No Business Plan: The Instagram Model for Making Millions

As many social media fans were surprised to find out, the company Instagram recently sold for $1 billion to social media giant Facebook. Before that, it was just a team of about 11 guys working from an old fishing pier ( in Palo Alto, California.

Their idea ( was to create “a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures.” To that effect, they decided to make a smartphone application that not only moves quickly, but interacts with several social media platforms and produces a quality product. And the app would be entirely free.

The concept of quality first, profits later is not a new one, but it’s a tough one to wrap your mind – and wallet – around in today’s fast-paced economy. But that’s the direction more and more web-based businesses are taking.

Take Google, for example. Or Facebook. Both businesses were founded on the concept of providing a quality service at no cost to the user. In the end, users found that each of these services were so convenient that they practically couldn’t do without them. Where we once argued for hours over the origin of the word “pirate,” we can now grab a smartphone and look up “pirate word origins” on Google. Or instead of trying to remember if Father’s Day is in June or July, we can just go on the Wikipedia smartphone app and type in “Father’s Day” for not only the date but also the history and even mentions in popular culture.

The ultimate question remains, though. How do you monetize your online business without forsaking the free-for-users concept?

Quality always wins the day

No matter if you created the fastest movie trivia-answering database or the coolest hangman smartphone app ever, users are going to walk away in a heartbeat if the product is not quality. This means that it not only has to perform well – and quickly – every time, but it needs to address issues before the user even thinks of the problem. Again, consider the Instagram model. Users can take pictures and filter them with all kinds of image applications. The pictures download as the users are choosing their filters, so the final image upload time is incredibly short. Then
it’s as easy as clicking a button to share it on a number of social media platforms.

In a New York Times article ( from April 2012, an employee at Instagram’s Dogpatch Labs noted that the founders once spent “two hours perfecting the rounded corners of the app’s icons.” It was that kind of dedication to quality that helped the Instagram team skyrocket to

It has to be easy to use

Even if your product is breathtakingly beautiful, it still needs to be practical and super easy to use. Consider the last time you tried to use a new software program. Even computer-savvy users might have a hard time with a program if action buttons are placed in illogical locations, or aspects of the device seem nonsensical at first glance. It might make sense to you after spending countless hours, weeks, or months creating it, but if a person using it for the first time becomes easily lost and confused, you’re already losing your customer base.

According to a May 2012 study by the Nielsen Norman Group (, there are a variety of things that websites in general should have to make them easier for users to view whether they’re on a smartphone, iPad, or home computer.
For example, Nielsen notes that websites and their apps should always have a “back” button available, should avoid fancy splash screens on opening, should stick to a solid format across all applications so users don’t become confused between platforms, and the app should have a “secret weapon” that the regular website doesn’t have.

The more it does, the better

With so many options out there for socializing, shopping, and digging up information, the more your website and/or application offers in terms of cross-platforms, the better. For example, if you have an application that allows users to view documents, make sure it can read as many different types of files as possible. And if you can send from that application, having quick-link buttons that allow the user to not only email or message the info, but also post on different social media platforms or even their websites makes your app all that more invaluable.

Even your standard photo application on the iPhone gives you the option to email or message a photo, assign it to a contact in your phone book or use it as wallpaper. So how can your website multi-task? Even if you’re just posting articles, include widgets that allow visitors to your site to post what they find on their Facebook page. Have a lot of images? Add a widget that allows visitors to pin pictures to Pinterest. The easier your product information is to share, the

Get people to like it

Ultimately, the popularity of your product spreads by word of mouth – or in more modern terms, by how many people like it. This could be the number of people visiting your website to the number of times the app for your site has been downloaded. It could even be the number of “likes” on your company Facebook page that drives more people to find out about your product. A recent story by National Public Radio ( featured a company that sells Facebook “likes” to companies to increase theirpopularity. More likes could mean more investors interested in your product and possibly even more media attention.

Regardless of how many fans you may have in social media, however, if you have a good product, the customers will come. As long as your website and/or app is high quality, easy to use, and makes interacting with the social web world easier, you have a solid start to what could one day be your own $1 billion sale.

This free guest post was written by:
Industry veteran Anita Brady is the President of, a leading provider of high quality customizable items like customizable business cards, letterhead and other materials for small businesses and solo practitioners.

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