Instagram’s Tips for Start-Up 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.




The Halo Effect

Google has always had an air of mystic around them, as a creative and honest company. It seems that even though they are a multi-billion dollar company they don’t have the stigma of other tech firms of a similar size. People trust Google far more with their data and information than most high tech firms. You search using their search engine and store you email in their servers, and very few people question Google’s good intentions to let you use their stuff for “free”. It’s almost as if because of the early reputation that Google gained as a open and honest company that enabled you to search more effectively and easily on the internet without in your face advertising and banner ads that they have now become an authentically honest company with a certain playful approach to everything. Of course, the reality of a multi-billion dollar company such as Google is that they have many of the same motivations and drives as any large corporation, they wish to make money and the easiest way to do that is to use our collected data and information to influence us. So how has this general positive perception of Google occurred? This is something that can be attributed to what psychologists call the “Halo Effect”.


The Halo effect is essentially a biased heuristic that we have when we see something positive in someone or something we like. We are more likely to transfer those beliefs into other traits about that person or object. So in this instance the early reputation of Google that was perceived and promoted by people has now become the accepted attitude of Google to everything they do. They are now considered an honest open and trustworthy company, whether or not this is true, it is at least perceived that way. The same thing happens with real people, if someone you know has a reputation as being a “good” person through something they may have done in the past you will be inclined to transfer that perception to anything they do, you might assume they are more likely to give to charity for example, or may be more likely to take part in community activities, whether or not that would actually be true. The tendency is to assume if a certain trait is true such as being good, then you automatically assume that other qualities such as being kind, generous and humorous are also true of that person. Interestingly, it is even suggested that the attractiveness of someone can influence our perceptions of them without even knowing anything about them. We assume that attractive people are somehow nicer people.


The Halo effect has it’s reverse referred to as the “devil effect” which as expected is if a brand or person has a negative trait, then the bias tends to influence all considerations of other traits towards the negative feelings.


Particularly in business this powerful and often subconscious effect is one that should not be overlook when considering any brand placement or messaging. It seems that it can work positively in a brands favor when encouraging positive marketing and PR, Google and Apple have definitely gained from this effect. However the reverse can also alter people’s perceptions and these are the hardest influences to remove from peoples minds, I think the best example is Microsoft, that no matter how they innovate, has always had the stigma of being a monopolistic giant and carries even today a generally negative perception in the public mind. I think also it is important to think closer to ourselves about how we judge other people, we should try and be a little more conscious of what we truly know about other people and not fall into the trap of judging all things by limited knowledge.

Knowing Yourselves

We have all been in situations in which we don’t quite feel like ourselves, it’s almost as if someone else looks out through our eyes and takes over for a short while. Our friends notice and exclaim that we don’t appear to be ourselves. Of course nothing really changes from our point of view we just respond to our environment and play the role that we think best suits that moment. Many thing can trigger this from work to anger from parties to gambling can release alternate versions of ourselves. It’s almost as if we have multiple personalities within us.

Rita Carter in her book “Multiplicity”, puts forward this very idea that within each of us are these multiple personalities and how they can affect and influence each other, sometimes in good ways and at other times in negative ways. She suggests that by better understanding ourselves and these alternate selves we can begin to affect how we feel and act. We can no longer think of ourselves as a single person or character but as summation of many selves working inside us.

First thing to make clear is that she is not talking about the mental illness of multiple personality disorder, where you have little control or consciousness over the people within you. She is suggesting that we are complex individuals with the capacity to behave differently in different situations and under different conditions. Her books helps you recognize and discover these personalities within and start to map them to better understand how they influence you in your choices and decision making. She argues that nobody is a single personality but is in fact made up of multiple characters within us, the important thing to do is recognize those that influence you in a positive way and those that do not and start to control which you wish to grow and those you wish to squash.

Her suggestion, is that most people have a few major personalities with many supporting minor personalities. The major personalities are those that guide a majority of our decision making, and whom we may most closely relate to, the minor personalities add to these cast members with less seen but equally important aspects of our character. It is very comparable to acting and playing parts within our lives all with the same shared life and knowledge.

She explains how these personalities can be mapped using the concepts of the OCEAN big 5 personality traits approach to mapping character. OCEAN is an acronym for:






This framework is a robust way for people to measure their personality type against. In Rita’s book she maps these onto to a circular diagram with the opposing traits around the circle. Then through a series of questions you can begin to map your various personalities on the disgram to better understand their role in your mind.

The concept Rita puts forward is a fair idea and certainly it is consistent with new discoveries in science and psychology that she supports her argument with. It raises many intriguing questions. How well we can control these personality types is questionable, but at the very least recognizing them is a start in allowing you be aware when you might be behaving differently than your usual self. Equally interesting for me is the insight it gives to understanding ourselves and others and why people can appear inconsistent in some circumstances. It suggest that interviewing people for market research or using any kind of people study is going to only give a small insight to the complete domain of peoples thoughts and actions. As this area of study expands and gains insights it is going to go along way to explain many of the choices and decisions we make. Rita Carters book is a great introduction to these new ideas of the many selves within us.

Pixar’s 5 principles for success

Article over at Jump Associates website gives an insight to some of the concepts that took Pixar to the lead in innovative and blockbusting animated films. The interview with Oren Jacob revealed 5 principles that they live by to maintain success.



1. When it sucks say so.

This is often the hardest decision to make, whether something is excellent in the light of a looming deadline. Very often it feels easier to be satisfied with an adequate product or service rather than push on for excellence due to budget and time constraints. The question is at what cost to the end goal of brand building and ultimate success.


2. Defend your opinion and press play quickly

This is part of the review process, I like the idea of allowing the individual to accept or defend the feedback. I agree with autonomy that it allows. Of course if you have an opinion it is best defended with some examples and proof that your idea is better. This concept works well in a fair and unbiased work environment that allows open discussion without punishment for maybe being wrong.


3. Look upstream for the source of the problem

This is good point to make that not all problems exist at the point you observe, but maybe the result of something somewhere else in the system or process. It is always worth a deeper investigation if the problem solution is not immediately clear. Methods like the “5 Whys” that I have discussed before can help in this. Also open communications among team members can help keep these problem tansparent.


4. Match the medium to the message

This is always critical to the right step in the process of innovation. As Bill Buxton and others have explained the power of sketching early on and prototyping loosely can open up the right conversations, versus seeing “polished” artwork that instead of encouraging debate pushes people to aim their thoughts to criticism and negative feedback only. Seeing the work as the end result. These sketches and prototypes themselves also need thew right medium to encourage the right questions.


5. Hire for excellence.

Hiring the right people and putting them in the right roles is exactly what Jim Collins talks about in his book “Good to Great”. Get the right people on the bus and all other things will begin to fall into place. Equally important is to get the wrong people off the bus. The right people are self motivated and need less guidance and motivation to perform excellently.

SCAMPER your way to creativity


Alex Osborne an advertising executive in the 1940’s came up with a technique for helping kick start the creative process. It is a simple approach and has proven effective in those quiet moments during a brainstorm when people begin to dry up with ideas. It isn’t only useful in brainstorming it can have many applications in innovating new ideas and improving on existing ideas as well.

The technique has been summarized in the acronym SCAMPER.


S = Substitute

Can something be substituted for something else. Is there the possibility of replacing the rules, or the system.
C = Combine

Better know as synthesis how can related or unrelated items be brought together and mixed to create a new whole or part.
A = Adapt

Adaptation may mean looking out into the World an seeing if there is anything else that exists that already does something similar that can be tweaked or adapted to work for our situation needs. Maybe it can build on the work of something or someone else outside your current domain.
M = Magnify or Modify

simply, what can be made larger or extended. Is there a way to increase frequency. I would also consider the reverse can something be made smaller and reduced. Think scales and proportions. Like Charles and Ray Eames factors of 10. Can something be modified and given a new twist, what can be changed.

P = Put to other uses

Is there the possibility of putting something to a new use. How might you use it in another context. Is there another material that can alter its use.
E = Eliminate

Trim away excess, minimise. What if it were smaller. What if it was divided into many parts. What rules can be eliminated.
R = Rearrange or Reverse

What other arrangements might be better. Different patterns. Swap components. Reverse the context. What is the opposite. What are the negatives. Turn it around, upside down. How might it be unexpected.

The concept is based on the idea that everything is an addition or modification of an existing thing. Under these premise applying these thinking ideas should get things rolling again.

Disagree to Innovate



In a recent article from one of the designers at continuum, the idea of innovation occurring when disagreement happens is laid out. Daniel Sobol, puts forward 5 things you need to keep arguments in line with the creative process. One that particularly stood out to me was the paragraph about saying “No”.

He suggests that where traditional brainstorming is mostly about building on the ideas of others and using the improv technique of saying “yes, and…” leads to a nice group dynamic, the power of saying “No, because…” can lead into a dialogue of critical thinking. This is an interesting idea and something I am keen to see how well it works. I think the value of this technique maybe after an actual brainstorm session has occurred and you are more in the mode of evaluating the ideas you have come up with and maybe looking for the best to build upon. My biggest concern would be controlling the group dynamic of criticism and keeping people from feeling to personal about the responses. I would also think that it could easily lead the generation of ideas to a halt as you analyze each idea in your mind. Still it is an interesting idea and I think with the right people and teams it can be an effective tool in brainstorming.

He outlines the other techniques to help in this augmentative approach as,

No Hierarchy. No one rules the ideas, and everyone is welcome to add to the idea pot.

Say “No, because…” Find another perspective that proves the original idea wrong. Say Why.

Diverse perspectives. T shaped people, and diverse backgrounds brings fresh perspectives.

Focus on common goal. Make sure everyone remembers the purpose and point of the exercise.

Keep it fun. Fun and happiness help people think and create outside the box.

Maybe when combined with all these other aspects he outlines the concerns I have disappear from the group. Still an interesting article and something I would love to try sometime.

Clicking with Others


So we have all had those moments in which we are talking with someone we have never met before or have know for only a brief time and you feel a sense that the two of you have much in common and you enjoy the conversation. We can think of this as clicking with the other person, they just seem aligned with our thoughts and beliefs and talking with them is enjoyable. You leave the conversation with them hoping to have some time again when you can again engage in a stimulating talk with them. So what are the things that make people click with us. Can they be analyzed and distilled down to certain traits?


Well Ori and Rom Brafman have written a book all about what makes people click, it gives insight to some of the criteria that are necessary to make these connections, in a meaningful way. What facinates me is the similarities to some of the ideas of Paul Adams when he describes people and their social circles that he has observed in his work on social networks for Google and Facebook.


Let’s look at some of these requirements as outlined in the Brafman’s book. They refer to these as click accelerators, because they talk mostly about rapid connections. I think these also apply to long term relationships as well. They outline these click accelerators as:



Showing our weakness’s or how human we are can open others up to trust. Being honest and telling the truth offers others a chance to help us and share a problem or thought. Vulnerability can be considered as being shown in two stages the transactional and the connective. The first stage is made up of three steps:


Phatic, is not revealing.

Factual is only giving information about ourselves as data.

Evaluative reveals our views of people and situations, without emotion. This has limited risk of revealing information about ourselves.


The second stage the connective interactions are based more on our feelings and emotional point of view, these are far more revealing and authentic conversations. It consists of two more steps:


Gut Level, these are statements that are more emotional cues to how we feel about something or someone.

peak statements, these are the most emotional and inner thoughts and feelings we have towards others. They have the most risk of make us vulnerable to wrongful attack but are also the most valuable way to express ourselves authentically to others.


Moving through these steps of vulnerability takes our relationship and ability to click with another through different stages and levels of attachment. The more vulnerable you make yourself the more risk you take to get hurt, but also the deeper the relationship you will have with another.



Being close to someone physically makes a huge difference in our ability to connect with them. Whether working in an office or just meeting in at a football game. People respond better when they can be in close proximity to others. Having spontaneous communication helps forge relationships. Most of the work I have already looked into talks about the creative process improving when people interact more and are closer together in a building. Paul Adams also mentions that when people communicate they seem to prefer regular small lightweight interactions. These are going to occur more often if people are near each other. These interactions need not even result in a conversation, they might be what is referred to as passive contacts such as a nod of the head or can be thought of as liking something or someone in Facebook. It merely shows recognition of that person, but it all registers as another interaction, that adds up.



mihaly csikszentmihalyi, talks about this as being in a state of flow. Things just seem to be working, we are engaged at a deep level, with enough challenges and effort to keep us stimulated and enough progress to make us feel achievement and self satisfaction. This helps us make a connection with others when we can give them our undivided attention and listen intently at what they are saying. This level of engagement will be obvious to those involved both sides talking and responding with authentic conversation. There is a sense of agreement and acceptance of the others point of view and ideas. Much of this is about empathy.


Birds of a feather flock together, and we are no different. We tend to gravitate to those that have similar beliefs or interests as us. This makes sense when you consider how we want to support our own inner narrative, of who we are. Again Paul Adams talks about his observation of our social circles, and how we may have 4-5 distinct groups but how each group shares common attributes with us and with each other. It would make sense that to get a good connection we would look for similarities with those we converse with. We of course want to avoid conflict and are not always looking for arguments, and especially try to avoid those that cannot accept us for what we are or think. Interestingly, when in a business environment, we tend to align ourselves with others in our group, to appear similar, and avoid conflict. So when we can control our choices we prefer to find those that already believe what we do.

Safe place

The power of our environment has a profound effect on us. This is especially heightened when there is a shared goal or reason that puts us together. Adversity can bring people closer, and having a problem that is solved as a group or team makes that team string as a unit. But this doesn’t need to be a negative event. Even sitting in the home of a person from another country than your own can have an immediate effect on forging new relationships, there is a sense of being removed from the normal status quo of your natural environment, and so you look for anything that can connect you to others in the group. This is all part of the wanting to be part of something larger than ourselves and looking for our our identities.


These are just some of the great ways that people can move from ordinary relationships such as they have with work colleagues to deeper relationships built on friendship and trust. These moments of clicking with another can be enhanced by some of these observations and being aware of them can help you achieve wonderful friendships that can last a lifetime.