0 – 20,000,000 in four years; lessons in extreme adoption from Humans of New York

Recently Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York (HONY), shared the story behind the world’s most successful photo blog. For anyone who is unaware, HONY is a daily blog sharing portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York. Often funny, sometimes harrowing, but always engaging, HONY has attached the kind of dedicated following that most organisations can only dream of; 20m subscribers, 18m Facebook likes and 7m Instagram followers. And all this in just four years.

While Brandon acknowledges that luck played a large role in this success, there are also several lessons to take away for individuals and companies large and small:

  • Just start. If you wait for the perfect idea to come along, you will never do anything. Digital models are changing the traditional rules of business. Experimentation, rapid prototyping and failing fast are replacing traditional wisdom like the mantra ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’.
  • Pivot. The volume and immediacy of data now available is so great that anyone can experiment, review and pivot without overextending themselves. There are many famous examples of this, notably PayPal, which started out as security software for the now defunct PalmPilot. It was only by staying close to customers, their feedback and use of the product that they were able to pivot to online payments. This is exactly what Brandon did. The initial concept for HONY was 10,000 portraits of New Yorkers, mapped onto an online map. It was only when captions started to be added to the photos that the importance of storytelling took off.
  • Different, not better. The internet has democratised the tools of production and distribution, meaning anyone can now produce and share content. And billions of people do. In this environment, it is crazy to try and be the best at something (e.g. portrait photography) and more important to find a niche that resonates with people (New York street portraits).
  • There is no escaping the hard work. As Brandon put it, ‘hanging around bars getting drunk and rehearsing with your band once a week is not pursuing your dream.’ Crippling poverty and loneliness help, they force you out into the big, wide world to do what you enjoy (providing its free). In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcom Gladwell calculated that 10,000 hours is key to success in any field and great entrepreneurs have invested at least that in their projects…
  • Numbers are not meaningful. Whether it’s money, likes or followers, chasing a number is never going to make you happy or inspire others. After chasing big money for many years, Brandon started HONY with the objective of just making enough money to do what he loved (photography). Despite multiple offers, HONY remains independent, unsponsored and true to the original vision. This vision and authenticity are part of what makes it so attractive to the millions of fans.

Perhaps most importantly for those of us creating digital content and solutions, HONY tapped into a latent demand for authenticity. In the increasingly polished world of social media, where users want to present the ‘best’ version of their lives, people are crying out for real, human stories and interactions. Success on the scale of HONY is incredibly rare, but the steps that got Brandon there apply to anyone producing in the digital world.

This post was written by Colin Smith.

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