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How Kevin Systrom got started

Oct 10, 2014

Kevin Systrom didn't plan on starting a company he'd sell to Facebook for $1 billion. He got his start in a record store, of all places. But it was a sudden love of photography combined with an affinity for technology—perhaps inspired by his mother, who worked in the sector— that led to the creation of the now-ubiquitous photo-sharing app. In this excerpt from Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career—a book Fortune released last year that tells the exclusive origin stories of 33 alums of the 40 Under 40 over the years—Daniel Roberts recounts how Systrom, no. 8 on our 2014 40 Under 40 list and the newest boardmember at Walmart, got his start in business.

Kevin Systrom's mother was early to technology.

She worked at Monster.com during the first tech startup boom and, later, at Zipcar. Much like how Jess Lee (co-founder and CEO of Polyvore, no. 32 on the 2012 40 Under 40) was influenced by her mother being an entrepreneur, Systrom's fierce love of technology and his own entrepreneurship were ushered along by his mother's work at hot tech companies.

As a teenager, Systrom created programs that would prank his friends by appearing to hack their AOL Instant Messenger accounts. But his first real job once he got to high school wasn’t about technology at all: he worked at Boston Beat, an old-school, vinyl-record store on posh Newbury Street. “I was obsessed with deejaying,” he tells Fortune. “So I would e-mail the store every other day to get a job there. I pestered them and pestered them and finally they let me in, and I worked a couple hours a week.” Thanks to his experience at Boston Beat, Systrom was soon opening for real DJs at Boston club shows, though he had to get help from older friends to sneak into the clubs, since he was still under 18. “One thing about my background is I get very obsessed with something,” Systrom explains, adding that he used to stockpile giant stacks of records in a corner of his bedroom. Both this single-minded focus and retro sensibility would serve him well with Instagram.

When it came time to apply to college, the obvious choice was Stanford, with its tech offerings and deep ties to Silicon Valley. Systrom applied early-decision with a planned focus on computer science, but once he got there, he found that the classes were more academic than applied, so he switched to Stanford’s management science and engineering program, which had a focus on more practical subjects like finance and economics.

[object Object] .  Photo: Brad Barket/Getty 

Much as Mark Zuckerberg (who would later buy Systrom’s company) did at Harvard, toying with code to create games for his friends to use, Systrom 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.

During the summer before his senior year in college, Systrom interned at Odeo, a podcast startup created by Evan Williams, who would go on to co-found Twitter. Odeo, which launched at about the same time as Facebook, gave users an easy way to record and share podcasts, which were becoming popular thanks to the ubiquity of the iPod and digital music. One of the people working at Odeo full- time while Systrom was interning there was Jack Dorsey (another Twitter co-founder, with Williams and Biz Stone). Systrom and Dorsey hit it off, tweaking apps together for Odeo; Dorsey would later come in handy as a key connection for Systrom in the tech world. “I learned so much from Ev and Jack,” he says. “The whole thing was really eye-opening for me.”

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In his senior year at Stanford, Systrom had opportunities at a number of tech companies, including Microsoft, but he took a marketing job at Google, which in many ways was the place to be for Stanford grads eager to make their mark. But Systrom wasn’t writing code or working on cool new products; he was handling marketing projects for Gmail and Calendar. 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. Still, three years into his time at Google, Systrom grew restless. He had gone there straight out of college, and the large, corporate environment took its toll on someone who had always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I always had this itch,” he says. “I wanted to get back in the social space.” He left Google for a job at a social site called Nextstop, which offered travel recommendations. There he was able to do more of what he had wanted all along: write code and create app-style programs for the site, including games revolving around photos.

It was becoming more and more obvious to Systrom that he 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. He began working on it in his spare time and called the idea Burbn (matching the typical misspellings and missing letters of your typical startup names, and also paying homage to his favorite spirit, bourbon). He made a prototype for the app, which allowed for location-based photo sharing (a mashup, in a sense, of Foursquare and Flickr).

At a party in January 2010, Systrom met and impressed Steve Anderson, a 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. Systrom quit his job at Nextstop, which was bought by Facebook that July.

Because so many successful tech startups seemed to have a pair of co-founders (or a trio, but rarely just one person), Systrom felt he needed a co-founder. He tapped his friend Mike Krieger, a fellow Stanford graduate two years his junior. Krieger, too, was working on an app—his was a chat platform called Meebo—but when Systrom showed him the Burbn prototype, he dug it. Krieger came aboard in March 2010, but almost immediately Systrom wanted the company to pivot. Burbn was really too similar to Foursquare, he reasoned, which was becoming very popular. Burbn got a lot of hype in tech blogs, but it didn’t really go anywhere. One piece of it, however, caught on: photo sharing.

The duo decided to make photos the whole point. Burbn had had too many different features. What would be a hit, they knew, was something simple that did one thing. They stripped the app of its bells and whistles and made it a tool, tailored for only the iPhone at first—the iPhone 4 had just come out and had a high-quality built-in camera—that would overlay pictures with Holga-inspired lenses (the app calls them filters and today has 20 of them to choose from) that make them hip and artsy. Systrom thought of it as an “instant telegram,” hence the name Instagram.

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Systrom and Krieger worked on Instagram feverishly for eight weeks, tweaking code and refining the visual design, but they also didn’t sweat the details beyond photo filters and basic sharing buttons. Perhaps that goes against the usual logic for launching a company, but in their case, it worked well. Says Systrom: “We had worked on Burbn for so long; this time we just wanted to get it out and get it into users’ hands.”

Instagram's Mike Krieger and Kevin SystromMike Krieger (L) and Kevin Systrom. Photographed in Menlo Park, CA, May 2014.  Photograph by Robyn Twomey for Fortune 

On the night of Oct. 6, 2010, when they were at last ready to go, they pressed the launch button and tweeted about the new app. Press coverage followed right away, much of it from blogs that had written about Systrom when his app was called Burbn. Two hours after Instagram went live, its servers came tumbling down because of the rush of traffic. Systrom and Krieger freaked out and feared instant failure, but in fact it was the best thing they could have hoped for. They pulled an all-nighter, working like crazy to get the servers back up and then to keep them online and running.

Close to 25,000 people had signed up for an account in Instagram’s first 24 hours. The next day, “after getting three hours of sleep,” Systrom recalls, “we were exhausted, but we knew we had created something different. We had a really good feeling about it.”

People loved the way the app allowed them to make their photographs unique, and they liked the presentation of the entire interace—all squared or rounded edges, bright colors, neat cursive, and tiny profile pictures for each user. The app wasn’t bogged down with personal information or a list of friends and interests; you merely chose to “follow” others, à la Twitter, and once you applied a filter and pushed “share,” your photo was out there for anyone to enjoy. To show that you liked someone else’s picture, you could double-tapped it with your finger and a heart popped up.

Instagram, of course, was not without competition. Systrom says that when they launched it, “a slew of people came out [with similar apps], and I think since then, one by one, they’ve begun to do other things.” That included Color, a particularly hyped app that touted itself as a Facebook for photos.

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Within nine months, Instagram had 7 million users, includ- ing influential tech-loving celebrities like Justin Bieber and Ryan Seacrest, and “to instagram” became its own verb in the tech world vernacular. “The majority of folks sign up thinking they’re going to just make cool photos,” explains Systrom. “But then as part of that, they’ll start posting and discover all these other users and this strong community. They trade likes, comments, and it becomes a whole new social graph.”

That’s likely what caused Facebook to take notice. Some users had stopped using Mark Zuckerberg’s network to post photos and instead were sharing them via their Instagram feed, which had a different visual layout that they liked and was for mobile phones only. In April 2012, less than two years after Insta- gram launched, Facebook announced it was buying the startup. The news rocked the tech world, made Systrom a star, and brought the app to the immediate attention of anyone who somehow still had not heard of it.

When Systrom first spoke to Fortune, a year after Instagram’s launch and mere months before Facebook came calling, he wrestled with the question of where his app fit in among the bigger players. “As we grow larger, like to 70 million users,” Systrom said, “the question is, Where do we fit in the ecosystem of the Twitters, the Facebooks, etc.? Because we’re so image-focused, I think we’ll find a very nice natural home.” That home, though he didn’t know it then, would be Facebook, which, after buying Instagram, allowed Systrom and his still-tiny, 16-person team to continue working independently within the larger social network. Systrom had predicted, too, its value to a larger company: “As offline dollars start to shift to online, people are ready to spend money on social media,” he said. “How that manifests itself is still many months out, but we think it’s a multibillion-dollar market.”

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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. It has added more filters, made it easier to tweet a photo right from within the Instagram app, and offered the Facebook-like ability to tag a friend in a photo. It has added advertising through sponsored photos that appear in your stream. But overall the service has not drastically changed from what it was four years ago. In November 2012, Instagram added an online component, which let users view their photos on a web browser, making the product no longer strictly mobile, but the feature still didn’t represent a major change in its function. Systrom's star has continued to rise (recently he became a Walmart boardmember) and his app remains red-hot, despite some fears when Facebook bought it. He and Krieger have kept it uncomplicated.

“Anyone can build a social photo-sharing site,” says Systrom. “And in fact many people have. Our community is our biggest asset, so we need to protect that—make sure people are happy. We realize that no one on this earth has the golden touch, and we try to stay humble.” That, and stay simple too.

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