For lots of startup founders, a big money valuation is just half the goal. Many startups are motivated by a singular drive to change the way we view and interact with the world around us. And while every startup can teach us something, the most disruptive often have the most profound lessons. Here are 10 of today’s most visionary startups to admire, and more importantly, model:
Instagram is a popular photo sharing app that uses filters to enhance photos. After being released on the Android market, it set download records and built a community of over 50 million loyal users. With no marketing budget, Instagram relied entirely on an almost fanatical community of fans to spread the word, and sold to Facebook for almost $1 billion. Lesson: Build a community, nurture it, and the users will market you.
Founded in 2008 by heavyweight education entrepreneurs, 2tor partners with top U. S. universities –including Georgetown, UNC, USC and most recently Washington University in St. Louis – bring their degree programs online. Its mission is to transform higher education by bringing it online without sacrificing quality, student experience or graduation and job placement rates. With $96 million raised in venture capital and clear success cases to date, 2tor has emerged as the market leader in the rapidly evolving School-as-a-Service sector. Lesson learned? Industry reform is always possible – it just takes some creative thinking.
Global Giving has transformed the way people invest in the developing world. Through developing a network of donors who fund grassroots projects the world over, Global Giving has raised over $65 million dollars and funded over 5K projects. Lesson: Giving back can create a vibrant social community.
Pinterest – a virtual pinboard that allows users to quickly and easily share images – has quickly grown into the third largest social network. With a growing community that shares thousands of visual collections, Pinterest has re-invented the social network. Pinterest teaches an important lesson: keep your site simple and easy-to-use and users will flock.
Airbnb, a website that lets people with extra space rent it out to travelers, took the hotel industry and turned it upside-down. The company grew to a $1 billion valuation in 2011, despite a huge PR scandal involving a burglarized home and less-than-stellar customer service. Airbnb responded quickly, improved customer service, instituted protections for hosts, and is now more popular than ever. Lesson: a PR disaster is only a disaster if you let it become one.
Square has grown into a billion plus dollar company by providing mobile merchants a method to accept credit card payments. The company relies on growing its user base by giving the device and the app away for free, and generates revenue with a small percentage on transactions. Square teaches us that sometimes giving away your product for free can be the ticket to generating strong revenues.
The world’s most popular shoe e-tailer began with a simple premise: focus on your customers and the rest will fall into place. Zappos has stayed true to that principle and in the process, redefined the definition of customer service. Its customer-centric policies have paid off – the company was acquired in 2009 for $1.2 billion. Zappos.com teaches us an important lesson: be great to your customers, and they’ll be great to you.
Despite high unemployment, many firms are finding it difficult to attract and retain top talent. Enter BetterWorks, a workplace recognition and rewards platform that lets businesses engage their staff through innovative rewards through local partners. And it works, boosting engagement and productivity significantly. The takeaway: treat your employees well. They ARE your business.
Created by Jason Nazar and Alon Schwartz, Docstoc brought social to the dry world of professional documents. Though it began as a document hosting and sharing site, it evolved first by allowing users to sell uploaded documents, then by encouraging business professionals to participate, and finally by hiring a team of lawyers and business writers to create original content. Lesson: revenue models shouldn’t be static; they should grow along with the company.
Better Place is a forward-thinking startup that builds transportation infrastructure for electronic vehicles. By investing in the infrastructure of tomorrow, Better Place is paving the way for greener and more efficient automobile technology. Better Place teaches us that targeting future markets and developing products for them can be a viable business model.