Here is why Facebook bought Instagram

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom thumbnail

You might have heard by now that Facebook has acquired Instagram for nearly a billion dollars in cash and stock. Incredible, isn’t it? I have received text messages of awe and shock from many people in the Valley, for no one saw this coming.

A few days ago it was rumored to be valued at $500 million. A few months ago it was $300 million. Its last round — just a year ago — valued the company at $100 million. The rising valuation of the company was reflective of the growing audience it has been garnering, despite being just on the iPhone. It had reached nearly 30 million registered users before it launched an Android app, a turbo-charging event for the company.

So the question is:  Why did Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s level-headed but mercenary founder, buy Instagram at twice the valuation that professional venture investors were putting on it? The answer is found in Zuckerberg’s own blog post:

This is an important milestone for Facebook because it’s the first time we’ve ever acquired a product and company with so many users. We don’t plan on doing many more of these, if any at all. But providing the best photo sharing experience is one reason why so many people love Facebook and we knew it would be worth bringing these two companies together.

My translation: Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects. Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.

Here is what I wrote when Instagram launched the Android app.

It is pretty clear that thanks to the turbocharge effect of Android, Instagram’s user base is going to blast past the 50 million mark in a couple of weeks. Just before the company launched its app in October, I had pointed out that there was going to be a mobile-only, photo-oriented social platform that will challenge the established social giants. It will be a summer to remember for this tiny company.

Here is another little bit from one of my Om Says newletters:

The company had announced an API in February, and since then a raft of new apps have come up to capitalize on it. While filters might have jumpstarted Instagram, the company, which already has over 4 million subscribers, has to focus on its core value proposition – community and the social interactions around unique visual experiences.

I hope Instagram allows more apps to export directly to its network. By opening itself up to other apps and services, it has the potential to slowly become the hub of our mobile photo experiences. And in the end, that’s what would make Instagram so much more valuable and in the process become the Flickr of mobile photos.

In other words, if there was any competitor that could give Zuckerberg heartburn, it was Systrom’s posse. They are growing like mad on mobile, and Facebook’s mobile platform (including its app) is mediocre at best. Why? Facebook is not a mobile-first company and they don’t think from the mobile-first perspective. Facebook’s internal ideology is that of a desktop-centric Internet company.

Instagram is the exact opposite. It has created a platform built on emotion. It created not a social network, but instead built a beautiful social platform of shared experiences. Facebook and Instagram are two distinct companies with two distinct personalities. Instagram has what Facebook craves – passionate community. People like Facebook. People use Facebook. People love Instagram. It is my single most-used app. I spend an hour a day on Instagram. I have made friends based on photos they share. I know how they feel, and how they see the world. Facebook lacks soul. Instagram is all soul and emotion.

It is one of the reasons I connected with the app even before it launched. It went deeper than just a photo app. Over the years, Kevin shared his grand ambition about Instagram and building a much larger platform, so from that perspective I guess I am a little surprised – though I thought Kevin and his team would go a lot further, for as Erica pointed out last week, the best is yet to come for mobile photos.

More importantly, it cracked the code where Facebook itself failed: viral growth on mobile. From that perspective I wonder if Kevin sold too soon, though I know it is easy for me to say. But then the road from product and a platform to a business is long, twisted and full of potholes. Perhaps that explains why the Instagram team decided to cash in their chips.

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