Entrepreneurs: Instagram is the 1%. Continue to innovate, continue to disrupt.

It is natural for tech journalists to seek ‘what’s next’; it scratches our itch for compelling stories and sells papers. Following Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for the reasonable sum of ONE BILLION DOLLARS, I was not surprised by the resulting pivot in attention towards ‘the next Instagram’. However, I am very concerned that the perceived meaning of Instagram’s success will unfavourably shape attitudes towards the current crop of startups, as well as the minds of the next generation of entrepreneurs.

It was reported yesterday that Path has raised a $40M funding round at a valuation of $250M. Now, any funding round coming shortly after ‘Instagram Day’, especially one at a valuation half that of Instagram’s prior to its acquisition, is asking to be placed in sharp contrast. However, the “Path is no Instagram” chatter across the Interwebs today have me concerned. Well no shit, Path isn’t Instagram. Why would we ever think that is the case?

To be fair, much of Om Malik’s article (linked above) focuses on Path’s forthcoming challenges to mainstream acceptance, and UNTETHER agrees with many of his points. But comparing Path to Instagram in this way, even as a tasty angle into a more pointed discussion, is potentially damaging. Om’s defence of Path in comparison to Instagram is tricky, because it’s accepting the conceit that the two can be placed side by side in the first place. Photo-filters aside, Path is a very different application than Instagram, with different aims and potential. Hell, Path isn’t even trying to be Facebook, so let’s please judge it accordingly on its own merits.

This is a courtesy that tech journalists should extend to any and all startups in the post-Facetagram world. Using Instagram as a watermark for anything other than Facebook’s willingness to spend big on a product it needed to own sets a false condition for success that cannot be met. Instagram is part of the 1% of startups that win big – the outlier, not the model (looking at you, Dan Ramsden). There is a reason why bottled lightning isn’t sold next to the energy drinks at your corner store.

If mobile startups are going to be judged on their ability to match Instagram’s crazy growth and valuation, I fear it will change the types of companies entrepreneurs try to build. There will always be a certain percentage of startups ‘built to exit’, but I’m afraid we will see a wave of products built to be sold as Google, Twitter, Apple and VC’s scramble to find their Instagram. I shudder at the number of ‘Instagram for X’ elevator pitches happening around the world right now. The mobile industry doesn’t need more ‘X for Y’ type companies – it needs fresh blood, game changers, must-haves and can’t-live-withouts.

Entrepreneurs: pay no attention to the circus around you. That way leads to madness. Continue to innovate, continue to disrupt, and focus on the product or company you’ve always wanted to build, not the one you think you have to build. With a great idea and even better execution, the rest will take care of itself (kind of like with Instagram).

Tech journalists: evaluate startups for what they are instead of something they’re not. Otherwise, you’re hurting companies that are different, and incentivizing imitation, not innovation.

About the author

Douglas Soltys

Douglas is the former Editor-In-Chief of Inside BlackBerry, BlackBerry Cool, and QuicklyBored, which he launched as a mobile gaming industry site. His knowledge of mobile and social media led him to a job at RIM (BlackBerry), where he got to travel the world and do lots of cool things. He is often left-handed, but rarely sinister.

  • Well said Douglas. Entrepreneurs shouldn’t temper their enthusiasm for what they are doing, just don’t reframe it to better suit the trend. That will surely lead to a quick death.

  • If when Instagram started up, they decided they wanted to be the “Flickr for mobile” since Flickr was bought out, would you have said that’s dumb do something innovative? When Playdom and Playfish started and they wanted to build the next Farmville, would you say that’s not a good idea? Sometimes the success of the outlier startups can spur new innovative derivations of those ideas and methods. Are you less likely to succeed by being the “X of Y” than you are being Z and trying to explain what Z is? Your odds relative to the differences in those comparisons are probably the same. The team, execution and viability of your idea is more important than worrying about being the “X of Y” — especially if you can get funding by saying your the “X of Y” and then execute on your grand plan.

    Now is the time to take advantage of any potential over-enthusiastic investors that give you a higher valuation than you’re worth because they see you as the “next Instragram”.

  • I get that there is a useful shorthand in “X for Y” even if it is for investors to understand the intent of your product to get funding. I definitely agree that your team, execution and idea the most important things, and that’s partly my point.

    Instagram could be described as ‘Flickr for mobile’ but that is highly reductive and inaccurate. Instagram is MUCH BETTER than Flicker for mobile – it surpassed the ‘X for Y’ comparison. If they had actually set out to make Flicker for mobile, we’d all enjoy the app far less.

    So by all means, take a concept, and implement it in a new way, or to disrupt an awaiting vertical. But don’t just try to replicate Instagram, Flicker, or whomever.

    I tried to read your last comment but someone kept shouting BUBBLE in my ear and I couldn’t finish.

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