Kevin Systrom is the 31-year-old co-founder of Instagram, the photo-sharing app that helped define a generation.
In July of 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion in cash and stocks. Systrom made $400 million in the deal and still remains Instagram’s CEO today.
He now documents his adventures in food, nature and fashion all around the world and is typically accompanied by his long-time girlfriend and now-fiancée, Nicole Schuetz.
Once described as an “ultra nerd” and “geek,” Systrom graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in management science and engineering in 2006. He also met Schuetz at Stanford where they graduated together.
While at Stanford, Systrom was accepted as one of 12 students to participate in the prestigious Mayfield Fellows Program where future entrepreneurs thoroughly study the tech industry and get hooked up with internships at tech startups. Systrom interned at Odeo, the company that gave birth to Twitter.
Systrom was also a Googler for two years working as an associate marketing manager for Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs. He also worked on Google’s corporate development team.
After Google, Systrom went to work for Nextstop, a San Francisco-based location recommendation startup. At the same time, Systrom and business partner Mike Krieger developed Burbn, an app that featured a check-in service, planning capabilities, photo-sharing and point-earning system. At a party, he pitched the prototype to Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz who became interested.
Systrom quit Nextstop after deciding to try and grow Burbn, and just two weeks later landed $500,000 in seed funding from Baseline and Andreessen Horowitz.
“The funny thing about tech 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.”
Using what they learned at the Mayfield Fellows Program, Krieger and Systrom simplified Burbn by focusing the app on one purpose: eliminating unwanted features and making it more user-friendly. The newly developed Burbn pivoted to become Instagram.
Systrom explained the moment he thought of developing Instagram from Burbn while on vacation in Mexico with Schuetz:
“I was on vacation with my fiancée – at the time, my girlfriend – Nicole in Mexico when we had the aha moment. 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.”
“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.”
Instagram was launched in 2010. By the first month, Instagram racked up 1 million users. After one year, they had 10 million users, and by year two, when Facebook bought Instagram, they boasted 80 million users. Today, there are over 300 million people that use Instagram.
“One of the things I love about Instagram’s photos is they are there. 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.”
When talking about his time in high school, where he attended the small but prestigious boarding school Middlesex in Massachusetts, Systrom explained:
“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 … I think that’s why our company works. 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.”
“The one thing we’ve yet to crack is what’s happening in the world, live. The second you have 300 million people contributing 70 million photos a day to Instagram like we do now, you get a real-time feed of the world.”