November 16, 2013

An interview with Kevin Systrom

After working at Google, Kevin Systrom (his twitter) founded the popular photo sharing app Instagram. This interview is from January 2012 - only a few months before Instagram was acquired by Facebook for approximately $1 billion in cash and stock.

Lessons learned
  • Kevin Systrom studied computer science at the Stanford University, but he didn't get very good grades so he thought the subject wasn't for him. He had programmed for a long time and began with the language QBasic. So he decided to focus on management and kept coding side projects. One of these side projects was a Craigslist for Stanford and it was his first experience from a startup in the social network industry. He also worked for Odeo that would become Twitter
  • In 2005, he talked with people from Facebook if he would drop out from Stanford and join the team. This was when Facebook was a small company and if he had joined, he would have made a lot of money. But he got his degree and declined Microsoft for work at Google.
  • Instagram was originally a competitor to Foursquare. You could post videos and pictures. They realized that their users loved to post photos, so they removed the other parts their users never used. They also realized they had to build in filter into Instagram so everyone could take beautiful photos. Before Instagram, there were many popular apps that added a filter to your photos but none of them had any social functions.  
  • To market Instagram, the emailed everyone they could find. To grow even more, Instagram users could share their photos on Twitter. On Twitter, they tried to find people who were big in design and photos and marketed to them as well.
  • A lot of it is luck - but you make your own luck by working really hard and trying lots and lots of things.
  • Be a small team. Instagram had a team of only ten people when they had 10 million users.
  • Kevin Systrom doesn't worry about competitors - he's saying that Instagram's biggest competitor is Instagram itself. Instagram has to recruit competent people and build a good product.
  • Launch to the public as early as you can - the early Instagram was in beta for 8 months and that's way too long time. You may be afraid of failing but you should want to fail as early as possible. If it really fails, find something else and don't waste any time. The best thing is to actually not use a beta at all.
  • Focus on solving a real problem - don't invent problems.
  • Don't add features. 

More articles in the same series: Lessons learned from the Foundation interviews