Instagram & me: Love at first sight

Yesterday, sometime during the evening (at least in New York), Liz Gannes tweeted her post about Instagram and it reminded me how quickly I fell in love with the service. She and I had talked a lot about the service. My belief was that Instagram (or something like it) would emerge and become a big social platform.

Om says he bets that there’s an open opportunity to build a photo-sharing service that’s “designed from the ground up from the perspective of a mobile user” with “a more immersive, two-way service” as compared to the desktop.

She was referring to my previous post on Instagram when the company, Burbn, shifted focus to photos.

The company is right to focus on Instagram, which has potential – mostly because all of us love sharing pictures and congregating around visuals. The continued popularity of Flickr, the skyrocketing usage of Facebook Photos are ample indication that, despite so many options, there is an opportunity for yet-another-photo-sharing service — especially one that is designed from the ground up from the perspective of a mobile user. I feel many of today’s photo sharing services are desktop services re-cast for the mobile. Touch-based smartphones need a unique and more immersive, two-way service. Is Instagram the answer? We shall find out later this month.

Systrom wouldn’t give me early access to the app, but I saw it anyway. (Note to entrepreneurs: I know people, who know people.) Eventually I had it running on my phone, and as I said, it was love at first sight.
I have been writing for so long and have met so many startups in nearly two decades in the trenches of tech that I can see when companies are different. Most of my writing skews towards companies that make old-fashioned technologies — chips, routers, switches, infrastructure software, even lenses, optical modules and, of course, other broadband gear.
However, when it comes to consumer-oriented apps, it has to be love at first sight for it to be a success, both as a product and eventually as a company. Being a cynical optimist by nature, whenever I fall head over heels in love (no, not in the romantic sense) with a product, and the startup and the founder(s), I know that startup/product is going to be a winner.
I am old enough to know that startups are a game of chance and even when they look like a winner, things don’t always quite work out. Let’s just face it, till 2008 Facebook’s world domination wasn’t as obvious as it is today. But I am also foolish enough to follow my heart and decisions based on intuition, and for me that has proven to be a great filter to focus attention on a company.
Of course, there is another aspect to startups that crave your attention — the value proposition is almost instant. The founders don’t need to tell you why you should use their service. No FAQ is required to get started. They are simple and the product connects at a much deeper level. You can’t wait to use those products. You can’t stop talking (or writing) about them.
I remember standing outside Ruby Red Labs back in 2006, getting tipsy, smoking a cigarette and getting a demo of Twitter. Of course, a few hours later, in my slightly inebriated state, I wrote the post about Twitter. It was that same excitement I felt when I met with Larry and Sergey in the super early days of Google(s GOOG). The value-proposition: dead simple. And each time I used it there was a smile on my face.
I had the same feelings of unadulterated joy when I used WordPress for the first time and sent Matt Mullenweg, the founder of the project [who has become a great friend in years since (see disclosure)] an email. In my whole life I have regretted not attending Harvard or some Ivy League school precisely once: the day I saw Facebook and I couldn’t be on it. It was that long ago, and even then Zuckerberg didn’t respond to my emails. LOL!
Instagram was one of those services. You knew it, just couldn’t really explain why it made you feel the way it made you feel. I still can’t. I have tried — many times! I just can’t. That Kevin Systrom and his co-founder Mike Krieger turned out to be affable fellows was just a bonus. Here is one of my posts about Instagram that comes closest to describing the company accurately. It has three lessons co-founder Kevin Systrom has learned in his entrepreneurial journey:

  • Entrepreneurship is a process of conviction building.
  • We don’t do too many things; we do a few things and we do them really well.
  • We scratched our own itch and built products for us.

It is hard to imagine what comes next as an Instagram user. I am highly skeptical of Facebook’s comments about being hands-off with this product. It is only a matter of time before Kevin and Mike go on to head up Facebook’s mobile efforts that have been marked by false starts.
Someone mentioned on Twitter that Facebook now has one of the deepest pools of design talent on the web. What it doesn’t have is the philosophical understanding of design and its relationship with humans. It is a social network, whose product can be described as asocial (which is sort of like asexual.) Like I wrote yesterday, Instagram is all passion. And love. So, like many others I also do wonder how long before the Facebook philosophy starts to permeate Instagram.
Disclosure: True Ventures is an investor in Matt Mullenweg’s company, Automattic. True is an investor in GigaOM’s parent company and I am also a venture partner at True Ventures.