Instagram and the Startup Cargo Cult

After Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, the tech startup scene had what amounted to a “Double Rainbow” moment: “Facebook! Instagram! A billion dollars! ZOMG!” The outpouring of screaming and crying that ensued was quickly followed by a collective gasp of “what does it MEAN???

In the aftermath, there have been more than a few blogs and pundits teaching us the Great Lesson of Instagram. However, if you’re a first-time entrepreneur thinking about applying these lessons to your business, you should first remember the story of the cargo cults.

The term “cargo cult” originated with pre-industrial tribes who came into first contact with technologically advanced cultures. Most notably, Pacific islanders during World War II who witnessed modern technology when Japanese and Allied forces brought their supplies and wealth from planes onto air bases built on the islands. After the war, the cults would recreate the conditions they saw bringing the wealth, creating mock airplanes and air strips — even performing fake military drills — in a futile attempt to bring back the precious cargo.

Richard Feynman applied the term to non-scientific practices in science as “cargo cult science” and from there the term made its way to the programming world. If you’re a programmer and you find yourself copying code without fully understanding its purpose, you could be guilty of “cargo cult programming.”

First-time entrepreneurs can be particularly susceptible to cargo cult mentality, and there exists plenty of people willing to “help” by offering blog posts or classes that promise wealth and fame. You can tell the particularly bad examples by titles that take the form “How this startup went from 0 to (some massive number) in (some short time).” Is this really how they did it? Is this really going to help your business?

Lessons and case studies are great. I love them, I read a lot of them, and I use them to guide my thinking about what I should be doing in building my business. You should too. If you want a good read on Instagram, be sure to check out “The battle to train a market” by Sasha Pasulka.

However, it’s only by digging deeper, by truly understanding the basic principles that these lessons can be effective. Ask yourself, “does this apply to my business” and “how do I apply it now” and try to understand the real reasons it may help you. If you start saying, “we should do this because Instagram did it,” be careful you’re not joining the startup cargo cult.

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