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17 Product Lessons from Building Instagram, and now Retro

by Kevin Weil, Christen O’Brien, and the co-founders of Retro Starting today, Retro is available globally on both iOS and Android.

Everyone knows Instagram Stories, but few know the stories behind Stories.

I caught up recently with my former teammates, Nathan Sharp and Ryan Olson, to share our biggest product lessons (and some hilarious stories too ;)).

Nathan and Ryan are now co-founders of Scribble company Retro (now available on both iOS and Android), the best place to catch up with friends and family. They’re two of the best product builders I’ve ever worked with, and their learnings with Retro will be eye-opening for other founders, so we included those also.

Building consumer products is exceptionally hard, but we hope this makes your path ahead just a little bit clearer.

9 Product Lessons from IG Stories:

1 - Great product builders are systems-thinkers. You don’t build products in isolation. They need to all reinforce each other to end up with a consistent system. And the system needs to be simple enough for users to quickly understand how it works.

2 - Do the simple thing first.

Optimize for momentum at the beginning, not complexity. Despite the number of directions you can go in, the best product builders solve the simplest need first.

3 - Forget the status quo. Build the product you think needs to exist in the world. If you begin there and make adjustments as you learn, you’ll land as close as possible to what is best for everyone.

4 - The best testing tool is your team.

If your team is using the product and benefitting, that’s the strongest data.

Story #1 about Stories - “Please god let this demo work”

“I’ll always remember the All Hands meeting where I presented Stories to Mark (Zuckerberg). I hadn't been at Instagram all that long and Mark wanted us to talk about it the day before we were set to launch. It was pretty much my first intro to the company and it was a live demo. There was like this part at the beginning of the demo where it didn't quite load. I still remember looking down at Mark sitting there in the front row - someone who you respect a great deal who's just staring at you with this intensity. I was just waiting for this thing to load, like, “Please God, please!”. And then it came on, it worked. We pulled off the demo. And the thing I remember most about that time is how much I felt the product was gonna work, more than any other product I’d worked on. Because we were using it internally. We would go away for the weekend and come back with way more to talk about together just as people, as friends, because of Stories. We became better friends because of Stories. And you could just feel it while we were building it. I've never worked on something that I had more confidence in, because I saw firsthand how the product had changed our relationships for the better.”

5 - It's the core product that matters most.

Small features rarely are tipping points to a watershed moment. It’s the core product that opens floodgates and deserves 99% of your attention.

6 - Great founder/CEOs get their hands dirty.

The best leaders push ownership on their team and let them shine. But when needed, they don’t hesitate to jump in and grind. And when they do, everyone sees how exceptionally good they are at their craft.

Story #2 about Stories - “The Cheetah”

“In the beginning, before you launch something you're always looking for the small thing that's gonna tip it off and make it work. With IG Stories, while we had a really smooth production/consumption flow, we thought our creative tools weren't rich enough. Like we needed something that nobody else had ever built. And so we had this idea of the “neon highlighter”. It came late in the project - we already had a set deadline that everything was racing toward and our team was tiny. So we had to go out and look for someone who could help us build this neon highlighter. The first guy that came in was so funny, he was nicknamed “The Cheetah” because he was this legendary Silicon Valley engineer who was known to be incredibly fast. He would be drinking a ton of Red Bull and chain smoking, and just grinding away trying to get this neon highlighter out. It was so intense that we’d be like “Man, take it easy!”. He ended up totally burning out three days later. So here we were, closing in on launch, and we weren't going to get this beloved feature. Mike Krieger, the co-founder of Instagram, came in to save the day. He coded the thing up, and we launched with the neon highlighter. But it turns out, it really didn’t matter much in the end. That was one of the big product lessons from IG Stories - it's the core thing that's most important. It’s normal to get excited about features, but it’s rare they end up being the tipping points. That said, every good product team needs a leader like Mike Krieger and an engineer on call like the Cheetah!”

7 - Big products mostly come from small teams.

A small team is a superpower. The biggest products appear like there’s an army of people building them, but usually it’s just a small, highly talented group.

8 - In the early days. product intuition > data.

When you have massive scale, there’s a lot of value in eeking out a 1% improvement. But as a startup, your data sets won’t get you the 10x improvements needed at that stage. Product intuition, while less quantifiable, is a critical asset.

9 - Courage means putting it front and center. If you believe in something, it should be front and center in your product experience. It takes serious courage, but will lay a firm foundation for the product’s future.

8 Product Lessons from Retro:

1 - Product principles are invisibly powerful.

Product principles are game changing. They guide what and how your team builds the product, and consequently how people use it.

2 - Think bigger and your product will follow.

Have a bigger belief about how your product matters to someone’s life. For Retro, they’re inspired by the Ferris Bueller line: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

3 - It’s critical to define what you are building -AND- what you’re not.

In the absence of a product ethos, business models have a tendency to steer the ship. Defining what you are building and what you’re not serves as a compass that will keep your product on track.

4 - “Do things that don't scale” is still great advice.

In the early days, it’s irreplaceably valuable to get in-person feedback. You’ll learn more from the nuance of these interactions than anything else.

5 - Don’t use the word “launch”.

Building a startup is a long-term process that involves many “launches”. Retro thought of their first one simply as an opportunity to gain credibility with a few articles and some trusted voices in the tech community. That simplicity paid off.

6 - The balance between growth and retention is not linear.

Network growth is like riding a bicycle. If you grow too slowly, you fall over. But if you grow too fast, it’s easy to lose control. Getting this balance right for your company is key.

7 - Waitlists can still be potent.

Waitlists can be pretty tired marketing tools - unless you get creative! Retro spurred a rush of prospective users by inviting them to claim their username. The trick: think about how your waitlist can deliver value to people.

8 - Building products that even one person uses everyday is a miracle.

For the team at Retro, there’s nothing like the feeling of waking up each day and seeing people use Retro. Consumer social is so hard that it feels like a miracle when you get even one person you don’t know to spend their time opening your app in a sea of others - celebrate these moments with your team!

Starting today, Retro is available globally on both iOS and Android.


Elizabeth Weil

Founder and Managing Partner, Scribble Ventures ( Previously Andreessen Horowitz, Twitter. Investor: SpaceX, Slack, Coinbase, Figma, Clubhouse, Calm. Letterpress printer (@paperwheel). Ultramarathon runner. Mom to @thirdweil and twins.

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