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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
Meet the first human-related species to be identified with more than fossil records.
We don’t know what the Denisovan looked like. We don’t know how it lived, what tools it used, how tall it was, what it ate, or if it buried its dead.
But from only two teeth and a piece of finger bone smaller than a penny, we’ve been able to extract the rich history of a species that split off from Homo sapiensapproximately 600,000 years ago. We know they’re more closely related to Neanderthals than humans—though still distantly. We know they made their way to Southeast Asian islands, interbreeding with indigenous modern human groups in New Guinea and Australia. We know their interspecies mingling with modern humans in mainland Asia was brief, but enough to impart a few genes. And we know Denisovan genes reveal evidence of interbreeding with Neanderthals and an even more archaic hominin species.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
What the Iran “debate” has taught us about our ability to discuss world affairs
Over the past month I’ve run a series of messages from readers in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere about the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal that the Congress will soon formally consider. You can see the latest item here, and the whole collection here. That most recent installment, from Samuel J. Cohen in Israel, emphasized the contrast between the fury over the deal in the United States and Israel, and its taken-for-granted treatment everywhere else.
Here is another reaction worth considering. It is about the way the debate has evolved inside the United States. This comes from a young American who works for a well-known international organization and who himself has experience overseas. He writes: