How 7 Famous Mobile Apps Got Started

By Published on December 26, 2018

These days, success favors the bold and the innovative. The majority of famous and profitable companies today didn’t exist 20, 15, or even 10 years ago in some cases, and a large number of those are tech companies. Most recently, there is a host of app startups that have grown rapidly, some breaking the billions mark in less than a decade.

Clearly, it’s good to be an app developer these days. Here are seven examples of famous mobile apps that have rocketed to success, and how they got their start.



The funny thing about Instagram is that its two creators, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, separately came up with the core idea (sharing photos online) before putting their heads together to make something more viable. Krieger’s idea was called “Send me some sunshine,” while Systrom’s was called “Burbn.”


When Krieger joined Systrom’s team, the two of them saw viability in the idea, if not how the two of them had implemented it previously. They analyzed the usage of Burbn and determined that they needed to leverage and focus on the photo-sharing aspect to make it successful. After some trial and error, they released Instagram on October 6, 2010, to an initial user base of 25,000.

From there, the user base rapidly grew, reaching one million users within just three months. User numbers doubled shortly after that. This drew the attention of Mark Zuckerberg in 2012, who bought the company for $1 billion. Not bad for a company that never used traditional advertising to push their platform.



On a snowy evening in Paris [in 2008], Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp can’t get a cab.” They say necessity is the mother of invention, and few needs are more universal than the need for a ride to where you’re going. That’s why Uber creators Kalanick and Camp found themselves brainstorming the idea of “everyone’s private driver” when they themselves couldn’t get a lift.

By March of the next year, they had founded UberCab, an app that lets people request rides. The first matching of a rider to a driver didn’t happen until July of 2010 though. In October of 2011, UberCab shortened its name to Uber to distance itself from the taxicab industry. In December of the same year, Uber expanded to Paris, hoping to solve the very problem that began this journey.

From there, Uber expanded rapidly as people found more and more uses for it. In 2012 they were delivering ice cream. In 2013, they began delivering “kitten snuggle time.” In 2014 the service was used to deliver on-demand donations for Goodwill. Uber also formed a partnership with MADD to help reduce drunk driving. In 2015 Uber Eats launched, serving as an impromptu delivery service for thousands of restaurants.

At the end of that year, Uber had facilitated one billion rides, and they’ve only grown from there.



Snapchat started as the brainchild of Evan Spiegel and several Stanford students and grew to fruition really quickly. The app launched in 2011 as “Picaboo.” Picaboo had a problem, though, and that was that iPhone users could just take a screenshot of photos before they disappeared, effectively rendering that feature useless.

So the founders built a workaround: a notification that would pop up if anyone tried to make your temporary photos permanent. They then rebranded the app as Snapchat and re-released it. In 2012, they added video functionality, and by the end of the year, users were sending 50 million snaps per day.

The next few years saw multiple major updates, including “Stories” and “Discover.” By 2015, the app had 75 million users, a number which doubled to 150 million by the next year. In just five short years, they had gone from a bottom-of-the-list app release to a major rival to Facebook and Twitter.



Tinder had a similar problem starting out that Uber did: no one could use it if no one was using it. So founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen implemented a workaround. They seeded it to a group of 300 University of Southern California students in 2012. By the end of the week, their user base had more than tripled to 1,000.

It didn’t stay that small for long. Within two years, Tinder was being used in 24 different languages, helping people make ten million matches a day, and achieved a total of one billion matches before the second quarter of 2014.

Much of Tinder’s genius is in the UI design. The now-infamous “swipe right” was a stroke of inspiration on the part of the developers that has now had a wide-reaching cultural impact throughout the world. Their goal to make internet dating more like a video game was successfully achieved, and now people around the world are using the app to find love (or at least a not-so-blind date).



When Jan Koum and Brian Acton both left Yahoo! in October of 2007, they both seemed unsure of what their next steps should be. At first, they both considered working for the rapidly growing social media pioneer Facebook, but neither one was hired for the jobs they applied for. So they started looking elsewhere.

Koum had recently bought an iPhone, eager to try out the world’s first smartphone. The only problem was, he kept missing calls while at the gym. So he came to Acton with an idea for a mobile app that would let people know when users were available for a phone call. Acton got on board, and the founded WhatsApp in 2009.

Things started out slow but started taking off once Koum redesigned it as a cross-platform messaging app. By 2014, WhatsApp had 450 million active users and was purchased by Facebook for a record-breaking $19 billion. Five years to go from jobless to billionaire is certainly something to aspire to.



Like so many of these stories, DoorDash gained success by starting with one idea and being flexible enough to pivot when a better idea hit them on the head. Originally, the founders built an app that was supposed to help small business owners. But when they went to a small macaroon store in Palo Alto in 2012, a lengthy discussion with the store manager proved that their app didn’t successfully solve any of her challenges.

When the manager suggested that they think about doing something to help her address the backlog of deliveries she had to make, they recognized their opportunity to really make a difference. So they began interviewing business owners and started coding.

Before long, they had a working prototype, and by January 12, 2013 they started putting it to good use. In the early days, the founders were the drivers, studying by day and making deliveries by night. Now, though, Andy, Stanley, Evan, and Tony are heading a company that’s raised over $2 million in venture capital. And all because some big city guys were used to seeing their favorite places deliver food.



Wish is an app designed to do one thing: make e-commerce more affordable for low-income buyers. Peter Szulczewski started Wish in 2010, and the app made its name selling beauty products, electronics, and clothes. It keeps its prices low by selling products directly from Chinese manufacturers, cutting out the retailer middleman. Doing so has been profitable for the business, and it has more than doubled its revenues for the past eight years.

By the end of 2017, Wish had 75 million monthly active users and offered a selection of over 200 million items. The company is valued at $8 billion, and while it doesn’t quite rival retail giants like Walmart and Amazon yet, Szulczewski expects to be playing on the same field within the next ten years.

It’s lofty ambitions for an app that sells ties for just the price of shipping, but the numbers suggest they have a sporting chance.



Clearly, there’s room for new apps to make a difference (and a few bucks along the way), even in our current market. The key is having the skills necessary to execute a good idea. That’s where training and a degree comes in.