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Instagram co-founder: ‘you have to be willing to disrupt yourself’

How did Instagram begin?

We [Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger] both went to Stanford and at that point we knew we wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I hadn’t had that idea before coming to California but you’re surrounded by so many people there that have an entrepreneurial venture. It’s in the water, it’s in the air, and it’s very inspiring. I think Kevin was interested in entrepreneurship from an even earlier age. He was one of those high schoolers doing odds and ends to try to make a company.

When we reconnected after university, we were both interested in building products that help people connect and tell their story, although we didn’t know what our product would be. We both quit our jobs because we knew we wanted to pursue something; it took about nine months until we found out what that thing actually was.

What makes you and Systrom a good partnership?

We just get on really well, it’s seven years into the business and we’re still very close. We’re good friends, but we’re not best friends. I think if we were best friends it would be messier because we’ve spent so much time with each other [on the business]. Also, we balance each other out, there are times when I’m very stressed and he’s very calm, and vice versa. We can be each other’s therapists at some points.

We also have very complementary skills. I bring a lot of the technology and engineering side; he brings a lot of product sense and design. He was also great at working with investors and today he is great at working across the different departments at Facebook [Instagram was sold to Facebook in 2012 for $1bn]. I like to go focus on the technology side a bit more. It works because we don’t want each other’s jobs.

Do you have any tips for winning investment?

For us, one of the key things was being able to demonstrate, if not global traction, at least initial interest. We’d built this product called Burbn, which was the predecessor to Instagram [Burbn was a location check-in app that also allowed users to share photos, which proved to be its most popular feature]. I think the way we were able to raise financing on that product [Burbn secured $500,000 in seed funding] is that we had a couple of hundred people using it and some were really passionate about it, those user stories were really key.

Investors have a mental check list of all the different risks a product might face: founder risk (are they the right founders?), execution risk, market risk. You need to remove some of those impediments from investors minds as early as possible by getting a product out there. From doing that you learn and you are able to say: “Look, this isn’t just a hope and a dream, this is something we’ve already put out to a couple of hundred people.” I think that made a lot of difference in raising financing.

What’s been your hardest decision?

There have been a couple … even in the last year and a half you’ve seen our product go through a major evolution. It sounds like a silly example, but going from square to non-square photos was actually a big deal. Then we changed the feed, and then added Stories [an Instagram feature that launched in 2016, which allows a user to give an overview of their day, or an event, by pulling together videos and photos into a short clip].

Sometimes the most resistance [to changing the product] comes from your own staff. It’s not because they’re conservative, but because change is scary – it feels like driving a car that could go off a cliff. That’s where Instagram still being founder-led makes a big difference. We can say: “Just take the leap of faith with us. We’re going to make this change and, if we’re wrong, we can roll it back.” There are few decisions you could make that could totally tank the company. We’ve learned that when the decision feels really hard it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right one, but it means we’re taking the right kind of risk.

What advice would you give budding tech entrepreneurs?

I think the ability to make things is super important. I’ve met a fair amount of people who have an incredible idea for an app, and that’s great, but it’s even better when paired with the ability to prototype it. Today there are lots of resources around for building apps. Acquire those skills as early as possible, and develop them.

What’s been your proudest moment?

Once we got to Facebook we had to enter a growth phase from being a 13-person company to a team of hundreds. Every six months we have a big meeting where we get everybody together to talk about the next six months. I remember one meeting where we screened a video showing the impact Instagram was having across the world. I looked around and everybody was so proud to have created that and to work on it, that was really special. At some point you have to be ready to let go of being the one person working on a business. The fact that we’ve been able to make that transition means a lot.

With 80% of Instagram users following at least one business, what advice would you give entrepreneurs using the platform?

Firstly, create a business profile. With that entrepreneurs are able to access analytics and insights about their audience [such as what time of the day they are using Instagram]. We’ve learned the value of data to Instagram, so we want to bring that to other people. Secondly, entrepreneurs should use a variety of different Instagram tools to tell their story, using their Instagram feed, but also experimenting with Stories and even posting live. They can use this to bring their audience along with them and let them view their business a new way, whether that’s behind the scenes or to an event.

Is there anything you’d have done differently?

I would have hired much faster. There was so much lost sleep in the early days and it took a toll on our health and, probably, our relationships. It also took us a while to get comfortable with making big changes to the product. You have to be willing to disrupt yourself.

Mike Krieger spoke at the Instagram #Wemadeit entrepreneurs breakfast.

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