Before Instagram: 4 quick-flip mega deals

These companies also grew like crazy and had little or no revenues, yet sold for a fortune.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 12, 2012 1:25PM

By Tom Taulli for InvestorPlace


It’s been an amazing ride for Instagram. Launched only 16 months ago, the company was sold to Facebook for a cool $1 billion this week -- even though the startup has generated zero revenues and has only 13 employees.


InvestorPlaceInstagram is a mobile-only company, with apps for both Apple’s (AAPL) iOS and Google’s (GOOG) Android. The software makes it super-easy to share and stye photos, giving them a vintage Polaroid look. At last count, Instagram had more than 30 million active users and more than 1 billion photo downloads. Of course, there have been other lightning-fast exits. What are some of the standouts?  Let’s take a look:




With $300,000 in venture capital, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith launched Hotmail in July 1996. They wanted a way to access their email through a web browser.


A key to its growth strategy was appending a note at the end of each email that said: “This message has been sent from Hotmail. Get your free email at”


It was one of the first viral web applications. Within a year, its user base was more than 7 million.


At the time, Microsoft (MSFT) was struggling with its own web properties, and the company saw Hotmail as a way to get a foothold in the space. In December 1997, Microsoft bought Hotmail for $400 million.  (Microsoft owns and publishes TechBiz, an MSN Money site.)




Launched in November 1996, ICQ was the first Internet-based instant-messaging service. The company grew at a staggering rate. Like Instagram, there were no revenues.


But this wasn’t a concern for AOL (AOL), which was on the hunt for acquisitions. The company shelled out $407 million for ICQ in June 1998.


Interestingly enough, AOL’s own service -- AIM -- would quickly eclipse ICQ.




Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim co-founded YouTube back in early 2005. They wanted to build a website that would make it easier to share videos with their friends. Here’s the first video that was posted on the site: Click here.


Not very exciting, right? Still, YouTube got off to a strong start and quickly became the dominant player. Within a year, it was getting 100 million video views per day.


Google took notice and realized it needed to jump into the fray since its own video service was miserable. In October 2006, the company agreed to pay $1.65 billion for YouTube.




MySpace launched in August 2003. The founders -- including Chris DeWolfe, Josh Berman and Tom Anderson -- saw an opportunity to build a social network that could beat the existing leader, Friendster. A key to the strategy was getting Hollywood celebrities to participate.


It didn’t take long for potential acquirers to make buyout offers. But it was News Corp’s (NWS) Rupert Murdoch who snagged the deal. He paid $580 million.


At first, the transaction looked like a bargain as MySpace continued to grow. But the company was not innovating fast enough, and of course, Facebook would eventually crush it.


As of this writing, Tom Taulli did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.


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