Instapaper Founder Marco Arment's Journey From Bagel Jockey to Publishing Pioneer

Marco Arment started Instapaper, because he wanted to be able to read the Web pages he’d saved during the day on his train ride home. "A lot of people think that if you’re in a big city, you have [mobile connectivity] all the time," he laughs. The reality? Commuting from Manhattan to points north, Arment says, "I spent a lot of time underground with no service." 

So the co-founder of the micro-blogging service Tumblr put his considerable coding skills and a finely tuned sense of design and usability to work. A couple of days later: voila. Arment developed the Web site version of Instapaper and had a business on his hands. "It was pretty basic," he insists, "Just a place to put everything you find when you can’t or don’t want to read right then." 

The free-to-join bookmarking service is now available for the iPhone, iPad, and Kindle, and has been lauded by fans and reviewers alike. It’s been profitable every month for the last couple of years. That’s why, though Instapaper started as a side project, Arment was able to ditch his full-time gig at Tumblr a few weeks ago and become a member of the entrepreneurial class. 

Ironically, now that he's working out of his home, Arment doesn’t have the commuting downtime that led him to build Instapaper in the first place. But that’s OK. Figuring out how to grow the business without compromising functionality keeps him plenty busy. Here's what he had on his mind:

Funding: I’m intentionally not doing anything complicated with money. I’m not biased against taking venture capital but I have ways I can make money on the service. Instapaper offers a free basic service and for $4.99, Instapaper Pro offers additional features including storage of up to 250 articles. I’d have to take VC money either to expand the staff, which I don’t really need, or I could broaden the service. That is not necessarily what I want. I run this from my home by myself and that’s pretty valuable even if it doesn’t become the next YouTube. I kind of like the challenge of doing it without funding.

Cubicles and co-workers: Programmers work in bursts of productivity. Then, they let the brain rest and get back into it. A lot about the office world is not a great fit for me. I’m working alone now in the sense that I’m the only employee of Instapaper. But in reality, it uses a lot of social tools. I’m already having tons of social interaction constantly in these communities with people who love reading.

Health insurance: It’s not cheap to insure yourself.

Paywalls and micropayments: Micropayments are certainly an interesting idea, but not for me. Instapaper does support paywall sites. I have a list of them, that when someone saves something it sends a copy of the page as they are viewing it only to them. If you subscribe to a paid site you can save the content. I’m not really touching the money. That is staff and labor intensive. I’d rather just be the tool to save the content, so I don’t get in the publishers’ way. 

The future of publishing: I think publishing will be very much what we see today, a long-tail enterprise. We are heading towards the major publishers having less influence and spending most of their attention on catering to something particular. You can now find something specific that you like in infinite supply. That’s a great thing.

Life lessons: I’ve done everything from stocking shelves at a natural food co-op, to baking bagels at Brueggers and bussing tables. Then I realized that jobs suck, but if you could get up at 6 a.m. and bake your own breakfast, that is very satisfying. I learned the value of giving people little delights [while working at the bagel shop]. Those small details and experiences are the reason why people like luxury cars. They are full of those little delights. You can do the same thing with any business. With a Web and iPhone app, I try to find new and tiny ways to delight my customers. They may not notice, but it helps drive goodwill and makes your product remarkable.

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  • Erick Arndt

    Marco, I greatly admire your authentic and very real entrepreneurial spirit. Let's spread that around. I also agree with your "little delights" in life. I think that is a very real way to create raving rabid fans of your product or service. At TimeshareJuice.com we are not trying to solve EVERY problem but only a very simple one for a very niche group (timeshare owners). That was my focus early on. So many people gave me the advice of going after something much larger with more bells and whistles. I resisted that. To attempt to solve too many problems, you run the risk of meaning nothing to the user and you become part of the endless supply of websites in the graveyard. Keep it up. I love the instapaper concept. I'll be watching your progress.