What Your Favourite Startup Used to Be and the Lessons They Learned

“He was fanatical about planning, deliberately exaggerating possible dangers in an attempt to leave nothing to chance. . . . but his capacity to change his plans in the midst of battle, whether provoked by ingenuity or necessity, was all his own.”  —  on how Napoleon thought.

Napoleon was known to plan obsessively. He was also known to ditch his plan last minute. He didn’t stick to it if the evidence suggested he shouldn’t. He never got too attached to his initial vision.

It seems the Baader Meinhof phenomenon was at play. After reading about Napoleon I kept encountering this story in other places.

A relatively new startup, Now In Store, matches independent fashion designers with retailers in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. Though, this wasn’t how they started out.

They used to be a mobile app that helped designers create online stores. At one point designers just stopped updating their stores. After speaking to their users the team made a 180 degree turn. Founder, Charles Brun, echoes the sentiment perfectly: “Do something you love but don’t fall in love with what you’re doing.” The best people never get too attached to their initial vision.

Turns out, some of the most well known names in this land had really interesting beginings. They launched one thing and eventually became famous and funded for something else.

Instagram started out as a feature on a “check-in” app called Burbn [think Foursquare]. Burbn was getting overcrowded with features. And it seemed their users were mostly excited about sharing photos from their locations. They saw the potential in the photo sharing and (kind of) ditched the check-in concept all together.

Foursquare was the idea baby of Dodgeball (1999). A texting app that would broadcast your whereabouts to a groups of friends via SMS messaging. The idea didn’t take off and was put on the back burner. Seven years later, with the onset of Twitter and smart phones, they ditched the texting feature and capitalized on social media.

Twitter was also a texting based service. With a text you could update your friends using short status updates. They eventually ditched the texting feature since it was too limiting. All the stereotypical lingo we associate with Twitter (i.e. @, #, RT) came from users messing around with the first version. When they moved to being a web-based platform, all of this jargon came with it too.

Pinterest used be “Tote.” An iPhone app that allowed you to shop your favourite stores in one place. That idea didn’t take off. Instead of doing any major shopping, women were just tagging and sharing items with their friends. They watched user behaviour and then re-focused. The rest is history.

Sometimes you can test for failure upfront, most times you have unanticipated sources of failure. The above cases are perfect examples of adapting to “it” when it shows up.

So, how did they figure out that “it?”

What’s obvious in all their stories is that they watched their early adopters use their product and then adapted to them.

But, before they could do that, there was a different common denominator.

If Instagram really wanted to be “the best check in app” they probably wouldn’t have ditched Burbn. The same goes for Foursquare/Twitter (“best text-based social app”) and Pinterest (“best app for shopping”).

Instagram, Foursquare, Twitter, and Pinterest, didn’t limit themselves to their early versions because their sights were set on something bigger. In reality, they all wanted to create remarkable social-sharing experiences. Creating this experience didn’t depend on the minutiae of certain features.