To innovate at scale, Instagram shows restraint in the right places

Instagram has become the iPhone photo sharing app of choice, but cut through the hype and you'll find a compelling business lesson in managing scale.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

I was prepared to hate Mat Honan's latest feature on Instagram, the popular vintage-filter-photo app for Apple's iPhone. But to his credit, the Gizmodo writer made a little business problem immensely fascinating.

Honan tells a story of how Instagram blew up without blowing up -- that is, scaled to 15 million users without losing uptime, industry credibility and each of its 10 employees' minds. The key is that Instagram shunned a web interface, or a second or third app platform to support, and kept innovating in the narrow space in which they exist: a single photo-sharing app for iPhone users.

That focus helped the company stay afloat, from a technical standpoint, when big social hitters like Barack Obama and Justin Bieber joined the service.

Honan elaborates:

"The best feature is that it works" explains [founder Kevin] Systrom. "You compare our history to other social media startups and it's been very good. We've been very careful about scaling."

And to that end the team has spent much of the last year planning for growth. Because they don't want to revamp the system while its under load, that's meant doing things like calculating where likes-per-second will be in a month—or six months—and reconfiguring the app and back end to support it. There is no Fail Whale or Tumblrbeast of Instagram. There's just uptime. And they want to keep it that way, even as they continue to blow up.

"To be honest, 15 million is a small fraction of where we want to be, so we have to think 6 months to a year ahead," says Systrom.

You can read the rest here.

The moral of the story here is scale: if you're going to scale up, retain a laser-like focus and you're less likely to stumble. You're also less likely to burn through cash, because you won't need a massive staff to support a product that, from a platform point of view, isn't any bigger -- just better.

Despite its popularity, it's still very much early days for the company, and so it's unclear how this restraint is affecting Instagram's momentum -- will it weather the phase of being a mobile fad? Still, those of us who have worked for big companies know how quickly a project or piece of technology can spiral into vortex of complexity; novel as it may be, Instagram is a good business case study on how to not let that happen.

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