Evolve or die: TwitPic’s demise is a timely reminder to startups

The Egyptian Plover is known for picking decaying meat from between crocodiles’ teeth but despite tales stretching back to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, no one has ever got a picture of one in the act.

There’s probably a good reason for that. Basing your existence on flying into the mouth of a much larger animal is not the greatest survival strategy.

800 million images facing annihilation

Startups are often not as wise as the Plover. They do end up building their businesses perched on someone else’s platform.

The unlucky ones find themselves stuck between the jaws of the bigger beast when it decides to snap them shut. The latest example is TwitPic, the image hosting company that was once the ubiquitous place for sharing pictures via the social network.

Founded in February 2008, TwitPic allowed users to share images before the feature was baked into the service itself by Twitter. Now, after coming to the brink of shutting down and deleting the archive, it is handing over its domain and over 800 million images to Twitter itself.

A torturous tale

The final chapter of the TwitPic story has been a twisty one.

On September 4, the company said it would be shutting down. Two weeks later, it announced that it had been acquired and would live on.

Then on October 16 it announced again that it would be shutting down fully on October 25. The news of the deal with Twitter came on the eve of that final shutdown.

On the one hand, the TwitPic story is a lesson in stubbornness: had it not clung to the TwitPic name in the face of a fierce challenge from Twitter that carried the threat of being denied access to the social network’s API, it may have survived.

On the other, it’s a classic lesson in why building a feature rather than a business can be so catastrophic.

YFrog, another early Twitter photo sharing company, has clung on by expanding to become a more general image sharing platform. Instagram, which Twitter tried to muzzle by denying it access to its API, was a social network in its own right from the very start and grabbed users with its canny deployment of new features.

If it had simply been a limpet clinging on to Twitter for dear life, that $1 billion dollar acquisition by Facebook would never have happened.

Evolve or die

TwitPic wasn’t wrong to leap on the opportunity left by Twitter in those early days.

It was smart to fill that gap but it should have anticipated that a company like Twitter with its vast resources would catch up fast. The Plover doesn’t live off the meat between the crocodile’s teeth because there’s too great a risk of getting eaten.

Startups that spot an opportunity to feed on the scraps left by a bigger player should take it but they need to move quickly to find their own food source.

Clinging on and hoping for an acquisition is less strategy and more wishful thinking. If you’re relying on a bigger player and failing to evolve, extinction is almost inevitable. Don’t leave your company perched on the jaws of that dilemma.