4 Ways Instagram Hacked Early Growth

As an early user of instagram back in October of 2010, I have gotten to witness the fast rise of instagram from a nascent network of technology savvy photographers to a mass-consumer global phenomenon. What follows is my own personal take on the key product decisions that drove instagram’s early growth and helped catapult it to the number #1 mobile photo sharing app in record time.

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1. Public by default – Instagram smartly chose very early on to have the default privacy state of user’s photos as public. This was a bold move at the time, considering that up until this point, most mobile photo apps did not surface photos to other users by default without explicitly asking for permission to do so. With this move, instagram allowed people to discover other people through their photos in the popular section, which was the main means of distribution and source of followers in the early days of the service.

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2. Asymetric follow model – While they weren’t the first ones to use this model, and while it was obviously the right move in hindsight, modeling their follower model after twitter instead of after facebook was a key move by instagram to speed up the acceleration of growth of each users network, by allowing them to follow and be followed by people they might not know offline.

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3. Using speed as a weapon – A key, but often overlooked driver of instagram’s early success and growth was in large part driven by the speed of the service, both real, and perceived. By using techniques like Loading Content Based On Importance, Not Order, Always ‘Pretending to work’ and Anticipating The User’s Every Move, Instagram was able to create a pleasurably quick experience around uploading and viewing photos that was far ahead of other competitors at the time.

Recently Instagram’s co-founder Mike Krieger lifted the curtain on three of their backend (and UI) tricks that give the Instagram user a feeling of responsiveness.

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4. Cross-network posting – By deciding to play nice with other services like twitter and facebook, instagram was able to leverage the distribution of some very large existing platforms to help accelerate the growth of its service in the early days.

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Perception vs Reality: How these 5 Startups are really growing

In many tech startups there often exist two different stories for how a company has gained it’s hard fought success. There is the story that gets told in the news media and distributed on sites like hackernews and techmeme, and then there is the un-told story that underlies the reality of how the company is actually growing.

Here are some examples of these two different stories:

Perception Reality
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Collaborative consumption is driving new demand for previously un-used supply.
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Land-lords are using airbnb as a channel to market their under-utilized or vacant rental properties. Source.
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A democratizing force of good for the world where everyday people are given a global voice.
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A navel-gazing wasteland of internet pundits and pseudo celebrities where fake accounts drive a large percentage of traffic. Source
YouSendit imgres


Yousendit is popularly known as file hosting business for all types of business’s to swap large files with each other.
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What they don’t tell you in the press is that the service is used by pirates and pornographers to distribute illegal content.
Justin.tv, Ustream imgres-2

The popular myth behind startups Justin.tv and Ustream was that they were riding the wave of a new live broadcast revolution powered by UGC.
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The reality was that both sites turned a blind eye early on to pirated content that was being live broadcast around the world, fueling growth in visitors seeking this content. Source.
Scribd scribd

Scribd launched publicly as a ‘youtube for documents’ and a way for author’s to self-publish their work, democratizing the publishing business.
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The reality paints a different picture, of pirated content driving the lion’s share of pageviews, while other original content is left in the dust. Source.

5 Great Startups that Hacked Early Growth

1. Facebook

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a fundamental understanding of your product – and specifically what the key reasons people use it are. its amazing to me how confused many people are about this and unable to really discern motivations and root causes from byproducts and outcomes. knowing true product value allows you to design the experiments necessary so that you can really isolate cause and effect. as an example, at facebook, one thing we were able to determine early on was a key link between the number of friends you had in a given time and likelihood to churn. knowing this allowed us to do a lot to get new users to their “a-ha” moment quickly. obviously, however, this required us to know what the “a-ha” moment was with a fair amount of certainty in the first place.

– Chamath Palihapitiya

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Why developers should learn how to sell

Much has been written about Why marketing and bd professionals should learn to code. As everyone knows by now, Growth Hacker is the new VP Marketing. If you aren’t learning to code, you are going to get left behind.

Not so fast.

On the other side of the argument there are those imploring you to “Please don’t learn to code”.

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While the debate rages on without an end in sight, there is a much subtler point that is being overlooked in all of this.

Cue dramatic pause for effect.

Once basic coding skills become common place amongst traditionally non-technical disciplines, what are people who’s primary role is coding going to do?

Of course, there will always be a need for talented programmers, but those who got by on simply being a ‘coder’ and not having any other talent or skill are going to be left in the dust.

In fact, all hope is not lost for these coders. Look at the list of founder’s of large internet companies who like Instagrams CEO, who had no formal programming training, and the list is fairly short.

Contrast this with the ever-expanding list of coding luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin & Larry Page and Bill Gates, just to name a few. All of these formally trained engineers were forced to learn the nuances of product, sales, business development and marketing out of necessity and ended up being good enough at each of them.

So the next time that one of your non-coding friends in sales asks you wether or not they should learn to code, instead of encouraging them one way or the other, simply give tell them that you will help them learn to code, as long as they help you learn to sell.

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Pinterest Growth Hacks: How did it grow so fast?

Growth Hack #1: Insta-follow

Upon signing up for Pinterest you are automatically following a select group of high quality users. This in turn helps alleviate the cold-start problem, where I have to go looking around the site to find boards and people to follow. Instead I get a sampling of high quality content immediately filling my feed.

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Growth Hack #2: Facebook Friend Follow

When you sign up for Pinterest with Facebook, your friends who are already using Pinterest auto-follow you and you follow them back. But all this auto following doesn’t seem to happen all at once but is staggered over time so that you get periodic notifications that someone has just started following you on PInterest. This brings you back to the app again and again. This also helps alleviate the cold-start problem and gives me a social incentive to maintain my presence on the site, lest I look boring in front of my friends.

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Growth Hack #3: Always Available UI

The user interface of Pinterest, while seemingly uncluttered, hides a tremendous amount of features and functionality within immediate reach. For example, I can perform almost every action that I would take anywhere on the site all from within my feed, including: commenting, liking, re-pinning a post, following a friend. With one more click to view a pin I can then follow the author of that pin, like/tweet/embed/email the pin, follow the board the pin is from, follow the website source of the pin.

Having all of these possible actions omni-present streamlines the amount pages that I need to navigate to and from to perform any desired actions and has the effect of increasing the overall amount of interactions and actions that I perform with the users of the site and the content being posted and in turn increases the overall flow of new visitors and traffic.

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Growth Hack #4: Infinite Scroll

Try and scroll down your pinterest feed and you will never reach the bottom. The auto-scrolling technique that pinterest employs when you scroll down the page produces a state of ‘flow’ that is very easy to get lost in, spending minutes or even hours scrolling through pins without being mindful of the clock.

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Growth Hack #5: Social Bookmarklet

The “Pin” bookmarklet is a low friction tool that does not require immediate action, but if you want to complete the Pin from the stash area its straight forward to do so. Visual browse requires scanning or skimming images rather than reading through laborious text, which is also a lower friction search experience.

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Learning from Success vs Failure

Learning from Failure

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Learning from failure can be summarized as learning ‘what doesn’t work’.

Out of an arbitrarily large universe of possible things you could be trying (say 18,for the sake of this example), you have successfully accomplished narrowing down the scope of your next trial.

In practice, this can become problematic, because if you are looking to make an informed decision on what to try next, having only crossed one approach off your list (of the hundreds or many thousands of possible approaches to solving a problem), you are left only slightly more informed than where you started.

Learning from Success

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Contrast this approach with a model of learning from success, where you have through a series of failed attempts hit upon something that is working and considered to be successful.

In this case, you well served to learn from this success and try to repeat it as much as possible, since success’s are fewer and far between.

Of course, most success come after a long string of successive failures, but in each failure there is some element of success (what actually worked) which can be far more informational than what didn’t work in terms of guiding your decision in what to try next.

Further reading:
Rewards vs Punishments by Jason Hreha of Dopamine.