The man who launched a billion selfies
Instagram has 400 million users posting 80 million pictures a day and the app's name has become a verb in itself. As we profile Ireland's Instagram queens , Charlie Parrish meets the man behind the photo-sharing phenomenon
Published 01/02/2016 | 02:30
'The funny thing about tech," Kevin Systrom begins, "is all of us founders are 20 or early 30-somethings, and, OK, we're growing older, but nobody knows what they are doing when they are 20 or 30-something. We're all learning and making it up as we go along, in the best way possible. And by the way, we're making world-changing companies as we do it."
Systrom is a co-founder of Instagram, the photo-sharing social network that has more than 400 million users. He is 32, and in 2012, he sold the 15-month-old company he founded with Mike Krieger to Facebook for US$1bn. Systrom made a reported US$400m from the sale and remains its CEO (Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, pledged to allow him to run Instagram independently) while Krieger serves as Instagram's 'technical lead'.
Systrom is a very accommodating man - he offered to take time from a helter-skelter London tour and drop in to meet for our interview - and he is a very confident man. Instagram, he believes, has changed things.
"One of the things I love about Instagram's photos is they are there," he says. "They stick around. It means historians are going to be able to look back at humanity at this point in time and engage, and understand what has happened and what people were seeing."
His ambitions are lofty ("In five years, I hope Instagram is this all-seeing public feed of what's happening in the world") and he is phenomenally polished. If Mark Zuckerberg is Silicon Valley's insular and awkward wunderkind, Kevin Systrom is its well-heeled prom king.
He was born in Holliston, Massachusetts, but was, perhaps, predestined for Silicon Valley. His father, Douglas, is a human resources vice-president for a US East Coast home-goods firm; his mother, Diane, is a technology veteran. "She was at start-ups before start-ups were a thing," he says.
"She worked in advertising and marketing during the first dotcom boom, first at monster.com [a pioneering international job site] and then at swapit.com, which was this thing where you'd send in a CD and get credits to exchange for other CDs. She learnt to snowboard at 45. She's the coolest, with a tremendous energy. If you were to meet her, I'm sure you'd think, 'She's really cool and Kevin's just a nerd'." He has a younger sister, Kate, who is a marketing manager for the high-fashion e-tailer The RealReal.
Like most wildly successful technology entrepreneurs, Systrom is quick to promote his nerdy credentials. He talks a good game and his story stacks up - standout computer scientist and programmer at the prestigious and very expensive Middlesex boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts; tall and gangly, woeful teenage dress sense - but probe a bit deeper, and you'll discover another side.
"The reason I loved electronic music is because I liked to DJ and I liked to bring people together," he says. "I was captain of the lacrosse team in my junior year. I loved to run. I loved photography and was president of the photography club. I brought people together through that."
Did you enjoy boarding school?
"I don't know that any teen enjoys high school," he says. "It was a very small school [it has 375 students]. I probably had a rougher experience because I was super-tall and nerdy and into programming, so I was by no means the cool kid . . ."
But you don't strike me as a nerd, I interrupt. You seem to be more sociable.
"I think that's why our company works," he says. "I like to say, 'I'm dangerous enough to know how to code and sociable enough to sell our company'. And I think that's a deadly combination in entrepreneurship."
Systrom's post-school CV reinforces this confidence. After Middlesex, he attended Stanford University in California, and spent the winter term of his third year studying photography in Florence. Systrom was told to replace his Nikon with a plastic Holga camera that took square photos, which would become Instagram's trademark. As a Stanford undergraduate, he was selected to join the Mayfield Fellows Program, which provides students with expert training in hi-tech entrepreneurship.
"I then interned at Odeo for Evan Williams and his co-founder, Noah Glass," he says. "Jack Dorsey was one of the first engineers, and I basically shared a desk with him for three months." Odeo was a site that allowed users to record and publish podcasts, and its founders, plus Dorsey and Biz Stone, would go on to launch Twitter, another social-media phenomenon that would later show interest in purchasing Instagram.
Systrom graduated in 2006 with a BSc in management science and engineering. Two years at Google followed - the first spent working on products such as Gmail, Reader and Docs, and the second within the corporate development team - before a brief stop at Nextstop, a location recommendation start-up that would be acquired by Facebook in 2010.
By his mid-20s, Systrom had worked for, with and under some of the industry's most prominent companies and minds. (He had already turned down an offer to drop out of his final year at Stanford and work for Facebook.) When people began investing in Instagram, they were investing in Systrom and then the product.
"It's such a small world in the tech scene," he says. "We all learn a lot from each other's companies. The most important thing for me was working at Google and Odeo, and meeting people along the way. The Valley is a really small place, and you should want to learn from people, because there's so much going on."
Systrom quit Nextstop to concentrate on an idea he and his Brazilian-born college friend Krieger had been seeking funding for. Burbn (a nod to his favourite drink) was an app that encouraged users to check into locations, make plans with friends (earning themselves 'points' in the process) and post pictures. Although Burbn attracted US$500,000 seed funding from San Francisco venture-capital firms, user feedback dismissed it as too fussy, too complicated. And so they decided to "make a pivot" (Silicon Valley-speak for "accept you have made a mistake and move on").
"I was on vacation with my fiancee - at the time, my girlfriend - Nicole [Schuetz, a fellow Stanford graduate] in Mexico when we had the a-ha moment," Systrom says (the pair have since married). "We were walking along the beach, and I said that we needed something to help us [the company] stand out. Nicole then said, 'Well, I don't want to take photos, because my photos don't look good. They're not as good as your other friend Greg's.
"He was also using the early product [Burbn]. I told her that was because Greg used filter apps. So she just said, 'Well, you should probably have filters then." We went back to this small bed and breakfast in Mexico with dial-up internet connection and I spent the afternoon learning how to make a filter. That filter was X-Pro II, which still exists today, in its original form, in the app. The funny thing is, if you look at the first photo ever on Instagram, it's of Nicole - well, her foot - a stray dog and a taco stand in Mexico. Had I known it was going to be the first photo on Instagram, I would have tried a bit harder."
Thus Burbn became Instagram, and launched on October 6, 2010. Before the launch, Systrom put the app in the hands of influential friends, such as Jack Dorsey, who posted photographs shot with Instagram on their own social-media channels. Expectation suitably whipped up, 25,000 people downloaded the free (as it will always remain, Systrom says) app in its first 24 hours. By December, it had one million registered users. They adored its simplicity and, aside from the addition of the video-clip capability, a messenger service between users and a raft of additional photo effects, it has remained the same product it was at launch.
People also love those filters. Suddenly, the most throwaway picture of your cat, breakfast, holiday or new outfit could be prettied up and appear lifted from a glossy photoshoot. Then, of course, came the 'selfie' explosion. Critics suggest that Instagram fuels dangerous narcissism and encourages an untrue curation of our lives.
Systrom is unbowed. "I think every bit of our lives is in some way about presenting a certain image," he says. "It's why people wear the clothes they do. And some people care a lot about it and some people don't care at all about it. And I wouldn't pass judgment on it. I would say that it's natural and it's human and it existed long before Instagram existed."
When, in April 2012, Facebook completed its acquisition of a company described by CNN as having "lots of buzz but no business model", 30 million people were actively using Instagram, it had been crowned Apple's 2011 App of the Year, it had annihilated all online photo-sharing competition and it had become a verb.
Only a week before the deal was struck, Instagram had closed a US$50m round of financing that left the company valued at US$500m. Investors doubled their money in a week, and many business analysts were dumbfounded. Zuckerberg was paying US$1bn for a tech company without a website, one that had yet to generate a dollar of revenue. Instagram introduced what it called "beautiful, brand-building" paid advertising in October 2013, and just over a year later, it was valued by Citigroup analysts at US$35bn. Systrom contends they didn't pull the trigger on the sale early as Instagram would not have experienced its exponential growth without benefiting from Facebook's size.
Was there a list of companies Instagram was willing to get into bed with? Systrom laughs. "I've never heard it said that way," he says. "In business, you always have people interested. Always. We had people interested five days after our launch, and names you would recognise. It was about the balance of knowing what we wanted to do at the right time with the right people. And the cool part is, if you look at what we've done with Facebook, we've got tremendous scale because of our partnership. I'm not entirely sure whether that would have happened with any other partner. I'm a pretty terrible fortune teller, so I'll take it for what it is and say it's gone really well."
Despite capitalising on Facebook's stature, Instagram remains a relatively nimble operation. It boasts about 200 employees (admittedly a vast number when compared with the 13 who were on the payroll at the time of the acquisition), mainly housed at Facebook's main campus in Menlo Park, California, who, Systrom says, are encouraged to get out from behind their desks. "You know the outdoors company Patagonia?" he asks. "They pay their employees to take time off and go and explore. Like, mountains and camping and stuff. It makes them more of a Patagonia employee. I believe a big part of our culture is not just sitting in the office all day, because no one wants to see pictures of me sitting in front of a computer in an office. That's not inspiring. Instagram is about showing that you're out in the world."
A scan of Systrom's own Instagram account suggests he is rarely sitting behind his desk in San Francisco. He arrived for our interview from Germany, where he had attended training with the Bundesliga champions, Bayern Munich. Before that he had been in Paris, for a Paris Saint-Germain match and fashion week (selfies scored with: the frizzy-haired Brazilian defender David Luiz, Karl Lagerfeld, the supermodels Karlie Kloss and Gigi Hadid, the chef Alain Ducasse and Louis Vuitton's artistic director, Nicolas Ghesquiere).
Later, Jamie Oliver would throw him a party in London, attended by Russell Brand, Pippa Middleton and Liam Payne of One Direction. Unlike his boss, Systrom does not attend these functions in a hoodie. He met Lagerfeld in a tailored Brioni suit and Charvet knitted tie. Indeed, there are reports he has attempted to introduce 'Tie Tuesday' in the Instagram office.
He is guarded about his private life, beyond complimenting Nicole. He and Schuetz live together in San Francisco, where his sister also lives, while his parents still work and reside in Massachusetts. He lists his vices as fine dining and coffee (an espresso in the morning is his "only ritual"), continues to moonlight occasionally as a DJ, and is active in supporting the arts and emerging technologies.
Instagram's users interacting with the world in such vast numbers has allowed it to diversify its influence. Images shot via Instagram have graced the covers of The New York Times and Time magazines; its videos break news; artists release clips of their long-awaited new material via their Instagram feed. After North Korea switched on its 3G mobile signal in 2013, Instagram was suddenly home to photos that gave an unprecedented, uncensored glimpse into life under Kim Jong-un. "We've spent so much time investing in the social aspect, in the interest aspect, and with brands and celebrities," Systrom says. "The one thing we've yet to crack is what's happening in the world, live. The second you have 400 million people contributing 80 million photos a day to Instagram, like we do now, you get a real-time feed of the world. I want to be able to tune into the World Cup, I want to be able to tune into a fashion show, I want to be able to discover a latte artist in Tokyo. We do an OK job of surfacing this stuff at the moment [through hashtags and location tags], but there's such a wealth of humanity inside Instagram and we need to make sure people can uncover all of those passions and interests."
This is challenging, Systrom says, because the public's relationship with the internet is constantly evolving. "We learn something new about how people use the internet every day that goes by," he says. "Whether it's assumptions about how permanent things are, or how long people want their identities to stick around online, or the level of anonymity people want online, it's all changing.
"I feel like the Newtonian physics of the internet had been written, and over the past three years, you're starting to see those laws challenged with new laws, and that's pretty awesome for someone who grew up with the internet and thought this was the way it was going to be forever. There are fundamental examples of how people behave online changing."
Such as? "I think the move towards more private spaces to communicate is interesting. I never knew how important messaging would be for us. I never knew the implications of people being far more connected than they were 10 or 20 years ago and behaviours changing as a result. There is a now a willingness to take funny selfies. But then there's a willingness to always be connected and yet be online in a way that's very private. When I was growing up, the internet was all about your public profile. It was all about public sharing - public was the word, right? And now, it's changing. We have a very fair amount of private accounts, and I'm very glad we decided to allow a private mode."
Plenty of successful entrepreneurs describe themselves as 'start-up junkies'. They are hooked on the late nights, high stakes and those first giddy flushes of success. Systrom is not in this number.
"I consider myself a business person rather than a start-up person," he tells me. "I think by definition you have to start something to create a business, right? I guess you could just inherit business after business, but I'm interested in investing. I like studying macro-economic trends. I love learning about existing businesses; I am on the Walmart board, where I can learn about a very large business. There are very few 31-year-olds who get to be on the board of a Fortune Top 10 company and learn about what it takes to run a business for over 50 years. That's what I mean when I say I am a business person. I happen to be someone who likes to code and likes tech, and tech happens to be a high-growth industry, but if there happened to be another high-growth industry two years from now, I'd probably be in that, too."
It sounds wonderfully sensible, especially delivered in his bright and positive way. Instagram, I say to him, is very similar. It's the positive social media. "I might challenge that by saying it's not always positive," he replies. "You might say an outpouring of support after the attacks in Paris was generally positive, but it's a sombre topic. Generally people don't come to Instagram to complain about something or make fun of someone. But I guess what you're saying is that you come to Instagram with positive intentions. I think that's pretty awesome."
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