Oct 27, 2017

In product development, in the last decade, many companies have moved from what’s called “waterfall development” — a method that relies on large engineering executing a carefully mapped-out plan — to “lean” development, where creators move quickly to push out products and revise them on the fly. Here is one such story.

Year 2010. Three years into the smartphone revolution, kick started by iPhone. Smartphones have definitely replaced feature phones. Facebook had already established itself as the world’s premier social networking platform, the app economy started booming, and location based apps were the new rage.

A graduate from Stanford, who worked at NextStop (later acquired by Facebook), Google and Odeo (the company that gave way to Twitter), Kevin Systrom started an app called Burbn (working outside of his marketing day job), aiming to blend elements of Foursquare and Mafia Wars in a mobile HTML5 app. He went on to secure $500,000 funding from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz; brought on board Mike Krieger as a co-founder. Mike, also a Stanford graduate and Kevin’s companion in the Mayfield Fellows Program – a joint program between the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the Mayfield Fund – was working at Meebo. By the time Burbn was launched, a year’s worth of work went into building it as a complete native iPhone app. During a meeting with the team, Kevin and Mike decided to shift gears. They threw the entire thing out and started over. About 8 weeks later, was born Instagram. It was a pivot that revolutionized the way we take, view and share photographs, world over. And this case study has several lessons for marketers and developers that still ring true today.

The trigger

Burbn started off as a browser-based mobile app using HTML5. To put it mildly, it was feature rich. The app would let you check in to locations, make plans (future check-ins), earn points for hanging out with friends, post pictures, and much more. While it all sounded great, there were two problems – (1) location was red hot at that time; rivals like Foursquare, Gowalla and others already battling for users; and (2) the app itself was too cluttered.

The direction

Kevin and Mike decided on a pivot. The first thing they did was to go where the people are, and do it fast. They paid close attention to user feedback. They questioned themselves – “What are we going to work on next? How are we going to evolve this product into something millions of people will want to use? What is the one thing that makes this product unique and interesting?” The answer was photos.

From their analysis of people using Burbn, they saw that success would be in (a) being really good at one thing, and (b) being simple and achieving more with less. That is: quick, social sharing of pics riding on a desire to share photos from places. That’s the foundation of Instagram.

Says Systrom, “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.”

Two things worked in their favor. The launch of iPhone 4 at the same time kick started the revolution of mobile phones replacing digital cameras. Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz agreed that Instagram, and not Burbn, would be the future and stayed the course with Kevin and Mike.

What they did, riding on this strength, was to build something that’s bold and full-bodied.

The method

When deciding to pivot away from location, they noted that sometimes location is useful for pictures, but sometimes people just don’t care — they just want to get the picture out there as quickly as possible. “We’re not a check-in app, we’re a life-sharing app,” Systrom said.

Instagram started as a photo-sharing application that allows you to apply interesting filters to your photos to make them really pop. Unlike Hipstamatic and CameraBag, the hitherto popular photo editing apps at that time, Instagram made it social with an exceptional sharing and discovery mechanisms. Besides, it provided the same type of photo filter manipulation — and maybe even a little better. Talk of differentiation!

To make the pictures taken by your phone look better they went one step further. Once you take a picture and apply a filter the photo is shared into your Instagram Feed. From here, your friends on the site can “like” or comment on it. But another key to Instagram is that it’s just as easy to share these photos to other social networks — like Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr. And perhaps the best part is that all of this sharing is really, really fast.

Once your photo is up on Instagram and accumulating likes and comments, you can see the activity around it in the “News” tab, from where you can quickly reply to comments your photos may have received. Another tab, called “Popular” was created to allow you to see the photos on Instagram that have received the most likes.

This way, they took two things they wanted to achieve through the app – make pictures look better and share them instantly – and made the app do these two things exceptionally well. Speed, ease of use, and fun clearly distinguished Instagram.

During the development process, they shared it with their friends, tested it and fixed the bugs. From over 30 filters, they pared it down to 11 filters. They were listening and quickly adapting all the time.

They launched their new product in just two months after scrapping a product they took one year to develop. A week after their launch, they had 100,000 users. A week later: 200,000. A week after that: 300,000. And then they were made Apple’s App of the Week in the App Store.

In April 2012, Instagram was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. By that time, Instagram had 30 million registered users.

Conclusion:

Pivot is a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth. Startups pivot all the time. Some are forced to, some are not.
A pivot is most desired during the phase of customer discover and customer validation. There can be different types of pivot based on different reasons/logic. For example, you can pivot because you want to focus on a single feature / when the product is enough / better target the customers / sharpen the unique value proposition / change the business architecture (say from high volume & low margin to High margin & low volume) and so on.

At Hakuna Matata Solutions Private Limited, we have the capability to support you in building best of breed apps (mobile / web / IOT); incubate, test and perfect them in our unique CB4UBD (See before You Build) lab.

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