Why google can’t build instagram
Tonight I was talking with an exec at Google and I brought up the success of Instagr.am (they’ve gotten more than 500,000 downloads in just a few weeks) and asked him “why can’t Google do that?”
I knew some of the answers. After all, I watched Microsoft get passed by by a whole group of startups (I was working at Microsoft as Flickr got bought by Yahoo, Skype got bought by eBay, etc etc).
I told him a few of my theories, and he told me back what they are seeing internally. Turns out he was talking to me about these items because Google, internally, knows it has an innovation problem (look at Google Wave or Buzz for examples of how it is messed up) and is looking to remake its culture internally to help entrepreneurial projects take hold.
1. Google can’t keep its teams small enough. Instagram was started by two guys who rented a table at DogPatchLabs in Pier 38 (the first time I met the Instagr.am team was when Rocky and I did this video on Dogpatch Labs). The exec I was talking with said Google Wave had more than 30 people on the team. He had done his own startup and knew the man-month myth. For every person you add to a team, he said, iteration speed goes down. He told me a story of how Larry Ellison actually got efficiencies from teams. If a team wasn’t productive, he’d come every couple of weeks and say “let me help you out.” What did he do? He took away another person until the team started shipping and stopped having unproductive meetings.
2. Google can’t reduce scope like Instagram did. Instagram started out as being a far different product than actually shipped (which actually got it in trouble with investor Andreesen Horowitz, according to Techcrunch). It actually started out as a service that did a lot more than just photographs. But, they learned they couldn’t complete such a grand vision and do it well. So they kept throwing out features. Instagram can do that. Google can’t. Imagine you come to Larry Page and say “you know that new social platform we’re building? Let’s throw 90% of it out.” Google has to compete with Facebook. Instagram had to compete with itself. As to Andreesen: this is why lots of my favorite companies like GoPro or SmugMug never took any VC. The pressure to “go for the home run” destroys quite a few companies.
3. At Google, if a product becomes successful, will get tons of resources and people thrown at it. Imagine you’re working at Google and you have 20% time. Will you keep spending that time on a boring project that isn’t very cool? No, you will want to join a cool project like Instagram that’s getting love around the world and getting tons of adoption. If the Instagram team were at Google they’d have to deal with tons of emails and folks hanging outside their cubes just to try to participate. I saw exactly this happen at Microsoft when a small team I was enamored of started getting tons of resources because it was having some success.
4. Google forces its developers to use its infrastructure, which wasn’t developed for small social projects. At Google you can’t use MySQL and Ruby on Rails. You’ve gotta build everything to deploy on its internal database “Big Table,” they call it. That wasn’t designed for small little dinky social projects. Engineers tell me it’s hard to develop for and not as productive as other tools that external developers get to use.
5. Google’s services need to support every platform. In this case, imagine a Google engineer saying “we’re only going to support iPhone with this.” (Instagr.