What Instagram Can Teach Us about Starting Small

Instagram did it, and Facebook bought the company for a billion dollars. Facebook did it, and they’re kind of a big deal now. (After all, they had a billion lying around to buy Instagram.)

I’m sure countless others did it, as well.

They started small.

Not just because they didn’t have a ton of money to start off with a bang, but because they wanted to carefully test how people would react in limited numbers.

  • Did they like the service?
  • Would the program work the way it was supposed to?
  • Would people find new, unexpected ways to use the program?

The99Percent.com recently published an inspiring article called 8 Insights From Upstart Inventors Under 30, and Kevin Systrom (founder of Instagram) was the inventor that really caught my attention.

Before its billion-dollar buyout, Instagram started out as Burbn, a mashup of Foursquare-style check-ins and other content-driven functionality that included photo-sharing. Burbn was too complex to attract many users, but founder Kevin Systrom says it was extremely valuable as a testbed.

After Systrom and crew realized that the photo-sharing aspect of the software was by far the most utilized section of the technology, they simply stripped away everything but the photos. And voilà! Instagram.

How Does Instagram’s Success Help Us?

I think this idea of starting small is absolutely crucial for creative people.

Instagram tree
Instagram tree

We jump into a new project, and we realize that we can publish it or sell it to THE WHOLE WORLD (evil cackle here). So we, and I’m definitely including me here – recent experiences remind me, push through the production phase and list it on Amazon or on Etsy or any of 100 other sites where you can have your new products ready to go in a moment’s notice.

But there are problems with the instant gratification of the quick publishing solutions.

We Forget to Enjoy Our Creativity. As soon as you hit the publish button, you’ve gone from simply being a creator to being a merchant. That’s a big difference. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be a professional fiction author / comic book writer / pro at any other art I could manage.

But creating and selling are two very different skill sets, and each takes a lot of time to hone.

The process of selling takes our eyes off of creating, and we become filled with doubts. “If I can’t sell a million of these plushie toys I spent all night sewing, then I just shouldn’t try to create anymore.”

Those doubts can be damaging to the healthy exercise of creativity in your life.

Remember, creating and selling are two very different things.

We Rush, So We Don’t Publish Our Best. Even though it’s easier than ever to get something to the market, that doesn’t always mean that we should publish right away. Without taking time to get user feedback or time to get an editor to proofread, we miss out on possible improvements.

The market doesn’t lower its standards simply because we can publish faster.

How to Instagram Our Creativity

Sure, we could take trendy photos of our projects with extra cool filters, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about starting small. Look for ways that you can get user feedback from friends and from people you don’t know as well. Friends are more likely to try to tell you the things that you want to hear, but strangers can be more blunt.

If you’re writing, find “beta” readers (a.k.a. anyone who will read a draft and be honest with feedback) and editors to help you tighten up the prose. If you’re creating crafts, give some away to see how people use them. Are you writing music? Go perform in your local coffeeshop.

There are tons of options out there to test artistic projects, but you may have to work to find them.

What has your experience been like? If you’ve tried to sell artistic projects, did it make you want to back off from creativity for a while?

My burning desire is to learn from every one of my artistic flops. If I didn’t get something quite right with this story or that idea, then I want to learn how to improve upon it.

After all, creativity isn’t about trying to get rich or make the huge breakthrough. Creativity is a part of a healthy life. It is a matter of expression and exploring yourself and the world around you.

But still… maybe your Instagram is right around the corner.