The face that launched a billion selfies

The face that launched a billion selfies

The funny thing about tech,” Kevin Systrom begins, “is all of us founders are 20 “slash” early-30-somethings, and, OK, we’re growing older, but nobody knows what they are doing when they are 20 “slash” 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 300 million users. He is 31 and in 2012 sold the 15-month-old company he founded with Mike Krieger to Facebook for $1 billion. Systrom made a reported $400 million from the sale and remains its CEO (Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerburg, pledged to allow him to run Instagram independently) while Krieger serves as Instagram’s ‘technical lead’.

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 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 an 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 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.”

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 the prestigious and very expensive Middlesex boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts, 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. Systrom graduated in 2006 with a BSc in management science and engineering.

Two years at Google followed before a brief stop at Nextstop, a location recommendation start-up. By his mid-20s, Systrom had worked for, with and under some of the industry’s most prominent companies and minds.

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 $500,000 seed funding from San Francisco venture capitalist firms, user feedback dismissed it as too fussy, too complicated. And so they decided to ‘make a pivot’.

“I was on vacation with my fiancée – at the time, my girlfriend – Nicole (Schuetz, a fellow Stanford graduate) in Mexico when we had the aha moment,” Systrom says. “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. Twenty-five thousand 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 also loved 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.

Selfie explosion
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. 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. Zuckerberg was paying $1 billion for a tech company without a website that had yet to generate a dollar of revenue.

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.”

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 two years ago, Instagram was suddenly home to photos that gave an unprecedented, uncensored glimpse into life under Kim Jong-un.

Plenty of successful entrepreneurs describe themselves as ‘start-up junkies’. Systrom is not in this number. “I consider myself a business person rather than a start-up person,” he says. I love learning about existing businesses; I am on the Wal-Mart board, where I can learn about a very large business. There are 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.”

It sounds wonderfully sensible, especially delivered in his bright and positive way. Instagram is 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 on January 7 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.”

Telegraph Magazine

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