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Instagram and the Wild Goose Chase for Instagram.com


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of Instagram. And, if you’re deep into the world of tech and startups, then you’ve probably heard the “Instagram story” more than once.


As exciting as the Instagram story is, there’s a deeper tale about its founding and the wild goose chase IG’s founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, went on with their domain name – Instagram.com.


The Tall Tale of Instagram’s Rise to Success

But, before getting into the nitty gritty about the domain name, here’s the TL;DR of the Instagram story for those who haven’t heard it:

Instagram started in 2010 and quickly grew to unprecedented heights, eventually being acquired by Facebook in 2012 for $1B.

Within 2 years, the company became a Silicon Valley darling, which our grandkids grandkids will be telling stories about for generations to come.

If you want a deeper dive on the company’s founding story and rise to success, Sarah Frier has an epic book, called No Filter. And if you want a deeper dive on, (what’s referred to as), the GOAT acquisition of tech startups, according to our friends Ben Gilbert & David Rosenthal at Acquired, here’s a podcast you can dig into.


Before They Were Big

Instagram originally started as a company called Burbn, and the most visible digital bread crumb of Burbn’s history dates back to September 2009, when Systrom originally registered the domain name burbn.com. Shortly after, in October, he secured the Twitter handle and got cooking.

Systrom bootstrapped the company until March 2010, when he raised a modest $500k from Andreessen Horowitz and Baseline Ventures to get things off the ground. Initially, Burbn was a mobile check-in app, but the Systrom and Krieger failed to get traction with it.


In October 2010, the founders pivoted and launched a photo-sharing app, which was rebranded as “Instagram”. Through Systrom’s interest in design and culture, he and Krieger focused on having strong brand touch points for the business, and they believed that the name Insta + Gram combined two memorable words which would be easy for people to spell.

With their rebrand, they also believed that having an interesting domain name would help them to generate awareness and get people talking. So, strategically, they registered the TLD (top level domain) “.am” instead of securing the “.com” domain. For those keeping score at home, the “.am” TLD is the country code top-level domain (ccTLD) for Armenia. The pair launched their business on the instagr.am domain name on October 6, 2010.


In Systrom’s own words, as posted on Quora, he and Krieger weren’t bullish on having “.com” as part of their URL when they launched.


The Great Migration

So, the obvious question is – when did IG migrate from instagr.am to instagram.com?

Well, let’s rewind for a sec. Back in 2004, there was a company (mind bogglingly) called Instagram Inc. They registered the domain name for Instagram.com and sat on it until 2010, when they eventually sold it – but, the sale wasn’t to the rocket ship of an app, known as Instagram.


When Instagram launched, buzz around the app quickly caught fire. Within one week of launching, Instagram had over 100,000 users. By December, IG had grown to more than 1M users.


With the company’s rapid rise and exposure came interest from people who were trying to piggyback off of Instagram’s goodwill and success – specifically, cybersquatters. And, in the case of IG, they had some notorious cybersquatters on their hands – a family in Guangdong, China, who regularly ran cybersquatting campaigns to profit off of emerging and well-known companies.


On November 5, 2010, soon after Instagram launched and started growing exponentially, a family by the name of Zhou acquired the domain name instagram.com. Over the course of a few months, they continued to acquire an additional 22 derivative variations of domain names for Instagram, with the intent of aggregating a portfolio of domains designed to profit off of Instagram’s speculated, future success.


Systrom and Krieger weren’t aware of the domain procurement from the Zhou’s, but as they gained traction with Instagram, it became clear that they should secure the .com domain to enhance the brand’s credibility.


On January 18, 2011, Instagram created a purchase agreement through Sedo for instagram.com, after agreeing to pay the Zhou family $100,000 for the domain. After securing the .com, Instagram continued to grow globally. By September 2011, Instagram had 10M+ users and, in December, Apple named Instagram “App of the Year”. On April 9, 2012, Facebook made its move – they acquired Instagram for $1B through a combination of cash and stock.


Not Everything Ages Like a Fine Wine

Following Facebook’s acquisition, Instagram grew faster than anyone could have imagined. With all the hype and success, they seemed unstoppable. And they were, until October 2014, when a surprise case arose from the Zhou family about the validity of the sale. This allegation surfaced nearly four years after Instagram acquired the .com domain. The Zhou’s claimed that one of their family members – specifically, their daughter – sold the domain to Instagram without the family’s permission. Despite Instagram having acquired the .com domain in an objective and above-board way through Sedo, the Zhou family claimed that Instagram didn’t purchase the domain in good faith.


The irony of the story is that the Zhou family acted in bad faith claiming the sale was invalid, but they still decided to sue Instagram for damages. The Zhou’s intentions were so ill-willed that Instagram was forced to initiate a UDRP (Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy), proceeding before the World Intellectual Property Organization Arbitration and Mediation Center (WIPO) to get the Zhou’s to stop their cybersquatting campaign, since they continued to register domain names that infringed on Instagram’s trademark. Eventually, in 2014, Facebook won the UDRP case against the Zhou’s.


What’s in a Domain, anyway?

As of May 2024, IG continues to show its roots as an OG – instagr.am is still active and redirects to Instagram’s main site. IG currently has 2.4B+ active users, and instagram.com is ranked as the 6th most visited website in the world, with 8B+ monthly visitors – almost double the traffic that Amazon gets on a monthly basis, to put it in perspective.

So, did Instagram underpay or overpay for the domain instagram.com, only a few months after they launched? Looking back on it, one could argue got a screaming deal based on the company’s current size, scale and global reach.


Regardless, the founding story of Instagram, and the acquisition that followed, is doubtlessly one of the most gangster tech and startup stories of the past 50+ years. But, the lesser known domain story associated with Instagram….well, it’s pretty Instaworthy itself.


 

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