Here is why Facebook bought Instagram

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What is about Instagram that has made Facebook open up its checkbook and spend nearly a billion dollars in stock and cash to buy up a company only in its third year. There are many reasons, and the biggest one is fear.

You might have heard by now that Facebook has acquired Instagram for nearly a billion dollars in cash and stock. Incredible, isn’t it?, for no one saw this coming.

A few days ago it was rumored to be valued at $500 million. A few months ago it was $300 million. Its last round — just a year ago – valued the company at $100 million. The rising valuation of the company was reflective of the growing audience it has been garnering, despite being just on the iPhone. It had reached nearly 30 million registered users before it launched an Android app, a turbo-charging event for the company.

So the question is:  Why did Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s level-headed but mercenary founder, buy Instagram at twice the valuation that professional venture investors were putting on it? The answer is found in Zuckerberg’s own blog post:

This is an important milestone for Facebook because it’s the first time we’ve ever acquired a product and company with so many users. We don’t plan on doing many more of these, if any at all. But providing the best photo sharing experience is one reason why so many people love Facebook and we knew it would be worth bringing these two companies together.

My translation: Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects. Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.

In other words, if there was any competitor that could give Zuckerberg heartburn, it was Systrom’s posse. They are growing like mad on mobile, and Facebook’s mobile platform (including its app) is mediocre at best. Why? Facebook is not a mobile-first company and they don’t think from the mobile-first perspective. Facebook’s internal ideology is that of a desktop-centric Internet company.

Instagram are two distinct companies with two distinct personalities. Instagram has what Facebook craves – passionate community. People like Facebook. People use Facebook. People love Instagram. It is my single most-used app. I spend an hour a day on Instagram. I have made friends based on photos they share. I know how they feel, and how they see the world. Facebook lacks soul. Instagram is all soul and emotion.

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Importantly, it cracked the code where Facebook itself failed: viral growth on mobile. From that perspective I wonder if Kevin sold too soon, though I know it is easy for me to say. But then the road from product and a platform to a business is long, twisted and full of potholes. Perhaps that explains why the Instagram team decided to cash in their chips.

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