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.
It’s a paradox: Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?
There are three things, once one’s basic needs are satisfied, that academic literature points to as the ingredients for happiness: having meaningful social relationships, being good at whatever it is one spends one’s days doing, and having the freedom to make life decisions independently.
But research into happiness has also yielded something a little less obvious: Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy. In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.
That second finding is the puzzle that Raj Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, tries to make sense of in his recent book, If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?Raghunathan’s writing does fall under the category of self-help (with all of the pep talks and progress worksheets that that entails), but his commitment to scientific research serves as ballast for the genre’s more glib tendencies.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013,the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Home,” the second episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz will be discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners are being made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
For some, abandoning expensive urban centers would be a huge financial relief.
Neal Gabler has been a formative writer for me: His Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity was one of the books that led me to think about leaving scholarship behind and write nonfiction instead, and Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination was the first book I reviewed as a freelance writer. To me, he exemplifies the best mix of intensive archival research and narrative kick.
So reading his recent essay, "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans," was a gut punch: First, I learned about a role model of mine whose talent, in my opinion, should preclude him from financial woes. And, then, I was socked by narcissistic outrage: I, too, struggle with money! I, too, am a failing middle-class American! I, too, am a writer of nonfiction who should be better compensated!
The team, which had 5,000-to-1 odds of winning the English Premier League, has pulled off the biggest upset in sports history.
Much to everyone’s disbelief, the Leicester City soccer club was crowned the champion of the English Premier League Monday.
The team’s chances last summer were small, to say the least. Back then, William Hill, a British betting group, put the odds of the Foxes of Leicester City, a fledgling team based two hours north of London, of winning at 5,000-to-1. Essentially, the team had a .0002 percent chance of being the best team in the league of 20. Except for the 25 people who bet a combined total of just $243 on the team through William Hill, no one expected this from Leicester City.
Here’s some perspective: William Hill once put the odds of Elvis being found alive and well at 2,000-to-1 and an acknowledgment by the U.S. government that the first moon landing was faked at 500-to-1.
The newly discovered worlds are now the most promising targets in the search for life among the stars—and the race to take a closer look at them has begun.
The robot telescope settles on its target, a star that sits closer than all but a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of stellar systems that make up the Milky Way. Its mirror grabs light for 55 seconds, again and again. The robot telescope—called TRAPPIST—will observe the star for 245 hours across sixty-two nights, making 12,295 measurements. Eleven times, it will see the star dim, ever so slightly. This dip in luminosity, called a transit, has a straightforward astronomical explanation: It’s a planet passing in front of the star, blocking just a bit of its light. In this case, the transits tell us that 3 planets orbit the star.
“So what?” you might think.
Astronomers have been spotting planets around distant stars for years now, using the transit method, among others. Not a month goes by without a headline, touting the discovery of new “exoplanets.” But these planets are different, and not only because they’re near. Like the Earth these planets could potentially permit liquid water to persist on their surfaces—which is thought to be a key pre-condition for the emergence of life. Today, when their discovery is published in Nature, they will instantly become the most promising planets yet found in the search for life among the stars.
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.