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Why Path is no Instagram

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Updated. Ever since Facebook decided that Instagram was worth $1 billion, there has been recurring talk of Path, another social service being the next big buyout target. And while I am happy for the Path team, I find the comparisons with Instagram unfounded and premature. Let’s just start with the very basic of comparisons: Path has around 3 million members. Instagram had 30 million members and added nearly a million on the day it launched its Android app. But let’s forget that and focus on how those two services actually work.

Chalk and cheese

Path, which limits the number of friends (or relationships) to 150 on its service, is designed to be limited in its nature. Like Facebook, it is based on a model of reciprocity – you can follow someone if they want to friend you. Instagram is like Twitter, and allows anyone to follow anyone without their approval (unless of course you make your account private.) That asynchronous model has allowed it to grow really fast (the sharing activity of photos on Twitter that originate from Instagram is a good indicator of its momentum.)

For Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, the big boost in mainstream popularity has come from celebrities. Celebrities (or at least their social media handlers) like the “follower” count as it lets them define the size of the audience and their fan base. These three are a good blend of social and broadcast models. (It is one of the many reasons why Facebook bought Instagram.)

Path, on the other hand, is limited and private and as a result cannot expect the same celebrity boost like Instagram, which benefitted from the presence of the likes of Justin Beiber. The difference in the two companies is reflected in daily active usage of Path (150,000) and daily active usage of Instagram (2.2 million) according to data accumulated by app data research group, AppData. A source close to the company says that the AppData numbers are widely inaccurate and that Path has around a million daily active users.

Mainstream Mindshare

As such, Path has a big challenge ahead as it tries to capture mainstream mindshare. At the same time, the company is looking at a lot more competitors from even more niche and intimate services such as Everyme and Pair. Randall Stross ins a piece earlier this week pointed out:

These micro- and supermicro-size social networks aren’t competing directly with Facebook or even with one another. Conceivably, one could be active on all of them. But then we may bump up against a new neurological limit: the maximum number of social networks that the human brain can handle.

Stross’ conclusion should worry Path and its team. Why? Because the app at present lacks the draw or the engagement I normally experience on Instagram and other apps. I have found that it does so much that I sometimes forget to open the app, even though I intend to. Path still needs to define a singular addictive behavior and that is its challenge (and opportunity.)

The good news is that it now has about $40 $30 million new dollars sitting in its bank-account, thanks to Redpoint Ventures and other investors. The company is said to have a $250 million valuation. As expected, the funding was led by Redpoint Ventures, with Redpoint General Partner Satish Dharmaraj making the investment and joining Path’s board of directors. All existing investors are also participating in the round. News that Path was raising money was first reported by TechCrunch a few weeks ago, with the valuation and investor confirmed by Business Insider a few days later.

Buyer interest

That both Google (s GOOG) and Facebook wanted to buy the company for a price ranging between $100 million to $200 million must have influenced the decision undertaken by Redpoint Ventures to lead a $40 million round in the company.

Of course, the politics of the venture capital industry could also have played a vital role in the funding decision. Redpoint, like neighbor Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers, is increasingly getting pressured by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock Partners. And while Redpoint is pretty good at infrastructure and IT investments, the firm has a mixed record when it comes to new post-social services. Dharmaraj has made a number of investments in the social and mobile space, including Peel, Chill, Pulse, Gogobot and Posterous, which was recently acquired by Twitter. Redpoint is betting Pair Path changes all that.

Path had previously raised 11 million in funds from the likes of Index Ventures, KPCB and other investors. When it came to market originally, Path wasn’t all that impressive and it refocused and came out with Path 2.0, that received positive reviews. Later the company was embroiled in a privacy scandal around how it was uploading address books from people’s phones to its servers.

Additional reporting for the story by Ryan Lawler.

Update: Path confirmed the funding round, saying that it “raised more than $30 million.” However, Redpoint General Partner Satish Dharmaraj did not join the startup’s board.

31 Responses to “Why Path is no Instagram”

  1. MckinneyRichard

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  2. Paul Stamatiou

    Spot on Om. While I love the Path guys and think the product is well built and designed, I find myself using it less and less. I have to remember to open it. Whereas Instagram evokes a different innate capacity. I see a nice sunset and without thinking I’m already posting it directly to Instagram to my 1000+ followers. Whereas when I login to Path I see notifications that tons of people want to add me but I’ve reached my limit and can’t do anything about it.

    Now, if Path made their follower model asynchronous and removed the limit.. that would be very interesting.

    Actually, I remember why I used Path less initially.. the filters were no where near as comprehensive as Instagram. As cliche and overly web 2.0 as that sounds..

  3. TinyVox: Tape&Tweet

    Path is far, far superior to Instagram and has completely supplanted Facebook for me as a status updater. It’s the music posting, which takes the old Soundtracking model and NAILS IT. Instagram is the app I haven’t opened for months now; Path is all that and then some.

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  5. Because YOU don’t find a single addictive behavior there’s a problem? The addictive behavior for me is that I can take a picture and quickly put it in a journal format while only sharing it with a few people.

    The problem with Path is where does it go from here, where does it make money. But it’s addictive to plenty of people. You can only speak for yourself. Please do so.

  6. christianpeeter

    To my opinion Path and Instagram are both examples of great applications but to my opinion of different importance for FB. I dont believe FB (key) intention was to buy top class developers or designers. No, instagram realized that status is often more about a picture and setting rather than just plain text as such making it the next way of communicating between your friends (a picture tell a thousands words). This is accelerated by faster networks and easier uploading of pictures which is a key changes since the launch of FB a few years back.
    Path seems like a niche, a fun application to share with a small group of people but as already said, it seems the app is also designed not to be used to intense :)

  7. Daniel Horowitz

    I’ll make a quick on topic comment :) I like the idea behind Path, (dunbars number?) but technology is rapidly changing everything, and I don’t think we really know how it affects this number. Also, as you mention, we simply cannot and will not manage very many disconnected social networks. This is too hard. Then again, with networks things can rise and fall rather quickly, so I remain open minded.

    I think you should use disqus here. The way it is now, the only way for me to know if someone replied to my comment is to come back here. With disqus, I can be reading another blog, (that uses disqus) and I’ll see the notification that someone replies to me here and It will have a link to take me here. This is very convenient and will may increase engagement.

  8. Sapinder Singh Grewal

    Thanks OM first for letting us comments on what you wrote. Not like someone else forcing us read and not letting comment.
    I tried path twice and waited for 1700 FB friends to come there join me. They said they are already using FB,twitter,instagram or tumblr or whatever. They don’t same thing for almost same purpose. I was alone there,neither I can follow anyone there. So I delete account, never coming back there. Great article on path.

  9. I love Path for all the reasons that it is not like Instagram or Facebook. It’s peaceful and what I see is relevant to me. I don’t have to deal with noise like Cafe World requests from that girl I dated in high school but haven’t seen in almost 15 years…or pictures of the babies of people I don’t know so well.
    Path is like a social network mulligan.

  10. Great article and an interesting comparison. We are going to see a jump in start ups and apps vying to be the next big buyout thanks to this Instagram deal, be sure of that. Don’t forget, too, that Path has a partnership with Nike and works pretty seamlessly with the Nike + app. This could add some valuation to Path, especially in the fitness niche. I think Path has some potential, but it does need to define itself more and gain a more “addictive” element, as you mention. I actually just wrote a review of Path a few weeks ago on my blog.

  11. Alex Calic

    Om’s point regarding Path’s needs to define a singular addictive behavior is exactly why they won’t become a Insagram-type company. I wrote about this a couple of months back- – Path is trying to aggregate these singular addictive behaviors under one service, which no one has yet to pull-off in mobile (any why Facebook needed to buy Instagram). If Path can get users to change their mobile behavior then maybe they can build the truly mobile version of Facebook. Tough road though.

  12. Path is not competing with Facebook or Twitter, its a completely different format. Path is a personal network, a more private and mature application, where, if people want to can share their Path activities onto the social networks mentioned. Its a great idea and concept that will to continue to grow and improve steadily.

  13. B.N. "Nat" Kausik

    Om, excellent point on Instagram’s asymmetric model a-la twitter unlike Path’s symmetric model a la Facebook. User’s tire of Facebook as the symmetric model accumulates too many “friends.”

    Facebook’s core business is sharing, and for it to acquire into its core competence as it did with Instagram should alarm shareholders. In contrast, I am not aware of a single search acquisition by Google.

  14. Gaurav Sharma

    “I have found that it does so much that I sometimes forget to open the app, even though I intend to.”

    This is a great observation Om. I keep the Path app running in the background/sleep mode just so that I don’t forget about it.

    Another thing I noticed about Path’s engagement is that by design they don’t want you to use it a lot. As a user, it is not clear if they want it to used in just for certain special moments of life or every other checkin to Starbucks. When using Path I usually ask myself if this should be “Pathed” or not. However, this is not the case when using Instagram, FourSquare, Twitter or Facebook.

  15. Companies which justify strategic acquisitions based on numbers end up being like Microsoft or Google.
    Instagram from my point of view was strategic acquisition. Mobile knowledge in users emotions as sharing being part of conversation/communication. But it still has to be fed back and influence Management (Google and Microsoft always miss that part).
    Path might be an acquire-hire, but I doubt that, which would be more like a tool to solve a specific problem (number justifications work).

  16. motionblurred

    I think there’s room for Path to grow. The main advantage of Instagram is that it has a great mobile interface that Facebook lacks for whatever reason. So does Path. Facebook’s main weakness is privacy and it should’ve been something Path pounced on.

  17. J Nicholas Gross

    The idea that FB does not compete with Path does not compute. Its like saying ABC and NBC don’t “compete” b/c theoretically one could watch both stations. But if there’s nothing showing on one that I can’t find on the other, why would I bother? FB has shown itself time and time again as nimble enough to cannibalize any attractive features from “competing” sites such as they are. But, hey, I also personally think Instagram is a one-dimensional wonder/fad that would have saturated in a few months and I am astonished FB would pay that kind of money, so WTH do I know.

    • Not true Richard. I think the growth curve of Instagram was much more steep and rapid. They added a million in a few months and I think they were about 10 million or so last September.

      • how can you say ‘not true’ and then ‘i think’. do you know or do you think? and if you think then how can you tell someone else what they think is not true?

  18. I am very into social media, know all the popular and unpopular networks and this is the first i’m hearing of it. If this wants to be as big as instangram and facebook etc. it needs to do more marketing and advertising! Seems like a good social media app though. Get the word out about it and it might go somewhere!!

      • Daniel Horowitz

        Well, I think there is and has been a lot of value buried in comments. Disqus represents a way of uncovering this value and generating more. It is a social network, a reputation system, and probably at least a couple other buzzwords. It is helping us uncover and promote people and comments of value. If I find someone whom I think is insightful I can see where else they comment (i.e what other communities they are a part of) and maybe I am interested in this community as well. It’s more flexible than FB comments, as I like to use twitter as my “lightweight identity” (credit: Fred Wilson) and there are many that prefer Anon commenting. And, the commenting, liking, replying, is quietly yielding reputational value.

        We are talking about a network here, so it’s winner take most. I can be on one blog, and see if someone has replied to my comments on several other blogs because they are all part of disqus. This is awesome.

    • Bregalad Fangorn

      I refuse to comment using Facebook so if they buy Disqus I’d have to find another commenting system where my identity was protected or stop commenting altogether.