tweet will result in you making a billion dollars or impacting a billion lives.

But there is no promise it won’t either.

Starting a business – Customers not products

User Experience vs Design

Best advice if you’re just starting or growing a business:

Focus at your customer more than your product. Get fixed on your customer experience, and your product will keep changing to serve them best. But fix your product, and customers will find a path that fits them, with or without you.

If you’re waiting on the street corner, wondering where all your customers are, this post is for you.

We’ve moved from the industrial age where it was all about the product and productization to the technological age where it’s all about the customer and customization.

Instead of focusing at product development and production lines (which we learned about and were a part of at school), focus at customer experiences and customization lines.

Your business doesn’t start when you have a product. It starts when you have a customer. So who is your perfect customer? Start from there and ask yourself (and them):

Problem – What’s the problem they need solved?
Promise – What’s the benefit you deliver to them by solving it?
Product – How will you solve it better than others?
Proof – Why should they trust you?

Keep upgrading your answers (and your products) regularly. Because what your customers need, their expectations and how they are being served will keep changing fast. And once you get into flow, you’ll begin to know what they need before them, and they’ll begin pre-buying your next product.

“Get closer than ever to your customer. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” ~ Steve Jobs

The easiest way to future proof your business is to have customers that love you. The easiest way to fail is to love your idea or product more than you love your customers. So find your soul-market and fall in love all over again.