7 Days of “Being”
The week I launched an app, was featured by Apple, gained 50,000 downloads, and was banned by Instagram.
I love making products. Since I graduated college in 2005, I’ve directly worked on developing consumer software products that deeply meant something to me personally in one way or another. Two weeks ago, I launched my favorite product to date — Being for Instagram. For those who missed some of the press we received during our launch, Being allows you to experience Instagram from the perspective of another user (read my post about the evolution of social media & the creation of Being).
From the first prototype, it was apparent that Being stretched the boundaries of social media and content curation in general. For the first time ever, users were given a chance to take a step out of their shoes and see how social media appears through someone else’s eyes, from their closest friends to their favorite celebrities. With Being, we had developed an app that unlocked the power of who you follow, not what you post, to reveal a whole new layer of curation and discovery. My team and I spent 5 months honing the product, until we were finally ready to launch it on Thursday, February 18, 2016. Little did we know, 7 days and 50,000 downloads later, we’d be banned by Instagram.
What we thought would happen
We launched Being primarily as a public proof of concept. While we knew from our internal beta tests and conversations with friends that people were intrigued by the concept, we set out to prove a few things that would validate the concept on a grander scale.
When we launched Being, we had a few goals in mind:
- Gain 5,000 active users in the first month. This number was pretty arbitrary, but having launched two apps prior to this, I knew acquiring those 5,000 users wouldn’t be as easy as it sounds, especially without a paid acquisition campaign.
- Generate 25,000 feed views (defined as a user opening a feed in the app) in the first month. This would serve as a metric to measure the stickiness of the UX. Again, this was a relatively conservative benchmark, based on the assumption that we’d have 5,000 users and each of them would view at least 5 feeds.
- Prove engagement with Instagram content through measuring Likes & Follows generated within the app. This was by far the most important metric to us. We would set out to validate Being as a powerful new platform to generate engagement by unlocking the power of who someone follows as a source for discovery and curation. Measuring the value Being added back to the primary network was critical, since we intended on establishing a long-term partnership with the network on which we were based. At the end of the day, if someone Likes a post or Follows a user on Being, there is an Instagram user on the other end of that action receiving a push notification — directing them back to Instagram.
- Acquire 3–4 press hits in first and second tier tech publications for general brand recognition and user acquisition. If there is one thing I’ve learned in working with the press, it’s that no press is ever guaranteed. So we’d spend a few weeks prior to our launch lining up a few articles, hoping that the concept was something writers thought would resonate with their readers, which would in turn help spur downloads.
- Get featured on Product Hunt. If you’re reading this, there is a 99.99% chance you’re familiar with Product Hunt and the potential power of the so-called “Product Hunt Effect”. If you happen to fall in the 0.01%, read this, this, or generally anything here.
- Have fun and make some new friends along the way.
So, our benchmarks were recorded. We were all set to launch steadily with the intent of building a preliminary user base & validating the concept and engagement model over the course of roughly 30 days. Easy.
What actually happened
For the sake of this blog post, I’ll keep it relatively short and to the point. But believe me when I say that the seven days following our launch were the most exciting, stressful, energizing, nerve-racking, sleepless, rewarding days of my professional life.
I got around 4 hours of sleep total the night before launch. Not because I was anxious or excited — those were a given. I had simply been up doing all of the things I said I would do in the weeks leading up to launch but didn’t get to (our website went live only a few hours before launch). On Thursday morning, I woke up, had a cup of coffee, walked the dog, and set Being (initially titled “Being — Experience Instagram from another perspective”) live on the App Store. WOO HOO. At around 10am, our first of about three secured press hits was set to go live on The Verge. My dev team, on standby to watch traffic as the article was published, kept me up to date as new users started to trickle in. The number of users who were viewing feeds, displayed on the app’s homescreen, started to rise. “20 people are viewing taylorswift”, “15 people are viewing realdonaldtrump”. We were off.
I tweeted the article (above), refreshed the homescreen a couple of times to see the updated numbers, and answered a few texts from excited friends & family. Just a few hours after we set it live on the App Store, news of the app began to spread, and it became clear that people were into it, including some people at big tech publications. Within a few hours of launch, Being was featured on Re/code, TechCrunch, Business Insider, TNW, Motherboard and New York Magazine. As the stories went live, thousands of interested users began to download Being en masse. The day wasn’t even halfway over and we had already reached half of our 30-day user acquisition goal.
That’s when the first email came in. “Hey — love the app. But all feeds just say ‘All Items Loaded’??”
What — the — hell. As a result of the massive influx of users, and despite the many hours of testing we put in, our servers crashed. People were downloading the app in droves, yet the app didn’t work. At all. I would call this my worst nightmare, but it was far more complex than that. I had dreamt of this kind of adoption and coverage since the concept of Being was a gleam in my eye back in 2013. Never did I ever imagine that we’d launch, get all the press coverage an independent developer could ask for, all while the app was down. There’s only one word that comes to mind: helpless.
We rushed to get everything set up on a new server location, and worked directly with Apple to get an app update expedited. (Side note: the folks on the App Store Review team are absolute rockstars, whose efforts and assistance throughout the process never ceased to amaze me. Thank you!) One day, 3,340 downloads and a local TV news interview later, we got the app back up and running.
On Friday, I woke up to discover that “Being” was the #2 Trending Search on the App Store.
We were also submitted to Product Hunt early Friday, so I spent a large portion of the day responding to questions and posting updates via email and my social channels to keep people visiting and engaged. At around 5pm ET on Friday, things started to really take off. The homescreen of the app, displaying a real-time ranking of the most popular users, looked like a Pop Star Battle Royale (unsurprisingly, T-Swift maintained the top spot to rule them all for the majority of the night).
We ended up with a featured banner on the Product Hunt website and mobile app for the better part of the weekend.
It’s worth mentioning that, from launch through about Sunday evening, 8 hours didn’t pass without an Indiana Jones-sized boulder being thrown in our direction. Because we had initially intended on a relatively slow roll-out, we had built the app to support about 1,000 — maybe 1,500 — concurrent users. But all of the early attention forced us to grow and deal with the accompanying growing pains at a super accelerated rate. Whether it was a security vulnerability or rebuilding our database for better scale, we were constantly in motion just to keep up.
By Monday morning, with a few early battle scars, we had rebuilt our entire database architecture and felt good about the app’s stability. By Monday afternoon, coverage of the app expanded beyond tech to outlets like BuzzFeed, Perez Hilton and even Teen Vogue. My 11-year-old niece now thinks I’m cool.
On Wednesday, I checked my email and saw a message from a random SEO company with the subject line “Congrats on your App Store feature”. Wait — WHAT?! I fired up the App Store, and lo and behold, there we were, smack in the middle of the screen in the highly coveted #2 Best New Apps spot.
Side note: For those of you wondering — there really is no secret sauce to securing a featured placement on the App Store. I think, at the end of the day, it was likely a combination of being in regular communication with the App Store Review team and the organic attention we had received in the days prior. We also made sure to reinforce our desire to be featured in basically every correspondence we had with Apple. So there’s that too.
Our public proof of concept turned into our most successful product to date, and we were live for barely a week. Through all of this, nonetheless, we continually reminded ourselves that our job was far from over. We had established a great foundation, but the real test would be in how we continue to evolve the product and keep our users engaged. Our app was on the homepage of the App Store, and I spent the day mocking up new features for the next version.
When all was said and done, after just over 7 days of being live on the App Store, the response and metrics far exceeded anything we had anticipated.
- Over 500,000 feeds viewed by users
- Nearly 50,000 app units downloaded
- Featured as a Best New App on the App Store in 92 countries
- Top 30 social networking app in the US, and Top 10 in various countries
- Retention rate of over 75% (users who opened the app 2x or more)
- Tens-of-thousands of Likes generated on Instagram
- Tens-of-thousands of Follows generated on Instagram
APIs & the Independent Developer
Our proof of concept was a success. However, success isn’t a straight line, and it sure doesn’t come without a few unexpected curveballs. At around 8pm on Thursday 2/25/16, without notice or explanation, we discovered that our Instagram API access had been revoked, cutting off our access to all Instagram data. Surely, this was an automated precaution, resulting from the great amount of activity hitting their servers, right? I mean, they would never pull the plug during this time of critical growth and while we were still featured on the App Store homescreen, would they? Whatever the reason, Being v1.0 was paused indefinitely.
For the past two weeks, I have tried anything in my power to connect with someone at Instagram or Facebook to discuss the matter and share our vision. For 5 long months, my team and I poured our passion, time and money into creating a thoughtful product that we hoped would delight users and support discovery & engagement on Instagram. Yet we were left in the dark.
I emailed old colleagues, who in turn emailed old colleagues. I scoured LinkedIn to find people that work in a strategic partnerships role at Instagram. I direct-messaged Instagram community managers within the actual Instagram app (how meta). I even went as far as emailing Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Systrom themselves (I made an educated guess as to what their email addresses would be). To this moment, all attempts to reach someone have come up empty.
The API culture was created to foster innovation and development. Companies looking to grow would invite developers to build on top of their platform and leverage their existing data and tools to grow companies of their own. It was a beautifully symbiotic relationship. Things have changed. The larger corporations that independent developers helped cultivate over the past 5-10 years are now big enough to stand on their own. The app culture is becoming more and more centralized, and it’s winner-take-all with no holds barred.
There is always an inherent risk when a developer decides to create a product that is heavily-dependent on the API of a larger company, since that company can (and as history has shown, likely will) discontinue support for the API at some point. And I get it — this is business, after all. One must look after the best interest of their customers and investors. But at the end of the day, in choosing your API, independent developers are choosing you. They have decided to spend their time and money on creating a product that supports your ecosystem rather than that of an existing competitor, or better yet, creating a whole new competitor from scratch. I guess all I’m saying is, when an independent developer creates something thoughtful based on your platform (barring the few exceptions that are in it for the wrong reasons), treat it as a compliment. These are your biggest supporters. The simplest expressions of gratitude and open communication mean the world of a difference. Chances are, you were once an independent developer too.
We could not be more grateful for the response the app received in 7 days. Hopefully, this post will reach someone at Instagram, as we would love for nothing more than to work with them to keep Being alive for the 50,000 people and growing that are excited about what it offers.
Our weeklong experiment taught us so much (namely that Murphy’s Law is a real thing), while also confirming that there is an incredible demand for the immersive and authentic experience that Being provides. We also met an amazing number of people throughout this journey. From fellow entrepreneurs reaching out to discuss the future of the product to friends of friends who have offered their guidance throughout the process. To each of you — Thank you.
As the current chapter of Being comes to a close, we are excited for the new chapter to begin. Armed with a successful launch and validated concept, we are now in a position to help usher in the future of social media by exploring various ways of repackaging content to better connect with your peers, favorite celebrities and influencers.
We are actively in discussion with multiple networks and partners to bring the Being experience back to the many people that are excited by it. If you are intrigued by our story and purpose, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lastly, if you enjoyed this post, please tap the little heart icon below to give it a quick “Recommend” — it would mean a lot.
Thanks for reading!
Adam & the Being team