Having spent a significant bulk of her career at a few multinationals, it must have come as a surprise to friends, family and former colleagues when Amy Cole joined a startup. But that’s exactly what happened- Cole is currently the EMEA Head of Brand Development for Instagram, and you might even call her its earliest adopter. It turns out that all of Cole’s organic onboarding ended up coming into play professionally, as soon as she joined Instagram as the enterprise’s sixth employee.
How did it happen? Acting as somewhat of a brand advocate for what was then a fledgling venture, a friend of Cole’s facilitated a second degree introduction after hearing her give a passionate user product explanation. “I met the guys from Instagram, and all because I was using it and literally telling everyone I knew about it! It was very much a startup at the time, and I’d always worked at bigger companies before this, so you can imagine what the reaction was when I joined.”
To put it in perspective, Cole says that at that stage, Instagram wasn’t yet widely known, and she still did regularly come into contact with people who didn’t recognize the brand or what it did. She did however, at that time, have friends in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and had already been bitten by the startup bug at Stanford University during her MBA. “At Stanford, I fell in love with entrepreneurship and startups, but because I was changing careers at the time (from engineering to marketing) I thought I needed to go somewhere big and actually learn how to do this function, before I could move to a startup and try to be the only one doing it.”
But when Cole did join the startup ecosystem, those that did know what Instagram was were excited to see her become a part of it. At that point in time, a few companies ahead of the curve were already actively using Instagram as a marketing platform. “Even before I joined the team in 2011, there were brands like Nike, Burberry, Michael Kors, and General Electric, even, that were using Instagram to tell their brand story- because it’s such a natural platform, it’s such a natural fit for them to be able to communicate.”
And why does she think that is? “I think part of the reason that Instagram is amazing for brands to get behind is because it does let you interact on that human level. As someone in the community interacting with the brand, you feel such a strong connection to the brands that you’re engaging with.” According to Instagram’s latest numbers, there are more than 400 million active users with 75% of them outside of the U.S., and there has been over 40 billion images shared through the platform. The company has compiled an immense wealth of user-generated visuals, and Cole says that internally at Instagram, the fact that they are helping to chronicle the world’s history in pictures since launching in October 2010 is often discussed. Daily, the platform reports an average of 3.5 billion likes and an average of 80 million photos uploaded per day, and a big amount of that is companies -startups and established enterprises alike- trying to reach their audiences.
Keen on supporting women in entrepreneurship, Cole makes a pretty good point: “If you look at the startup landscape, it does tend to be more male-dominated, and I think that goes back to the risk involved, and that women tend to take less risks. That number is really beginning to grow, and it’s incredible because women add a different perspective; they use products differently, they see opportunities that men may not because they’re experiencing life in different ways,” she adds.
She is also an advocate of women in STEM- Cole started out as an engineer who put her Master’s in Engineering from the University of Michigan to work at Chrysler in Product Engineering and in Aerodynamic Development. “When I went into engineering, I did it because I loved math. I went through engineering school, which was male-dominated, and then the auto industry while I was doing engineering, which is also male-dominated. Sephora, when I was there, was the complete other end of the spectrum, almost 100% women. Then when it goes to technology, it’s somewhat male-dominated, although we’re making massive strides in increasing the ratio of women to men.”
During her time at Chrysler, she felt that she was actioning product plans developed by others, rather than coming up with her own solutions which ultimately contributed to her shift in career trajectory. “A lot of the auto industry is driven by sales and marketing, so as an engineer you’re just executing on what those plans are, and I really wanted to be part of driving the business strategy so I went back to business school. At Sephora, when I joined, they were starting to build the business development function.”
Cole first joined Instagram as part of Business Operations, fresh from Sephora where they were in the process of formulating the Business Development department, experience that she would later put to work. “I head up our business for Europe, Middle East and Africa. My team is focused on how we can help brands and businesses get the best out of Instagram. We help them understand who the community is, what they’re doing, how brands can participate in that community, and the different products and services we have to best leverage Instagram for their business.”
In her current role, Cole is keen on making Instagram work for businesses, small and large alike. “We have a ton of tools that are coming for small and micro businesses. There’s a suite of business tools coming- one will be a business profile with analytics that will let you have more information as a business and more organic insights, the demographics of who is following your posts, reach, impressions. We’ve announced it, and it will be [here] before 2017. Boosting a post is also coming, so right in the app, you’ll be able to promote the post, and more tools that these digital entrepreneurs (that are literally manning the account themselves) can leverage to build their business.”
When asked for her tips for small businesses wanting to leverage Instagram, Cole had a few pointers to share. One, assess your objectives before devoting resources to content creation. “With limited time and resources, focus on actually driving real business results," she says. "Think about your objectives; what is your challenge? Is it building awareness? Is it changing perception? Do people know what to think about your brand? Really focus on that objective and use Instagram to build that connection and tell that story.” Next, make it a point to create content that go across multiple mediums. “Obviously, startups have to be smart about how they are using their assets. So don’t just think about creating specific content that works for Instagram; instead, anytime you’re out, make sure that you are capturing content that can be used across all of your platforms, and consider designing with all of those different audiences in mind.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Cole stresses on the need for entrepreneurs to show off their startup’s personality. “Especially for startups, the benefit and advantage that they have is that they are so close to their brand story. It’s authentic and it’s consistent, and it means so much more to people when they feel that they have insider access. Startups and entrepreneurs can do that so well, keeping in mind that Instagram is visual and creative. Ask yourself: how do we show those visuals in a really interesting and compelling way?”
Getting ahead at work: Amy Cole's tips for women in business
1. Lean on the experienced members of your network for support and help “What I learned very quickly -and part of why I took the role [at Instagram]- you don’t need to know everything. You have to start being comfortable with not knowing everything, but you do need to know who to go to- who can I reach out to in my network that is an expert in what I am working on? Who can I go to for support? Who can I go to for mentorship? Everything else you can figure out along the way.”
2. Seize opportunities with confidence, and don’t sell yourself short ”I know for myself, and a lot of time that translates to others, we don’t always put ourselves forward for the opportunities that we deserve or that we can take on. When I went to Instagram, it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done because I thought I’m not ready for this, I thought I didn’t have the skills and wasn’t ready to do the job. Taking that leap of faith and being able to trust and taking more risks, and feeling like I do have the capability to do this job, to figure out what we need to- more women need to take on that level of confidence and we need to do to help enable that to happen.”
3. Ensure that your path of business is both lucrative and something you’re interested in “I’ve definitely not followed what you’d call a traditional career path, but I have been trying to focus on things that are actually of interest to me, things that I’m passionate about, products that I use, or roles that I think are really interesting and really challenging.”
4. Stick to your startup’s core identity “It can get really easy, when you’re thinking about scaling and growing, to try and start designing for the masses. When you try to be everything for everyone, you lose a little bit of who you are. What I love is that when we kept growing Instagram and designing, we had a specific point of view and a specific focus on what we wanted to build as a product. Obviously, we always take cues from the community and do try to understand what the community wants to do, but we are really good at staying true to our point of view.”
5. Prioritize your product’s user base “When we talk about our values at Instagram, community first is our number one value. It’s always been at the center of everything we’ve done. Our very first hire was a community manager, and part of their role is take make sure they understand what’s happening in the community, connecting with people in the community, and surfacing these amazing stories.”