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“What are some good places to get professional business cards printed for someone in the Bay Area? I’ve got a design, I just need printing.”
Instagram is a different kind of company. When it was bought by Facebook for a billion dollars last year, it had only 13 employees — and no furniture in their office space. Its founders, Systrom and Mike Krieger, are multimillionaires who haven’t yet blown 30 candles on a birthday cake.
Instagram founders Mike Krieger (left) and Kevin Systrom
To say that it’s been a meteoric rise would be an understatement. Naturally, the story of this photo-sharing community is fascinating. And as I dug around to learn about it, I came across the Quora accounts of Systrom and Krieger, which have better information than any of the hundreds of articles I read and videos I watched. This is Instagram’s story, straight from its founders.
From A Foursquare Knock-Off To Instagram
“First off, we have to say that we never expected the overwhelming response that we’ve seen. We went from literally a handful of users to the #1 free photography app in a matter of hours”, says Systrom, “but as my co-founder Mike Krieger likes to say, Instagram is an app that only took 8 weeks to build and ship, but was a product of over a year of work”.
Systrom had dabbled with a bit of programming through school and at Stanford, but was never quite proficient at it. He has no formal computer science training or degree. And when he took a marketing job at Google, he forgot all about that. “Only at my next job at Nextstop would I say I went from being a hobbyist to being able to write code that would go into production,” he recalls. “While I was there working in marketing, I started doing more and more engineering at night on simple ideas that helped me learn how to program.”
One of those ideas was Burbn. It was an HTML5 app that mimicked Foursquare’s concept of “checking in”. The only major difference was that it ran through a browser and used text messages.
At a party one day, Systrom met people from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. They liked the prototype he showed them, so Systrom quit his job to work full-time on Burbn and raised $500,000 from the two venture capital firms.
Mike Krieger, who Systrom knew from the Stanford Mayfield Fellows Program, came on board at this point. Burbn was now a fully functioning app. But it was still a Foursquare knock-off.
“We decided that if we were going to build a company, we wanted to focus on being really good at one thing,” says Systrom. “We saw mobile photos as an awesome opportunity to try out some new ideas.” They went back and forth a little more between a dedicated photo app and the full-fledged Burbn, but the latter felt too cluttered.
“It was really difficult to decide to start from scratch, but we went out on a limb, and basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram,” he explains.
Squares Are In
The name took a long week of searching. It needed to say ‘right here, right now’ and had to sound “camera-y”. Plus, it had to be unique. And finally, it had to be something a person could spell if you told them the name. They finally settled on Instagram — “an instant telegram of sorts.”
Over the next eight weeks, Instagram was beta-tested with about 100 users. Krieger and Systrom did all the coding, with the latter working on the design and the icon.
It was finally released on the App Store on October 6, 2010, and immediately caught the world’s fancy. Two weeks later, it was featured in Japan as New & Noteworthy. And after another week, it was App Of The Week in the App Store. There’s been no looking back since then. Pretty soon, everyone from Justin Bieber to Kim Kardashian was using it. Nature photographers were putting up stunning photos.
There was something different about Instagram. At that time, Hipstamatic was the only app to do square photos. “We realized that if we were going to do photos, that we’d have to be different and stand out. Square photos displayed really well in a feed format and frankly we just liked the aspect ratio better,” Systrom says. Square images would end up being Instagram’s most identifiable feature, right after filters.
The filters were a big hit on the iPhone, whose camera was “good enough but not great” at the time. Filters took away those imperfections and made photos look better. Whether it’s apparent or not, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
“(A filter) is really a combination of a bunch of different methods. In some cases we draw on top of images, in others we do pixel math. For instance, Lomo-fi really isn’t much more than the image with boosted contrast. Whereas Toaster is one of the most complex (and slow, yet popular) filters we have with multiple passes and drawing. I’d give up more info, but it’s our secret sauce,” Systrom says.
$1 Billion In Two Years
“It’s a long story, but that’s what you asked for,” Systrom smiles.
It was a whirlwind ride from November 2010 to April 2012, when Facebook purchased Instagram for a 1 billion dollars, netting Systorm $400 million and Krieger $100 million. Today, Instagram has 150 million active monthly users, with an average of 40 million photos being shared daily. Over the years, it’s amassed an incredible 16 billion photos! It even has video now.
How does the Instagram story make you feel? Was it just a stroke of luck, or are these guys real geniuses?