Color raised 82 times more money than Instagram. Why did it lose so badly?
It was supposed to be a Facebook killer. Mobile, social, and photos? Those are the kind of trends that drive cool billion-dollar valuations. In other words, the kind of trends that get venture capitalists to hand over blank checks. Okay, not exactly blank. But close enough. For the startup Color, it was $41 million, a record-setting pre-launch figure -- and from blue blood firms Sequoia and Bain Capital, no less. It was a perfect storm of hype.
And then they actually released their app.
There's a tension inherent to most startups. You're usually building something that doesn't already exist, and that people don't already know they want -- and then you have to iterate on what they tell you they want. To translate that into business jargon, you have to PIVOT. It's a messy, exciting process -- and a messy, exciting process that's best done in the dark. It's hard enough to make something that some people like. It's even harder to iterate and make something that some more people like. Just look at Instagram.
Before it became the go-to destination for rich kids to post photos of themselves, Instagram was not Instagram -- it was Burbn. What was Burbn? Good question. It was a location-based service kind of like Foursquare and Twitter. But there was a small problem. People didn't want it. But people did want to share photos -- that part of Burbn was taking off. So founder Kevin Systrom PIVOTED and Instagram was born.
Of course, it's not as if Systrom got a billion dollars from Facebook the next day. It just seems that way. Instagram had plenty of competitors, even ones that let you add filters to photos -- remember Hipstamatic? -- that it had to beat out. And it did, by taking what its competitors did and making it a little simpler and a lot more social. It helped that Systrom (and later co-founder Mike Krieger) started in stealth mode, figured out which parts of their intuitions were correct, built and tested their new app in private, and then launched. It was the right product, in the right market, at the right time. Which brings us to Color.
It's hard to do much in private when you raise $41 million before doing anything else. The good news is that kind of raise buys you gobs of attention -- and startups certainly need attention. The bad news is that that kind of raise buys you gobs of attention -- maybe before you're ready for it. Color definitely wasn't ready for it. When they actually did launch, nobody could figure out how to use their app, or even why they'd want to. (It had a two-star rating on iTunes). Rather than connecting you with people you knew or people you thought were interesting -- like Instagram -- Color connected you with people around you. It's an interesting idea -- the kind of interesting idea that might get you venture funding! -- but not the kind of interesting idea that people wanted. At least not now. That wouldn't have been such a problem if its user interface wasn't quite so indecipherable. It was. Users came, they saw, and they didn't come back. Color was stuck in what Y Combinator's Paul Graham calls the Trough of Sorrow -- and it was especially sorrowful because so many people had already written them off.
So Color pivoted. Well, not quite. There's a very fine line between "pivoting" and "flailing". The former is when you take the part of your business that is working, and focus on that. Think Instagram. The latter is when nothing about your business is working, and you frantically grasp for something new. That was Color. Less than three months after its launch, Color decided it might scrap the whole photo-sharing thing. Or it might not. In either case, CEO and founder Bill Nguyen -- who had just fired his co-founder -- told the New York Times he had a bold, new, grandiose plan:
Mr. Nguyen outlined an ambitious plan to compete with Apple, Google and Facebook by tying together group messaging, recommendations and local search, all while making money through advertising. He plans to build applications that will use data from Facebook to create temporary social networks, say at a conference or sporting event, to help users meet people who grew up in the same town or like the same band.
"It's literally going to turn your Facebook network from 500 people to 750 million people," Mr. Nguyen said.
Photos might not even be a part of Color in the future....
The only company Nguyen apparently didn't want to take on was the one that had just crushed him in mobile photo-sharing -- Instagram. I'll give you one guess how well this plan that substituted buzzwords for details turned out. Within six months, Color was pivoting again, this time into mobile video-sharing. In other words, Color went from trying to beat Instagram to trying to become the Instagram of video. It was quite a fall for Nguyen, who a year earlier had compared Instagram to "mice nuts." No, not like peanuts.
Still, obituaries for Color are a bit premature. But only just. They can certainly afford to flail pivot. Sure, they've burned through piles of cash -- Nguyen dropped $425,000 on the domain names color.com and colour.com -- but they still have piles of cash because they started out with such a huge pile of cash. That's how math works. Thanks to this looooong runway, Color has managed to reach a deal with Verizon over its video-sharing. Maybe Color will still end up making it. Or maybe not. This video explaining what Color is (now) and how to use it has a very sad 22 views as of pixel time. According to AppData, around 110,000 people use it every day. That's better than where they were back in March, but it's about two orders of magnitude below the big boys.
It turned out the hype was justified ... for Instagram. It was a Facebook killer, potentially. It took Facebook's killer app -- photo-sharing -- and created a new social graph around it from the post-PC web. In other words, big bucks. Facebook thought it enough of a threat to make a Godfather offer of $1 billion in stock and cash. (Which is admittedly worth quite a bit less now). Instagram was the perfect product in the perfect market at the perfect time. Color was ... not. It had bad execution, worse marketing, and a conceit that was at best ahead of its time. Its massive pre-launch raise didn't create those problems, but it did make them more likely. Color felt like it had to move quickly -- beta testing, what's that? -- and justify its big valuation with big talk. This was a company that Google tried to buy for $200 million before they even had a product! These massive expectations made its launch much higher stakes than if it been in stealth mode.
Although it's not as if the little-startup-that-could in our story was some kind of underdog. Instagram raised half a million in funding themselves, including from top firm Andreessen Horowitz. But staying in stealth mode let them do a lot of the dirty work of figuring out what people want without the inevitable missteps that occur getting dissected under the spotlight. That's not to say that Color would have succeeded with less money, but that having more money can make you think you can skip steps -- and you usually can't.
Saturday’s unprecedented show of opposition punctured a core myth of the Trump presidency. Will it change his behavior? And can it be sustained?
George W. Bush campaigned as a uniter, not a divider, then presided for 8 polarizing years, provoking protests like the one against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, that sent hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets of major cities. Those protests stopped neither the Iraq War nor the reelection of the president.
Months after Barack Obama was sworn in, on April 15, 2009, protesters associated with the Tea Party held rallies in 350 cities, attracting more than 300,000 Americans. They were angry about the financial crisis, the Bush administration’s response to it, and the progressive agenda of the polarizing new president and Congress. The following year, 84 Republican freshmen joined the House during the 2010 midterms. By 2012, the Tea Party had fueled victories for politicians including Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Brown, and Nicki Haley. President Obama’s ability to advance a domestic agenda was all but finished, though he retained enough popularity to be reelected easily in the 2012 campaign.
If the president and his aides will tell easily disproven falsehoods about crowd sizes and speeches, what else will they be willing to dissemble about?
One of the many things that is remarkable about the Trump administration is its devotion, even in its first days, to a particular variety of pointless falsehood.
Mendacity among politicians and the spokespeople hired to spin for them runs across eras and aisles, though it is true that some are more honest than others, and Donald Trump was a historically dishonest presidential candidate. But the Trump administration has displayed a commitment to needlessly lying that is confounding to even the most cynical observers of American politics.
Popular demonstrations can bring change and topple governments. They can also spark retaliation from those in power.
The signs were so clever.
“We shall overcomb.”
“Viva la vulva.”
“I MAKE THE BEST SIGNS I REALLY DO EVERYONE SAYS SO THEY’RE TERRIFIC.”
Someone even made a papier-mâché vagina dentata.
The people were so cheerful and happy to be with one another, forgetting the cold and enjoying what often seemed less like a protest and more like a block party. There were families there, with grandmas in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. They were ecstatic and in disbelief at the number of people. TheWashington Post reported that the organizers put the attendance at up to half a million. They had hoped for less than half that.
It was surreal how similar this all felt, and my Russian friends on social media confirmed it: “Totally Bolotnaya,” one of them wrote. Bolotnaya is the square in the center of Moscow, right across the river from the Kremlin, where on December 10, 2011 around 50,000 people came out to protest fraudulent parliamentary elections. They had expected 3,000 and were stunned by their success. It was cold and gray that day, too, and the feeling of being in that joyous crowd was unforgettable, which is why I remembered it so vividly today. It is the giddiness of watching people vent their political frustrations with a sense of humor and good cheer, and the euphoria of observing people discover that they are not alone, that there are thousands and thousands of people just like them.
Democrat or Republican, no one on Capitol Hill is certain what changes the president will bring.
What can the American people expect from the 115th Congress? Sounds like a trick question, right––or the start of a bad political joke? I mean, what have the American people come to expect from every Congress: dysfunction, partisanship, hypocrisy, opportunism, chaos … Down, down, down the list spirals.
For all his Who’s-your-daddy swagger and drain-the-swamp chatter, Donald Trump is unlikely to make much of a dent in this dynamic. (Some cultures are simply beyond help.) But that doesn’t mean Capitol Hill isn’t braced for upheaval. Every election, particularly one involving a presidential transition, reshuffles legislative priorities and power dynamics. Toss in an erratic, ideologically fuzzy commander-in-chief who stumped hard against both congressional teams, and things could go topsy-turvy pretty quickly.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
In his first official White House briefing, Sean Spicer blasted journalists for “deliberately false reporting,” and made categorical claims about crowd-size at odds with the available evidence.
In his first appearance in the White House briefing room since President Trump’s inauguration, Press Secretary Sean Spicer delivered an indignant statement Saturday night condemning the media’s coverage of the inauguration crowd size, and accusing the press of “deliberately false reporting.”
Standing next to a video screen that showed the crowd from President Trump’s vantage point, Spicer insisted that media outlets had “intentionally framed” their photographs to minimize its size. After attacking journalists for sharing unofficial crowd-size estimates—“no one had numbers,” he said—he proceeded to offer a categorical claim of his own. “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” he said, visibly outraged. “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”
The new president’s first actions in office suggest his style from the trail isn’t going away soon.
Inaugurations are America’s modern equivalents of Roman triumphs. Flanked by military and police vehicles, clad in the pomp of tradition, presidents of the United States take their solemn oaths and parade between the classical facades and colonnades lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Crowds of thousands—sometimes millions—of citizens look on. It is meant to be a celebration of the nation in all her stately, martial honor, and of the vir triumphalis who has claimed the status of its moral leader and commander-in-chief. But inauguration is also a transition, not only between presidents, but from the combat of the campaign to the peacetime of governance.
For President Donald Trump, however, that transition has not yet taken place. On Inauguration Day, Trump did not take off the laurel wreath and transform into a governor, but rather extended his fiery campaign. The earliest hours of his presidency suggest that, dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz tells a story about a man who ventures out in the immediate aftermath of the fall of a regime. Papers full of state secrets lie in the streets, their knowledge less important for the moment than that of where to find something to eat. A little boy plays in a bombed-out street, whistling a song about the leader. “The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.”
When authoritarians fall from power, even if they are secretly mourned, they must be publicly forgotten. Yet they remain as traces within the bodies of their people. The muscle memory to salute, to sing their songs, to fear their wrath, can be hard to shake. My years of studying Mussolini and his two-decade long regime have taught me not to underestimate the individual and collective work of disentanglement that comes with the ruler’s fall from power.
We built a fake web toaster, and it was compromised in an hour.
Last week, a massive chain of hacked computers simultaneously dropped what they were doing and blasted terabytes of junk data to a set of key servers, temporarily shutting down access to popular sites in the eastern U.S. and beyond. Unlike previous attacks, many of these compromised computers weren’t sitting on someone’s desk, or tucked away in a laptop case—they were instead the cheap processors soldered into web-connected devices, from security cameras to video recorders. A DVR could have helped bring down Twitter.
Great, I thought as I read the coverage last week. My DVR helped bring down Twitter. (Probably not, at least this time—the targeted products were older than what you’d find in most American homes, and less protected.) But the internet is huge! There are around a couple billion public IPv4 addresses out there; any one of those might have a server, a desktop computer, or a toaster plugged in at the other end. Even if the manufacturer of my gadget gave it a dumb and easily guessed password, wouldn’t it be safe in this sea of anonymity? How would the hackers find me?