Ideas That Inspired Snapchat, Instagram, Dropbox, And Other Popular Startups

Now we all know the story of Facebook, thanks to the film The Social Network. And with the recent news about the big tech IPO offering of Twitter, we all pretty much know about how its founders came together from Odeo to launch the company.

But little is know about these other popular apps and it’s interesting to learn about what inspired the founders to create these now immensely successful apps.


Snapchat was started by Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy as a project for one of Spiegel’s classes at Stanford University where he was a product design major. When Spiegel floated the idea in April 2011 in front of the product design class for his final project, classmates balked at the idea of the impermanent photos. Snapchat was launched in September 2011 in Spiegel’s father’s living room.

The idea germinated from a buddy of Spiegel’s who was bummed about a photo he regretted sending. And so they started looking at some of the other applications in the space that were doing disappearing texts, photo, video. And they really had a hard time because there was a lot of stigma around deleting things. But when Bobby and Spiegel built the prototype and started using it, they realized how much fun they were having sending the photos back and forth.


Kevyn Systrom and Mike Krieger originally started a check-in app called Burbn. It didn’t get much traction and most visitors were using it only to take photos. Systrom himself admitted that when he used the app, he was more interested in looking at the photos people took and less interested in seeing where they checked in.

After seeing user behavior and low user adoption, they pivoted to the photos app that we know today as Instagram.

It was created because there was no single place dedicated to giving your mobile photos a place to live and to be seen. Of course, one of the more popular aspects of Instagram is the filtering that helps transform your photos into artistic memories. This was never the focus of what they wanted to do, but instead it was simply a wish-list feature.


Drew Houston conceived the idea after repeatedly forgetting his USB flash drive while he was a student at MIT. He says that existing services at the time “suffered problems with Internet latency, large files, bugs, or just made me think too much”. He began making something for his personal use, but then realized that it could benefit others with the same problems. Houston founded Dropbox, Inc in June 2007, and shortly thereafter secured seed funding from Y Combinator. Dropbox officially launched at 2008’s TechCrunch50, an annual technology conference.


Jan Koum came up with WhatsApp in 2009 following a year off after leaving Yahoo. He initially envisioned an app that broadcasts your status when people can’t get a hold of you. He brought in Acton, who he had worked with at Yahoo and who also left the company at about the same time. The free status update system only attracted a few thousand users, but when WhatsApp added a messaging function in the second half of 2009, it took off. That’s also when the company moved to a paid model. It’s now available on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, Nokia S40 and Symbian S60.


The original inspiration for Square occurred to Jack Dorsey in 2009 when James McKelvey (a St. Louis friend of Dorsey at the time) was unable to complete a $2,000 sale of his glass faucets and fittings because he could not accept credit cards.

Before Square, it was illegal for non-registered merchants to accept credit card payments. Registering was a costly and difficult process that most small business owners couldn’t afford.


Shortly after moving to San Francisco in October 2007, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia created the initial concept for AirBed & Breakfast during the Industrial Design Conference held by Industrial Designers Society of America. The original site offered short-term living quarters, breakfast and a unique business networking opportunity for attendees who were unable to book a hotel in the saturated market.

In February 2008, Harvard graduate and technical architect Nathan Blecharczyk joined as the third co-founder of AirBed & Breakfast. During the company’s initial stages, the founders focused on high-profile events where alternative lodging was scarce. The site officially launched on August 11, 2008.

To help fund the site, the founders created special edition breakfast cereals, with presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain as the inspiration for “Obama O’s” and “Cap’n McCains”. In two months, 800 boxes of cereal were sold at $40 each, which generated more than $30,000 for the company’s incubation and attracted Y Combinator’s Paul Graham.

In March 2009, the name was shortened to, and the site’s content had expanded from airbeds and shared spaces to variety of properties including entire homes and apartments, private rooms, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tipis, igloos, private islands and other properties.


YouTube was founded by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, who were all early employees of PayPal.

According to a story that has often been repeated in the media, Hurley and Chen developed the idea for YouTube during the early months of 2005, after they had experienced difficulty sharing videos that had been shot at a dinner party at Chen’s apartment in San Francisco.

YouTube began as a venture-funded technology startup, primarily from a $11.5 million investment by Sequoia Capital between November 2005 and April 2006. YouTube’s early headquarters were situated above a pizzeria and Japanese restaurant in San Mateo, California.

The first YouTube video was entitled Me at the zoo, and shows co-founder Jawed Karim at the San Diego Zoo. The video was uploaded on April 23, 2005, and can still be viewed on the site.

Rahul Varshneya

Rahul is the co-founder of Arkenea, a mobile app consultancy building experience rich apps for startups and businesses, and author of The Appreneurship Guide