Season 4, Episode 3 Instagram Revisited (with Emily White)

Summary Notes


In Season 4, Episode 3 of Acquired, hosts Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal are joined by Emily White, former executive at Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Snap, now venture investor and president of Anthos Capital. They revisit Facebook's acquisition of Instagram, a deal pivotal in transforming Instagram from a zero-revenue app to a platform generating nearly a quarter of Facebook's revenue. White shares insights from her time at Instagram, where she was instrumental in developing its business model post-acquisition, and the challenges of integrating and maintaining Instagram's unique identity within Facebook. The conversation also delves into the broader implications of technology acquisitions, the importance of monetization strategies, and the nuanced journey from startup to industry juggernaut.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Acquired Podcast and Episode Focus

  • Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal introduce the podcast "Acquired" and the episode's focus on Facebook's acquisition of Instagram.
  • They discuss the podcast's history, mentioning that the second episode ever in 2015 covered the Instagram acquisition.
  • Instagram's journey from zero revenue to a significant portion of Facebook's revenue is highlighted.

"On our second episode ever, way back in 2015, we covered Facebook's acquisition of Instagram. And in fact, it's the canonical example of an A plus that we use on our show. So today we'll dive into the integration itself. How Facebook spent a billion dollars to take something from zero revenue to an app responsible for almost a quarter of all of their revenue today."

The quote outlines the episode's theme of exploring the successful integration and business development of Instagram post-acquisition by Facebook.

Emily White's Introduction and Background

  • Emily White is introduced as a key player in Instagram's post-acquisition business development.
  • Her background includes working at Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Snap, and her current role as a venture investor and president of Anthos Capital.
  • Emily White's career trajectory and her ability to anticipate trends are discussed.

"So Emily today is a venture investor and the president of Anthos Capital in Los Angeles, but previously in her career was a longtime executive at Google, where she joined very early pre-IPO. She worked with Sheryl Sandberg for ten years, and she then continued to work for Sheryl by moving to Facebook in 2010. And then the topic of today's episode, joined Instagram post-acquisition as their first business executive."

The quote provides a summary of Emily White's professional background and her role in Instagram's business development after Facebook's acquisition.

Facebook's Acquisition of Instagram

  • The hosts recall the circumstances around Facebook's acquisition of Instagram, including the competitive offer from Twitter.
  • The rapid decision-making by Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram's co-founders is highlighted.
  • The acquisition's impact on Instagram's growth and the tech industry is discussed.

"So Mark and Facebook find out that Instagram has an acquisition offer on the table from Twitter. Mark had offered to buy Twitter for just about 500 million a few years earlier. And now here is his former acquisition target that is about to buy his current potential future competitor."

This quote emphasizes the competitive nature of the acquisition and the strategic moves made by Mark Zuckerberg to secure Instagram for Facebook.

Instagram's Integration and Business Model Development

  • The hosts and Emily White discuss Instagram's integration into Facebook post-acquisition.
  • The challenges of incorporating a small startup into a large corporation are mentioned.
  • The development of Instagram's business model and revenue generation is a key topic.

"It was really the first acquisition that Facebook had done, not just for the people, which are typically called aqua hires. Right. But an acquisition for the people and the company, the underlying product."

The quote highlights the unique nature of the Instagram acquisition, which was not just for talent (aqua hire) but also for the product and company as a whole.

Emily White's Role in Instagram's Business Development

  • Emily White's involvement with Instagram began after returning from maternity leave.
  • She was tasked with addressing business challenges and working closely with Kevin Systrom, Instagram's CEO.
  • The discussion includes the initial stages of building Instagram's business model and revenue strategies.

"You know, we've acquired Instagram. They're sitting over in this corner and they're having some challenges on the business side. You should go spend some time with Kevin and there's. There's maybe some opportunity to help him."

The quote points to Emily White's assignment to assist with Instagram's business challenges, indicating the beginning of her significant contributions to the platform's success.

The Significance of Instagram's Acquisition

  • The acquisition is considered a pivotal moment in the tech industry, demonstrating the potential of social media startups.
  • The hosts reflect on the public reaction to the acquisition and its subsequent validation as Instagram grew.
  • The episode aims to uncover the strategies and decisions that led to Instagram's remarkable revenue growth.

"This was the first. The term unicorn didn't exist. This was a huge moment."

The quote underscores the groundbreaking nature of Instagram's acquisition at the time, marking a turning point in how tech startups were valued and acquired.

Facebook's Approach to Instagram's User-Generated Content

  • Facebook attempted to apply its own policies to Instagram's user-generated content for ads.
  • Instagram's community strongly opposed Facebook's approach.
  • The incident highlighted the distinct cultures and user mentalities of the two platforms.
  • It was crucial to preserve Instagram's unique identity and voice.

"And they rewrote it with a very Facebook frame of mind, which was, we want the ability to use this user generated content in future ads, future ad content."

The quote illustrates Facebook's initial strategy to monetize Instagram's content in a way that was typical for Facebook but not suitable for Instagram's community.

Facebook's Mobile Strategy and Culture Clash

  • Facebook struggled with the transition to mobile, having only one iOS engineer in the early days.
  • There was a cultural and operational shift required to prioritize mobile-first development.
  • The shift to mobile was a significant change for a company the size of Facebook.

"I had gone over to work on the mobile efforts in 2011, and I think we had one iOS engineer at the time."

This quote emphasizes the lack of focus on mobile development at Facebook during a period when mobile was becoming increasingly important.

Potential Value Destruction in Acquisitions

  • Acquisitions can lead to value destruction if the acquiring company's teams resist the new addition.
  • Emily White faced skepticism about moving to Instagram, with some considering it a demotion.
  • Oprah's advice about listening to one's whispers influenced White's decision to join Instagram.
  • Instagram's acquisition was seen as an opportunity for Facebook to disrupt itself from within.

"That actually resulted in me. I think I told Kevin twice or three times. No, I just was, you know, I think I need to continue to focus on mobile."

This quote reflects Emily White's initial hesitation to join Instagram due to the perception of it being a less significant opportunity compared to her role at Facebook.

Instagram's Monetization Strategy

  • Instagram had to decide whether monetization was necessary for its growth.
  • Monetizing allowed for greater control and influence within the larger Facebook company.
  • Instagram's user base and Facebook's resources provided a strong foundation for advertising.
  • The ad model for Instagram needed to be distinct from other platforms like Amazon.

"Yeah, well, the first question is, do you have to make money? Right? And that's the question that we debated with ourselves and with a bunch of people at the company."

This quote captures the initial strategic discussions around Instagram's need to generate revenue and its implications for the company's autonomy and growth.

Maintaining Instagram's Identity in Ads

  • Preserving the user experience was paramount when introducing ads to Instagram.
  • Instagram had the luxury of moving slowly with ads due to financial support from Facebook.
  • Early advertising on Instagram was hand-curated, with each ad approved by the team.
  • The initial brands chosen for ads were those already engaging well with the Instagram community.

"So we made that the number one priority, actually. We knew. And we knew, by the way, just looking at what happened with the terms of service, that pissing off our user base was not the way to go."

This quote highlights the importance placed on maintaining a positive user experience and not alienating the Instagram community when introducing ads.

Instagram's Cultural Integration within Facebook

  • Instagram needed to establish its mission, vision, and values within Facebook.
  • There was a lack of understanding within Facebook about how to integrate Instagram.
  • Instagram conducted internal marketing to educate Facebook employees about its unique culture.
  • The ad strategy was developed to reflect Instagram's distinct identity and user experience.

"This was the beginning of realizing what Instagram was inside of Facebook instead of Instagram becoming Facebook."

The quote signifies the strategic effort to maintain Instagram's separate identity and culture within the larger framework of Facebook.

Evolution of Online Advertising Business Models

  • Early days of Google focused on hiring smart people and fast search results without a focus on monetization.
  • Google AdWords was initially a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) product without an auction system, limiting the variety of advertisers.
  • The introduction of the auction system and click-through rate consideration allowed for a wider range of advertisers with varying margins.
  • The shift in online advertising towards performance marketing, where advertisers could measure the return on investment.
  • Instagram's ad model started as a brand play rather than direct response due to the lack of calls to action and links in ads.
  • The transition from brand advertising to performance marketing on Instagram was gradual, with infrastructure being built over time.

"When Google started, I remember it actually really did not care about making money." "So everyone who showed up at the top, right, had to pay $10. Everyone underneath them had to pay. Was it 1210 and eight set per thousand views?" "Fast forward to Instagram, the technology to do this obviously had sort of already existed, which was wonderful, but we had also moved as a marketplace to be so much more focused on effectiveness."

These quotes reflect the initial lack of focus on monetization at Google and the early CPM model that limited advertiser diversity. They also highlight the evolution towards a performance-driven marketplace by the time Instagram was developing its ad business.

Instagram's Approach to Building an Ads Business

  • Instagram systematically decided what elements of Facebook's infrastructure to use or build independently.
  • Leveraging Facebook's user data enabled precise targeting for Instagram ads.
  • Initial Instagram ads were more focused on brand advertising due to the nature of the platform and lack of direct response features.
  • Instagram's ad sales team was a hybrid of leaning on Facebook's existing relationships and creating a dedicated team within Instagram.

"So what we did was we very systematically went through all of the pieces of Facebook that we could either lean on or build our own." "We knew that we were not building a product that was going to, at least in the short term, compete with Facebook ad dollars." "We decided to do a take a hybrid approach. We leaned on the sales teams really heavily because they had all these relationships that we didn't have to go recreate."

These quotes outline Instagram's strategic decision-making process in building its ad business, the recognition of its unique position compared to Facebook, and the hybrid approach to sales team structure.

Snapchat's Independent Ad Business Development

  • Snapchat, unlike Instagram, did not have the option to lean on another company's infrastructure and had to build everything from scratch.
  • Snapchat's emphasis on owning the ad business as part of its DNA led to the development of in-house ad serving and measurement technology.
  • Snapchat's approach to ads in live stories was to integrate brands into the social experience, reflecting the nature of the platform.

"We didn't have anyone to lean on. We had to build it all of ourselves." "When it's an important part, you don't want to outsource it, you want to own it." "We launched the Snapchat. Now, Snap. We built that infrastructure in house."

These quotes emphasize Snapchat's need to independently build its ad infrastructure and the strategic decision to own the ad business due to its importance to the company's future.

Instagram's Revenue and Valuation Growth

  • Instagram's revenue predictions for 2019 were around $14 billion.
  • The estimated value of Instagram within Facebook reached $35 billion at one point.
  • Instagram's success and growth potential could justify a high revenue multiple based on its high margin ad revenue business.

"So predicted Instagram to do 14 billion in revenue this year in 2019." "Citigroup had just done a research report on Facebook and estimated the value of Instagram within Facebook at 35 billion at that point in time." "You're saying the enterprise value of Facebook, I'm sorry, of Instagram, is somewhere around $150,000,000,000."

These quotes provide insights into Instagram's financial growth and its significant contribution to Facebook's overall valuation, highlighting the platform's success as an ad revenue generator.

The Impact of Instagram's Acquisition on Facebook

  • The acquisition of Instagram was critical to Facebook's continued success.
  • Instagram's growth was accelerated by leveraging Facebook's resources.
  • The departure of Instagram's founders from Facebook was seen as a natural progression after a successful integration.

"I don't know where Facebook would be today, honestly." "I think that Mark showed a level of ingenuity in identifying and moving quickly on the Instagram acquisition." "And maybe he would have done it on the next one, I don't know. And been successful with that."

These quotes discuss the strategic importance of Instagram's acquisition for Facebook and speculate on the potential outcomes had the acquisition not occurred, suggesting that Instagram played a key role in Facebook's continued dominance in social media.

Instagram's Success and Potential Twitter Acquisition

  • Instagram maintained product experience post-Facebook acquisition, contributing to its success.
  • Uncertainty around Instagram's potential under Twitter due to Twitter's management challenges.
  • Speculation on Instagram carving out a niche within Twitter and avoiding internal drama.

"We intentionally maintained the product experience, and that has continued to do very, very well, despite. And in addition to it being part of Facebook, had Twitter bought it? I don't know."

The quote highlights the deliberate choice to preserve Instagram's user experience as a key factor in its continued success, even as part of Facebook, and contrasts it with the uncertain fate it might have had under Twitter's tumultuous management.

The Value of Tech Startups

  • Discussion on the valuation of startups with no revenue but significant user traction.
  • The perceived value of startups like Instagram can render high acquisition costs relatively unimportant due to their potential.

"I mean, at that level, if you save or have to spend an extra 500 million, and it would sound so bizarre, but the possibility is so tremendous that it really doesn't matter."

This quote emphasizes the mindset that the potential value and impact of acquiring a startup like Instagram far outweighs the actual cost, even if it's in the hundreds of millions.

Founders' Mindset and Secondary Sales

  • Founders' perspectives on company value and acquisition offers can change based on personal financial security.
  • Secondary sales allowing founders to realize some wealth can influence their decisions and commitment to the company.

"Because if you haven't made any money and you have a billion dollar deal on the table, how could you not say no to? But if you're able to take some money off the table along the way and buy a house, it's easier to keep going and build."

This quote reflects on how the ability for founders to sell a portion of their shares (secondary sales) can provide financial security, affecting their willingness to reject acquisition offers and continue growing their business.

Facebook's Mobile Strategy and Instagram Integration

  • Facebook's shift to a mobile-first strategy was underway by the time of Instagram's acquisition.
  • Instagram's web version was debated in terms of investment and necessity due to the focus on mobile.

"At that point, they had realized it. Do you remember when Facebook came out with the lot of effort? There were a lot of efforts underway at that company at that point to make sure that it was a mobile first company."

The quote discusses Facebook's realization and efforts to pivot to a mobile-first approach, which was a significant strategic shift at the time of Instagram's integration.

Instagram's Startup Culture Post-Acquisition

  • Instagram maintained a startup-like culture and fight for resources within Facebook.
  • The need to recruit entrepreneurial talent and define identity within a larger corporate structure.

"It felt so much like a startup. And at the same time, we were part of a public company, which then emphasized, at least to me, that we needed to double down on who we were and really make sure that we knew it and that we were defining it for the community."

This quote captures the dual nature of Instagram's existence post-acquisition – operating with the agility and culture of a startup while being part of a much larger public company.

Google's Acquisition Strategy with YouTube and Instagram's Policy Decisions

  • Google allowed YouTube to operate independently post-acquisition, which was seen as a successful strategy.
  • Instagram made deliberate choices about integrating with Facebook's infrastructure and policies while maintaining its distinct platform identity.

"I think Google did a really nice job with the YouTube acquisition in that they resourced it, they informed it, but they let it fly on its own for a very long time."

The quote praises Google's approach to managing YouTube's acquisition by providing resources yet allowing independence, drawing a parallel to Instagram's strategy within Facebook.

Instagram's Evolution and Monetization Strategy

  • Instagram's journey included significant product development and decisions on monetization.
  • Balancing growth with monetization, product features like video, messaging, and stories were prioritized.

"And you have to remember this is all happening at a time where it was like, do we even need to monetize? And we decided we needed to monetize, but we also needed to grow the product."

This quote discusses the strategic decision-making process at Instagram, where the team had to decide on the right balance between product growth and beginning to monetize the platform.

The Impact of People and Decisions in Tech Companies

  • The importance of individual decisions and the people behind them in shaping the history of tech companies.
  • Anecdote about renegotiating contracts to avoid revenue sharing with mobile operators before Facebook launched mobile ads.

"Oh, my gosh. I mean, the history is littered with these small decisions that seem so small at the moment."

The quote reflects on how seemingly minor decisions made by individuals can have a significant impact on the future of tech companies, underscoring the influence of people in the industry.

Podcasting and Media Influence

  • Discussion on the influence of podcasting and media personalities like Joe Rogan and Sam Harris.
  • Insights into the podcast industry and the preparation for interviewing influential figures like Jack Dorsey.

"It's a phenomenal episode and it's a great interview with the guy. I need to listen to the Jack Dorsey interview as well."

This quote points to the growing influence of podcasting as a medium and how it facilitates in-depth discussions with prominent figures, highlighting the shift in media consumption and production.

Oklahoma City's History and Boomtown Book

  • Book recommendation "Boomtown" by Sam Anderson, which provides a history of Oklahoma City.
  • The book explores the city's chaotic beginnings and its ongoing evolution.

"It is very worth reading. I can't even describe it other than like, I cannot believe that even in the late 18 hundreds, basically what happened was you read about this in elementary school, in history."

The quote introduces the book "Boomtown" and expresses amazement at the historical events surrounding the founding of Oklahoma City, recommending it as an insightful read.

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