Kevin Systrom is the Founder and CEO of the globally famous – Instagram. For all those who aren’t aware; Instagram is an online mobile photo and video sharing application. The name “Instagram” came for the words “instant” and “telegram.”
Users can also give the photos a distinctive look thanks to digital filtering. This filter mostly serves to give the photos a kind of “retro” look, in homage to analog cameras from decades past such as the Kodak Instamatic and the Polaroid instant cameras.
Instagram is also known to be one of the very few products which accounts for some of the biggest names from the celebrity world as their loyal users.
Kevin Systrom is said to be the man behind Instagram’s overall vision and strategy along with day-to-day operations. Under his leadership, Instagram has grown on to become one of the most popular applications of all time.
Launched way back in the year 2010, Instagram today boasts of 800 million registered users, with more than 500 million people visiting the site on a regular basis.
Instagram has been estimated to be worth more than $100 billion if it was a standalone company, according to Bloomberg. The photo app was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012 and recently reached a billion users a month.
Hall Of Fame
Behind The Scene
My Baby Is Geeky
Kevin Systrom is born on 30th of December, 1983 in the beautiful town of Holliston in Massachusetts to Diane and Douglas Systrom. His mother was a marketing executive at Zipcar, while his father was the Vice President (HR) at TJX Companies.
So, Kevin Systrom’s mother was early to technology. Kevin Systrom’s fierce love of technology and his own entrepreneurship were ushered along by his mother’s work at hot tech companies.
Like most of the children, he too was much interested in video games and even developed different levels while playing the game ‘Doom 2’.
School Is Fun-on-a-bun
Kevin Systrom started his educational career at Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts where his love for computer programming was ignited.
As a teenager, Kevin Systrom was obsessed with record collecting and deejaying. During his high school days, he was obsessed with becoming a DJ (Disco Jockey) and used to pester Boston Beat – an old-school, vinyl-record store by writing them emails to give him a job there. Later, he was given entry to work few hours a week.
He always cultivated an affinity towards programming and even as a student, he progressed as a programmer. Later on, he moved to the Stanford University where he bagged a degree in Management science and engineering in 2006. The choice was obvious, given the fact that they had a list of tech offerings and also held deep ties with the Silicon Valley.
At Stanford University, he was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity – a social organization whose mission is to develop ethical leaders, to foster personal growth and also to perpetuate friendships and commitment to the fraternity.
He was capable enough to be selected for the ‘Mayfield Fellows Program’ and this enhanced his skills related to technology.
Right before his senior year at Stanford, he interned at a podcasting company called Odeo. Odeo was founded by Evan Williams, who went on to create Twitter. Kevin Systrom used to work there as a Technical and Business intern and also made the Odeo Widget as well. It was launched around the same as Facebook and then, also went on to give rise to Twitter.
Kevin built web programs in his free time. One of them was a photo site he and his fraternity brothers had set up to share party pictures internally. Soon enough, he realized just how much photography interested him. During a junior year abroad in Florence, an Italian professor showed Systrom a Holga—a cheap camera, first popular in China, that developed a cult following because of its low-fi, retro-style photos. The young tech whiz adored the aesthetic of the images. They looked hip.
The Valley Is My Home
In 2006, he completed his graduation and got employed at the internet service and technology giant Google as the associate product marketing manager and managed functions of Google Calendar, Gmail, Spreadsheets, Docs and various other products of the company.
After two years, he managed to switch to Google’s M&A division, where he learned about big tech deals and the money it takes to do them.
Kevin Systrom left Google after rendering his service to them for two years. He went ahead to form a new venture called “Next Stop” alongside some persons like Adrian Graham, Charles Lin and Carl Sjogreen who had worked at Google.
“I always had this itch. I wanted to get back in the social space.” – Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
The Big Shift
In January 2009, Kevin Systrom finally decided to take a risk and joined Nextstop.com as their Product Manager.
The company used to offer travel recommendations to users. Here, he got the opportunity to do more of what he always wanted all along – write code and create app-style programs, including games revolving around photos.
While at Nextstop.com, it had become very clear to him that entrepreneurship was where he was meant to be. He just had to pursue his passion for photography and social sharing full-time.
He was ready to start his own thing, something that married those two interests and rode the rising tide of mobile, location-based gaming and social networking.
“Do what you love, and do it well — that’s much more meaningful than any metric.“ — Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
Getting Drunk In One Round
He made a prototype for the app, which allowed for location-based photo sharing (a mashup, in a sense, of Foursquare and Flickr), then shared his idea with the founders of the capital investment companies Andreessen Horowitz and Baseline Ventures.
The Burbn app was born and contained an HTML5 check-in service which enabled users to check in locations, make plans, earns points from hanging out with friends, post pictures and lot more.
At a party in January 2010, Kevin Systrom impressed Steve Anderson, the Bay Area venture capitalist who had founded the firm Baseline Ventures. Though Burbn was still just an idea, Anderson committed $250,000. In the same round, Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, whose venture capital firm was and remains one of Silicon Valley’s best known, also invested $250,000.
Soon after, Kevin Systrom brought on Mike Krieger as a cofounder. Mike also graduated from Stanford, just two years behind Kevin. Before joining Kevin, Mike was working on his own app called Meebo.
The Big Crunch
In spite of the press coverage, Burbn failed to garner public interest. Because Burbn was very close to what Foursquare was, they although got a lot of hype in tech blogs but it wasn’t really going anywhere.
The pair looked at how users in Burbn’s beta gravitated toward photo sharing and then studied every single popular app in the photograph category. Mike and Kevin scrapped Burbn completely and decided to create a brand new platform.
Very soon, they realised the photo sharing app had gotten a little saturated. During the multiple stages of development and modifications, a precursor to Instagram called Scotch was made. However, Scotch tanked because it didn’t have many filters, was slow and riddled with a few too many bugs.
Rising To The Stars
Things didn’t work out quite well as Kevin had expected. At one point, he stripped the app completely and customized it only for iPhone users at first.
This was because iPhone 4 was just launched in the market. The phone had a high-quality built-in camera which transformed the pictures with Holga-inspired lenses (filters), that would make them look even better, hip and artsy.
“If you focus on producing a great experience for anyone, that’s how you get big“. — Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
After spending two months tweaking code and refining the platform, the duo came up with Instagram – derived from Instant and Telegram.
Soon after the launch, they tweeted about the new app and Press coverage was followed right away. Although, most of it was from blogs that had written about Burbn, but it helped a lot.
Within just two hours from the time Instagram went live, its servers came falling down because of the rush of traffic. Out of the fear of instant failure, they went on to work like crazy all night to get the servers back up and then to keep them online and running.
“After getting three hours of sleep, we were exhausted, but we knew we had created something different. We had a really good feeling about it.” – Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
Word has it that more than 25,000 people had signed up on Instagram in the first 24 hours… A month after launching, Instagram had grown to 1 million users. Nine months later, that was up to 7 million!
In September 2011, they released their version 2.0 which included high resolution photographs, new and live filters, optional borders, instant tilt–shift, one click rotation, and an updated icon.
In 2012, Instagram was the fifth app to ever reach one million ratings on Google Play and was rated roughly around four million times.
Kevin’s impact has been felt and appreciated. In the year 2012, Kevin Systrom was awarded the “Founder of the Year” at the ‘6th Annual Crunchies Awards’, he also shared the “Webby Breakout Award’ with the co-founder of Instagram.
Sell Or Be Sold
The majority of the people who come on to Instagram thinking they’re going to just make cool photos, eventually end up trading likes, comments, and becoming a whole new social graph.
This is what forced Mark Zuckerberg to take notice of this rising app. He realised that a lot their users had stopped using Facebook to post photos, and instead were sharing them via their Instagram feed.
And since photo uploading had been one of the key elements of Facebook’s own initial rise in popularity, it was indeed a matter of concern to Mark. That is when he thought, why not they both be one company, and proposed the same to Kevin as well.
Well, in retrospect, it can definitely be argued that the two founders sold out WAY WAY WAY too early and essentially flushed tens of billions of personal wealth down the toilet in the process. Some would go so far as to call their sale to Facebook one of the dumbest moves in tech history.
“I think not focusing on money makes you sane, because in the long run it can probably drive you crazy.“ – Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
In April 2012, Facebook made an offer to purchase Instagram along with it 13 employees for about $1 billion in cash and stock, with the key provision that the company would remain independently managed.
Four Lessons For Entrepreneurs
Do what you love.
Yes there are a whole raft of things you will need to get right in order to build a successful business. But no matter how complicated or chaotic things get, if you simply focus on fundamental factors you will greatly increase your chances of success.
Have a deep focus
Laser focus on a few features.
Instagram chose to focus on the iPhone initially and working on to make it better each day.In fact, it was because of this focus and dedication that Apple had picked it as the iPhone App of the Year in 2010.
Build up your skills
Self education is the key.
Kevin Systrom was a self taught programmer who had been tinkering with ideas since he was a teenager. Though he received no formal engineering training, he learned how to program at night and working on building his ideas.
Grow your network
Your network is an asset.
Hours after the launch of Instagram, the systems kept crashing. Kevin was able to save the day by calling Adam D’ Angelo, someone he met at a Sigma Nu frat party.
Old Fashioned Recipes
Since then, the company has gone to add a range of developments to its present business model, but the look-&-feel still remains the same.
In contrast to its parent company, which has become busier and more multifaceted, with additional sections and features every month, Instagram has kept things remarkably simple even while rapidly scaling.
According To Kevin’s own experience, there are some growth hacks that would work for your business if you adapt them accurately:
Most people were astonished when they realized that Instagram only had 13 employees. The tendency among startup founders once they get a significant amount of funding is to hire fast so as to scale and capture market share.
However, sometimes the opposite might be the better strategy. By hiring great employees and staying laser focused on building a great product, a large staff base can often become a distraction or even a liability.
“You need to find people that are drawn to the idea that you build, and they end up taking it and making it even better.“ – Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
Often, startups that stay lean, stay nimble. Only hire a crowd of engineers and business people if you have to.
Act Small But Think Big
From the start, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom wasn’t shy about his large scale ambitions. There’s no doubting the fact that the Stanford graduate who had no experience running a company was determined and confident in his abilities.
What Kevin Systrom was shy about though, was scaling up his business operations. Unlike many other ambitious startups (who didn’t break it big), Kevin Systrom kept his organization efficient. With only few employees, that’s a remarkable average of $76.9 million of value per employee!
“Having a company that's successful is a wonderful platform to do new things. You don't have to raise money for it; you can take profits from the company and pump them into new business.“ – Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
Build Users First
This is tough to swing if you don’t have the capital or funding, but the core value remains the same either way.
I don’t care what kind of business you’re running: you absolutely need a critical mass of users and followers. Without a loyal customer base, you’re dead in the water.
Success Leaves Tracks
“$0 To $1 billion In 18 months” might make for glamorous headlines but mainstream media does us no favours by glossing over the many years of learning, hard work and failure that go into these “overnight success” stories.
The reality is that Instagram founders Kevin Systrom spent years paying his dues and building his knowledge, skills, experience and contacts in the startup/tech space, working for a number of different internet giants including Google, Microsoft and Odeo.
Not only that, but he had previous startups which failed along the way, enabling him to learn valuable lessons before he broke through with Instagram.
“I promise you, a lot of it is luck. But you make your own luck by working really hard and trying lots and lots of things.“ – Kevin Systrom Click To Tweet
Know What Works
Before Kevin Systrom came up with Instagram, he first thought of a service that was very much like Foursquare only that it came with a liquor-inspired moniker: Burbn.
But after Kevin Systrom and his partner started on their venture, they settled in on one of the most popular features of Burbn, which was photo-sharing. They did away with the Foursquarish appeal of Burbn, and ushered in something new and something simpler with Instagram.
These days, Kevin Systrom is worth an estimated $1.5 billion. He spends his time cycling, playing golf, and traveling, and he’s also interested in fashion. He’s met and worked with several well-known designers, and he’s attended the Met Gala multiple times.
Since the Instagram acquisition in 2012, Kevin Systrom has made a total of three investments, which includes Blue Bottle Coffee, Sparks and Even.
After the Facebook acquisition, the Instagram founders have done little to change the user phase, sticking to the simplicity of the app. The astounding rise of Instagram’s popularity proves that people believe in real connections rather than those based on only words.
More recently, Kevin Systrom all but promised to start another company. He told that he and Krieger would likely work together again, but he had no time frame for starting a new company.
Digital Dandy. Hacker From Heart. Workaholic. Coding Artist. Self-made.