Instapaper flies under the radar. In a landscape where many companies are talking about how many people they can hire or how much venture capital they can bring in, Instapaper doesn’t compete. Rather, Marco Arment, the company’s founder, still handles everything himself and has focused on creating a self-supporting service.
The premise behind Instapaper is simple, perhaps even elegant: Arment wanted a way to read web pages offline (particularly during subway rides). So he built it. At the time, he was working for Tumblr. Initially, Arment worked on Instapaper as a side project — the first version of the service took him only a few days to develop.
The Matter of Money
At the end of 2011, Instapaper had approximately 2 million registered accounts. Those are free accounts. But Instapaper is quite healthy, earning money through selling subscriptions and mobile apps, as well as displaying advertising on the site. In fact, when Arment left Tumblr in 2010, he told TechCrunch that he was not “currently looking for any outside investment because Instapaper is operating well without it and he has no plans for massive expansion that necessitates funding, instead focusing on “[growing] Instapaper the old-fashioned way,” through ads, et al.”
It’s not out of the question that Arment could choose to take some sort of investment down the road. But it would be the wrong choice for a product like Instapaper — and Arment seems very aware of that fact. If you can build something that you can run with one person and that is essentially profitable right out of the gate, why would you choose to make it harder to manage? When you take venture capital or other investments, you have to be able to provide a return for your investors. That means that making money does have to be an major concern. But the genius of Instapaper is that Arment recognized that it worked quite well. He’s released mobile apps without any need for raising money.
A Scratched Itch
Instapaper has a solid user base, to the point that people have wrote add-ons based on its API. I’m a member of that user base, by the way. It clearly scratches an itch for those of us who use it. I honestly don’t think that it will ever turn into a runaway success — Instapaper isn’t going to be the sort of household name Facebook is, for instance — but for its users, Instapaper really is the perfect solution.
That, plus the way Arment has bootstrapped the company to run without needing to reward investors or even pay employees, means that I consider Instapaper to be one of the most successful companies on the startup scene these days.