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.
Some of Charles Schulz’s fans blame the cartoon dog for ruining Peanuts. Here’s why they’re wrong.
It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.
Hours later, his last Sunday strip came out with a farewell: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … How can I ever forget them.” By then, Peanuts was carried by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and read by some 300 million people. It had been going for five decades. Robert Thompson, a scholar of popular culture, called it “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.”
In a new book, the former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross explores just how close Israel came to attacking Iran, and why Susan Rice accused Benjamin Netanyahu of throwing “everything but the n-word” at Barack Obama.
Updated on October 9, 2015 at 12:40 p.m.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington early next month for a meeting with President Obama, he should at least know that he is more popular in the White House than Vladimir Putin. But not by much.
This meeting will not reset the relationship between the two men in any significant way, and not only because Netanyahu has decided to troll Obama by accepting the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute on this same short trip. The meeting between the two leaders will most likely be businesslike and correct, but the gap between the two is essentially unbridgeable. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the hopelessly naive Obama broke a solemn promise to never allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. From Obama’s perspective, Netanyahu violated crucial norms of U.S.-Israel relations by publicly and bitterly criticizing an Iran deal that—from Obama’s perspective—protects Israel, and then by taking the nearly unprecedented step of organizing a partisan (and, by the way, losing and self-destructive) lobbying campaign against the deal on Capitol Hill.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
A new tally of the those killed last month makes it the deadliest-ever disaster at the annual pilgrimage.
The death toll in last month’s Hajj stampede in Saudi Arabia is roughly double the number that the country first reported, the Associated Press is reporting.
The Saudi estimate of the disaster was 769, but the new estimate, based on an AP count, suggests that 1,453 people died in the stampede. This new number would make it the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the event.
The Hajj draws roughly 2 million pilgrims to Mecca each year, an observance that lends its host, Saudi Arabia, unrivaled prestige across the Muslim world. It also saddles the kingdom with billions of dollars of costs and logistical considerations. Over the course of the past 40 years, several of the pilgrimages have been marred by deaths caused from stampedes, the collapse of infrastructure, violence, and fires.
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
A sandstorm in Egypt, flooding in South Carolina, the release of a black-footed ferret, an Israeli spacecraft, hazy skies in Indonesia, a volcanic eruption near Quito, a massive traffic jam near Beijing, and much more.
A sandstorm in Egypt, flooding in South Carolina, the release of a black-footed ferret, an Israeli spacecraft, hazy skies in Indonesia, the Cotopaxi volcano eruption near Quito, a massive traffic jam near Beijing, and much more.
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.
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.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and a trip to National Geographic headquarters to participate in its annual photography seminar. The kind folks at National Geographic were once again kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far for display here. Captions written by the individual photographers.