Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the latest buzz around Instagram. Last week, that app you used to share artsy Bacchanal photos was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. With acquisitions such as these, the general public is usually more surprised by the big numbers than those in the venture capital world are. In this case, everybody was a little thrown off guard. Just a few days earlier, Instagram had closed a $50 million financing round that valued the company at $500 million; somehow between that valuation and last Monday, the company’s already massive valuation magically doubled.
To some, Instagram sold out. What used to be an independent, smartphone-exclusive program, conceived only two years earlier, has now been sucked into the giant Facebook vortex of mainstream social media.
The hipster is dead. Long live the hipster.
Business is an industry often stereotyped as stuffy, corporate, and boring. Entrepreneurs, however, are the hipsters of this world. At Columbia, hipster culture mandates that we scoff at investment bankers, consultants, and anyone else “selling their soul” to corporate America. Startups, however, are generally accepted by this crowd as an “alternative” business route.
The best definition for a hipster that I could find was on Urban Dictionary, which claims his kind are “a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter culture,” and other edgy interests. Entrepreneurs stray from the mainstream business trajectory—rather than playing it safe and climbing the company ladder from analyst to associate to vice president and on, entrepreneurs take a heavy risk in starting from scratch. They give starving artists a run for their not-yet-existent money, begging venture capitalists for that first ounce of seed funding. The hipster’s ambition to become the next accidental billionaire is just as unlikely as the street artist’s Picasso dreams, but just that sliver of chance and a passion for their ideas keeps them going.
The irony is that if it all miraculously works out, the entrepreneur risks losing her hipster edge. Take Hipster. Yes, there literally exists a startup named Hipster. What does it do? Well, if that were immediately clear, then they wouldn’t be very cool, would they? No, it’s pretty clear: “Easily share where you are and what you’re doing with postcards of your photos.” It’s a mix of Foursquare, Instagram, and Twitter, with a touch of Pinterest. The one-year-old company was recently acquired by AOL for a rumored seven-figure sum. While Hipster’s biggest claim to fame so far has been incentivizing its engineers with $10,000 and a year’s supply of PBR, it has already been acquired. Hipster’s hipster days are dangerously numbered.
Instagram is in the same boat. The co-founder of Instagram left the his job at Google to start a company because it was the “cool” thing to do. He took a risk and soaked up the adrenaline rush. As the New York Times put it last Friday, Instagram may now follow Google’s suit as a “safe place to be, but not terribly cool.” It is a fluid example of the blurry line between a hipster startup and a mainstream company. The crossover can occur unexpectedly and abruptly.
Determining a startup’s hipster status is just as difficult as spotting a hipster on the street. It’s an “I know it when I see it” taxonomy. Vimeo is hipster. YouTube is not. Tumblr is hipster. WordPress is definitely not. The King’s Spear is hipster. Spec and Bwog, admittedly, are not. But Instagram and Hipster still have a shot at remaining cool. Just because they’ve been acquired doesn’t mean they necessarily have to sell out.
If the founders of Instagram walked into a bar in Williamsburg, I have no doubt they would garner more hipster cred than Mark Zuckerberg or Biz Stone. In the near future, though, I don’t know. Both Facebook and Twitter were valued at just $1 billion a few years ago and didn’t even exist a few years before that. In the face of growth and acquisition, an entrepreneur’s hipster status is dangerously threatened.
Panic? No–like their Williamsburg counterparts, these business hipsters remain largely unfazed.
Arvin Ahmadi is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in computer science and political science. He is a Spectator online staff developer. Tech Etiquette runs alternate Tuesdays.