Investment Hunting With Greylock Partner, Instagram Backer John Lilly

An inside look at what Greylock partner John Lilly, who has invested in a string of hit startups including Instagram, Tumblr, and Dropbox, calls his “first filter” when hunting for new investments.

Investment Hunting With Greylock Partner, Instagram Backer John Lilly


Every VC likely has his or her rule of thumb about what startups to invest in, but for John Lilly, the former Mozilla CEO who joined Greylock in 2010,

there’s one guiding principle to abide by. “Lately I obsess about whether a product can be one of the 20 icons on my iPhone homescreen,” he says. “That’s my

essential question right now.”

Lilly, who has invested in a string of hit startups including Instagram, Tumblr, and Dropbox, calls this his “first filter” when hunting for new investments.

It serves a good lesson for every upcoming entrepreneur looking to raise funds–you’re not only competing with other new startups for investor attention, you’re competing with startups that have embedded themselves in VCs’ day-to-day routines. “My rule of thumb is that it has to replace an existing app–so it has to be

subsume that functionality–or it has to be so useful that it deserves a new slot,” Lilly says. “The bar is pretty high.”


It may sound like a simple rule, but it can act as a remarkably effective (and often subconscious) ranking system. Just as the apps on a smartphone’s

homescreen indicates a certain level of intimacy, so too do the bookmarks on your browser and the icons on your taskbar or docking bay–Spotify, Facebook,

Gmail, and so forth. I’ll bet a similar organization style is on display on your own homescreen; on my iPhone homescreen are Instagram and Twitter–two apps

I couldn’t live without–followed by a second tier of top programs demoted to folders simply because I don’t use them as often–Foursquare, Dropbox, Zite,

Draw Something.

“It implies frequency of use, intimate engagement–in other words, do I want to use the thing?” Lilly says. “We’re looking for fundamental human gestures. So


taking a picture, for example, is a really fundamental human gesture.”

That’s partly why when Lilly replaced his camera app with Instagram, he knew he had to invest in Kevin Systrom’s now-billion-dollar baby. Lilly shows me his

iPhone homescreen, narrating the process a new app went through to make its way to his homescreen. “Instagram replaced the camera app; Tweetbot replaced

Twitter for me; Facebook is important because it’s my news feed; this is Tumblr’s new iPhone app; this is Pocket, which used to be Read It Later; and then

Calvetica replaced the calendar,” he says.

Lilly only has a page or two of homescreen apps, followed by “a couple more pages” of apps because he has to “test shit all the time.” He swipes through


these pages quickly, however, and I don’t have a chance to see what might be on Greylock’s horizon.

But the homescreen rule might not be the be-all end-all. “I think the best new mobile apps all feel like they give you super powers,” Lilly says. “Like

Twitter kind of gives you the ability to know the thoughts going on inside someone’s head, while Instagram let’s you see what it’s like where they are. And

there’s this new class of apps like Highlight taking advantage of geo-location. So, Highlight is not on my homescreen but it’s pretty present because it

notifies me when people are around. Through the notification channel on smartphones, there’s a new channel emerging.”

That means to get funding from a firm like Greylock, you might not need to infiltrate VCs’ homescreens. But you do have to give them superpowers.  


[Image: Flickr users Andy Morris, and Joi Ito]


About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.