The First Version of Google, Facebook, and YouTube and More (and What They Can Teach Us About Starting Small)

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“The best things we know and love started as tiny things.” — Joel Gascoigne

Buffer’s CEO, Joel, wrote a post not too long ago about the importance of starting small with new projects. He makes some great points about how easy it is to see the finished product of someone else’s hard work and forget about how long it took them to get to that point:

“It’s difficult to understand how the evolutionary process of products and brands contributes and is vital to what they are today.”

Joel goes on to say that success is more likely when we execute on small projects. Start small and let them grow, essentially.

“Don’t even try to build startups. That’s premature optimization. Just build things that seem interesting.” — Paul Graham

To give us a little insight into just how simple some of the today’s juggernaut web companies were when they started out, I thought it would be fun to do some time traveling in the Wayback Machine. Design can’t tell us everything about what’s happening behind the scenes at a company, but it’s one way to visualize the progress of a product or service over time. Plus, each of these companies’ founders have some useful advice on why they started small and how it helped them grow into the successes they are today.

So let’s take a look at how these major companies evolved from their humble beginnings:

Facebook — “Be in it for the long haul.”

“I’m here to build something for the long-term. Anything else is a distraction.” — Mark Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook is a big one: to make the world more socially connected. Although he started with a small solution to connect college students, Facebook has grown into one of the biggest, most popular social networks alive today, and continues to grow because he’s committed to building out the company over time:

“I know it sounds corny, but I’d love to improve people’s lives, especially socially… Making the world more open is not an overnight thing. It’s a ten-to-fifteen-year thing.”

2004

facebook2004

Today, Facebook is bigger and more complicated than it was to start with, but Zuckerberg stays committed to his vision:

“A lot of founding principles of Facebook are that if people have access to more information and are more connected, it will make the world better; people will have more understanding, more empathy. That’s the guiding principle for me. On hard days, I really just step back, and that’s the thing that keeps me going.”

2013

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Google — “Do one thing well”

“When Sergey and I founded Google, we hoped, but did not expect, it would reach its current size and influence. Our intense and enduring interest was to objectively help people find information efficiently.” — Larry Page

1998

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Google’s design has remained sparse over the years, even as the company has expanded and added more services like Maps, YouTube, Gmail and Drive. When you hit Google.com today, it’s still clear what one thing Google is focused on: finding information.

“We try to, when you come to Google, fulfill that need that you have as quickly as possible.” — Larry Page

2014

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Tumblr — “Build for yourself first”

Tumblr’s founder David Karp created the service to fill a need he had. Blogging was becoming more popular but it was mainly focused on writing — something Karp rightly assumed that not everyone wanted to do.

“You get that big empty box, and it demands that you come up with like a witty headline that convinces people to click over and care about your post, it demands several paragraphs of nicely formatted HTML with little aligned images, and a real editorial voice, real writing.” — David Karp

2007

tumblr2007

Today, Karp attributes Tumblr’s success – with its vision of “more stuff” including visuals like photos and GIFs – to continuing the strong focus of building something his team loves and uses:

“I think something that is still very true of Tumblr today is it is still a product our team builds for ourselves first and foremost and something we’re excited to use every day, and we spend hours every day using. I’d like to believe that not only comes through in the product, but that it’s kept us close to what Tumblr is really about, kept us from straying too far from that, and that I think kept it true to the original vision.”

2014

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YouTube — “Don’t assume you have the answers”

The YouTube team is committed to testing their assumptions and building based on how the community engages with their product, based on previous experience:

“We had a lot of our own ideas about how the service would evolve. Coming from PayPal and eBay, we saw YouTube as a powerful way to add video to auctions, but we didn’t see anyone using our product that way, so we didn’t add features to support it.” — Chad Hurley

2005

youtube2005

Co-founder Chad Hurley advises other startup founders to test their assumptions and listen to users, rather than jumping into a big product roadmap from the beginning, based soley on your own vision:

As you start building the product, don’t assume that you know all the answers. Listen to the community and adapt.

2014

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Yahoo! — “Prepare to scale”

Yahoo!, like most of these companies, started out as a very small project to solve a specific problem: the founders had trouble digging up websites they wanted to revisit later, so they started cataloging the web.

“We called it ‘Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.’ Before we knew it, people from all over the world were using this database that we created.” — Jerry Yang

1996

yahoo1996

From his experience at Yahoo!, co-founder Jerry Yang suggests being prepared for scaling up your business:

“I think in this business you really have to prepare for the scale involved. And if the business model won’t scale up, then in the end it won’t work.”

2014

yahoo2014

Amazon — “Put your customers first”

“We innovate by starting with the customer and working backwards. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.” — Jeff Bezos

Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, insists that putting customers first since the beginning has been — and continues to be — the best competitive advantage Amazon has.

“We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.”

1999

amazon

Since Amazon’s humble beginning as an online bookstore, it’s become a huge online retailer, selling almost everything. But even with huge growth, Bezos remains focused on what customers want:

“When [competitors are] in the shower in the morning, they’re thinking about how they’re going to get ahead of one of their top competitors. Here in the shower, we’re thinking about how we are going to invent something on behalf of a customer.”

2014

amazon2014
There are plenty of other examples of starting small. In Joel’s post, he shares the example of Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which started out as a short talk and some notes on an index card.

Another example I love is the “email-first startup.” Sunrise is a great example: what started out as a daily email digest is now a full-fledged calendar app for iPhone.

Have another great example? Let me know your favorite starting small story in the comments.

If you liked this post, you might also like The Habits of Successful People: They Have a Growth Mindset and People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves.

Image credits: Complex, Wayback MachineToby Bradbury

  • Rob Willox

    And, here is what Amazon looked like just 4 years earlier! The post was to emphasise that ‘starting small’ and through a process, very similar to evolution, making small and incremental changes over time, and testing them for effectiveness, can have as ‘amazing’ an impact as trying to achieve the same by attempting change by re-design on a larger scale: http://blog.web-media.co.uk/web-design/amazons-success-through-testing/

    • LeoWid

      Great point Rob! Just updated it to the truly, very first version of Amazon, awesome catch! :)

  • http://www.classifiedadland.com/ Dave Cottrell

    Love it, Beth, and how true it is. Everything big is made of small parts fit together one at a time. It reminds me of when I worked with my former business partner building high end aluminum yachts (check out coastalcraft dot com if you like boats).
    If you looked at the project as a finished boat from the beginning, it was overwhelming and appeared to be an impossible task. But if you looked at it as each individual piece, it grew and grew until it was something beautiful and special. So it is with social media and the internet, today.

  • http://www.beabigrockstar.com/ Jerrie Pelser

    I heard about and visited Amazon.com the first time sometime around 1996. I remember that (ugly) home page :)

  • http://www.jenniferhester.com/ Jenny Hester

    This is a great reminder that it doesn’t have to be perfect to put your business out there. Mainly, just start and build from there. Thanks!!!

  • Mittu Tigi

    this is a great motivational article for most of the startups :)

  • http://www.aurisstudio.com/ Arshad Ansari

    Amazing post displaying the transition from nowhere to everywhere! It feels great watching how small these websites started and where they have reached now. Google, Youtube, Yahoo and Amazon had the biggest transition IMO.

  • http://www.anthonyseymourbrowne.com Anthony Seymour Browne

    Sound basis principles. That past the test of time. Now have their
    rightful place in the annals of history. Success stories of both
    personal and business triumphs.

  • http://cityjumperweb.com/ U-YA

    Fantastic!

  • http://asghar.in/ C Asghar

    They were up to the mark then, later they changed along with the trends. I think one should start less than start small. with very minimum feature set with a ground breaking design and functionality. Whatever little you present should be up to the mark.

  • Ali @ Pickevent

    Talk about inspiring! It’s amazing to see how far some of these websites have come since their launch – particularly Amazon and Yahoo!

  • http://johnmaxwellgroup.com/jackdavis Jack Davis

    Inspiring and motivating.

  • mario ferenac

    Great article,and i still remember google beta version cause about that time i just got my first PC and internet…Good old dial up,who would say that google will grow so big during that period of time,oh gosh!

  • http://www.weboutsourcing-gateway.com/ Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Another motivational article for starting up a business online. Thanks for sharing. A great way to be inspired in a throwback kind of way. Each websites have a certain goal, some didn’t even expect the growth they have right now. It showed the importance of starting something and not giving up on it.

  • real7a

    Inspiring :)

  • Silviya Guzen

    Ah, the fonts…and the lovely blue links…ah….

  • Varma

    No doubt this is an amazing article and I appreciate putting all this together, but we also need to consider how technology evolved and the change in user mind set. Back then there is no technology like HTML5, that makes a website very interactive and user appealing, now the things have changed. Users would expect a decent[sometimes awesome] design even from a garage startup :). Most of the times your capability and focus are judged upon the look and feel. of course, being persistent for a long time will help, but now a days, the bootup time always scores.

  • finde

    What about twitter? :)

  • Thrissurpropertiers

    a great reminder of all things

  • Bruce (@Brudaddy)

    I think the amazon improvement was the greatest. I don’t see much improvement in Yahoo. ha ha

  • Tim Woods

    Love it. Fantastic reminder.