Facebook's announcement that it will be purchasing Instagram - the popular iPhone app - for an astounding $1 billion was the big news in technology and business on Monday, April 9. And it was also exciting news at Middlesex, where Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom '02 was a senior about to graduate 10 years ago. Last fall, when Kevin's small company was still growing and gaining momentum in the marketplace, he talked with the alumni magazine about his experience as an Internet entrepreneur.
Keeping his business in proper perspective, Kevin observes, “People enjoy taking pictures and sharing their images. We didn’t invent that. We just make it easier.”
What Kevin and his business partner Mike Krieger did invent, however, is called Instagram, a wildly popular, free iPhone application (or “app”) that was launched in Apple’s online App Store on October 6, 2010. In the year since then, more than 11 million people have signed up for Instagram, which provides custom-designed filters and borders that can be applied to iPhone pictures, altering the images with unique effects and shifted colors or tones.
In addition, Instagram has its own internal social network, where people can share their photos. As Kevin explains, “You are sharing with people whom you follow on our network – maybe friends you know, or people you don’t know but who take great pictures.” People can also post their photos externally to Facebook and other social networks.
For Kevin, Instagram combines several of his long-standing interests; as a new sophomore at Middlesex, he was already an enthusiastic photographer who enjoyed math and computer programming – pursuits that were further encouraged by photography teacher Steve Butera and retired Math and Science Division Head Paul Roeder. In a 2002 interview with a local paper about a fundraiser that he had helped organize, Kevin even prophetically said, “I’ve always been interested in businesses, creating business models, if you will, trying to come up with an idea that is unique and that people come away from and say, ‘That was fun.’” Was Instagram somehow meant to be?
“In retrospect, it seems so obvious,” Kevin allows. “I think people should get themselves in a position to do what they love, and for me, that meant putting in my time in the technology industry, meeting the people who would allow us to raise money and the engineers who could help make an idea happen.”
After majoring in management science and engineering at Stanford, Kevin worked at Odeo (which eventually became Twitter) and Google before joining forces with Mike to create Burbn, their first app collaboration. “People loved the photo component of Burbn but not everything else,” Kevin recounts. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to focus on the photo part?’ Eight weeks later, we had Instagram. Sometimes your first idea isn’t your best, but you can learn a lot from it. Entrepreneurship is really not about divine inspiration; it’s a lot of hard work to get to that.”
And he doesn’t discount the element of luck in hitting on an idea that has had such immediate appeal. “It’s very difficult to make something that people love,” Kevin says. “The smartest people in the world can put products out that don’t capture people’s hearts. At Odeo, I learned that you can have an awesome team working on the wrong product.
As his company’s CEO, Kevin is focusing on issues of growth and profitability as Instagram works to expand to other platforms (like Android) and hires more employees, now numbering six. “I still think we have a long way to go before we are successful,” he assesses, “but I’m excited about that ride and about having a chance to do it.”
UPDATE: Kevin Systrom is featured in the August 20th edition of Forbes.