26-Year-Old Programmer Built a $1 Billion App In 2 Years — After Following His Girlfriend’s Advice
Kevin Systrom left Google frustrated.
Having spent almost three years as a product manager at the company, Kevin was eager to take on more responsibility and apply his nuclear drive to something tangible. Instead, he was offered by his boss to take up golf.
His next stop was NextStop, a location recommendation app startup. With FourSquare leading the way, check-in apps were all the rage in the late 2000s, and a small team meant Kevin could get more responsibility and take initiative.
He did. After a year of honing his coding skills at the startup, Kevin decided to create a check-in app of his own.
“I didn’t have a specific idea in mind… I mean, the idea was basically to start a check-in app… Who wasn’t starting a check-in app at that time? […] It was probably the worst idea we could’ve been working on at the time.”
A hostel in Mexico seemed like the right place to pursue his terrible idea, so Kevin packed his flip-flops and bought two tickets out of California — one for himself, one for his girlfriend. That second ticket would become the best investment Kevin Systrom ever made.
“You should probably add filters”
Burbn — Kevin’s first grown-up brainchild — sounded good on paper. Unlike other check-in apps, Burbn allowed users to post photos and videos along with their check-ins. Investors liked the idea, and Kevin received two checks — one from Baseline Ventures, and another from Andreessen Horowitz — totalling $500,000.
“We spent like $60,000 to launch Burbn. We raised $500,000 and we were kicking ourselves the second day after… We were like, we had all this money left. […] Turns out, you can bootstrap yourself with Amazon Web Services; you need like 2 engineers these days to do things well.”
Burbn was easy to build, but it was even easier for users to forget. 80 people — that’s how many joined Burbn over nine months. Kevin recalls having his friends meet his parents via the app, and reconnecting with long-lost acquaintances. But whenever he showed the app to ‘outsiders’ — a.k.a. potential users like you and me — they would nod enthusiastically and then dismiss the app minutes later.
It was a tight-knit community of enthusiastic location-sharers. But it wasn’t growing. Something had to be done.
“We made a list of [Burbn features] and we asked ourselves: what already exists in the world? What sucks? […] There were a lot of check-in apps, there were a lot of planners and group chat things… but there wasn’t a great solution to posting great photos to a lot of friends at once.”
During their Mexico trip, Kevin asked his girlfriend why she didn’t post any pictures on Burbn. She said that her iPhone 4 photos didn’t look as good as some of Kevin’s friends’. He explained that his friends were using photo filters.
“She goes ‘oh, well, you should probably add filters.’ We came back from that walk, I went straight to the room, got on my laptop and I made the first filter, which was X-Pro II.”
Within weeks, Burbn was stripped of all features except photo sharing. The gutted version was downloaded 25,000 times on day one.
How do you call an app that sends instant camera shots with the speed of a telegram? That’s right. Insta-gram.
Snippets of wisdom from Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram
Kevin is a well-read guy, so it’s not a surprise that he’s quotable. Here are a few sharp thoughts I heard Kevin say.
- “Learn just enough to be dangerous.” — Kevin is a self-taught coder, but he admits he would never be able to build Instagram without the help of his more proficient friends. Instead, he advocates learning enough about a subject to build an MVP, and then bringing on real talent once you know the demand is there.
- “You’re never ready, but that’s the fun part.” — you don’t build a billion-dollar company at 26 by waiting for enlightenment. You get your hands dirty, and you see if any gems emerge from the mud you dig up.
- “The hardest part is finding the problem to solve; solutions come pretty easy.” — alludes to Einstein’s “understand the problem and the solution will emerge” wisdom, which is extremely relevant today, because we live at a time when our problems aren’t obvious, and the solutions aren’t that complex.
- “Great ideas are about editing the bad ones out.” — exactly what happened with Burbn.
- “One day on the job is more than one year in a book.” — big words coming from someone who has a pile of books on his bedside at all times. If I were you, I’d take it at face value.
“If I could only read two books, I would read these two books”
Kevin describes himself as someone who primarily learns by reading — and he offers invaluable advice for reading non-fiction books (Kevin doesn’t read fiction.)
First of all, he suggests always having a clear objective first (“I want to learn about body language”) and then picking up the appropriate book — this way, you’ll actually find reading meaningful and enjoy it.
It’s also interesting how he reads non-fiction books: he starts off by analyzing the table of contents, and then reads the last paragraph of every chapter — there, he says, authors actually make the point they’re trying to make. Only after having a good idea what the book is about, does Kevin proceed to read it cover-to-cover.
Here are his favorites.
“Principles” by Ray Dalio
Principles is a classic, and it was a PDF with Dalio’s “commandments” before it was a bestselling book. The PDF didn’t produce that big of an impression on Kevin, but the book, he admits, blew his mind.
In Principles, Dalio goes over his life story — from his poor grades in school and the death of his mother to leaving Bridgewater Associates, a $160 billion hedge fund he founded. He then goes on to extract key lessons from his life.
The principles themselves can be somewhat dogmatic and vague — but if you’re looking for a refreshment of life’s core logic (or a replacement to the Bible) then lessons like “radical open-mindness” will resonate:
1. Don’t confuse what you wish were true with what is really true.
2. Don’t worry about looking good — worry instead about achieving your goals.
3. Don’t overweight first-order consequences relative to second- and third-order ones.
4. Don’t let pain stand in the way of progress.
5. Don’t blame bad outcomes on anyone but yourself.
Either way, these were written by a real person and backed by real reflections — so if you find Dalio an authority, even the dogmas might be worth drilling into your skull. The story, though, is why you should read it.
“The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries
Another classic — one that I can personally vouch for. The book is over 300 pages and contains plenty of interesting business stories, with one simple truth at the core: nobody knows what’ll work for you, so the best thing is to build a Minimum Viable Product (I think Ries actually coined the term) and test things out.
Kevin says The Lean Startup was one of the most influential books in his life:
“The principles from The Lean Startup that I still apply today… One of which is to do the simple thing first, and that was our number-one value at Instagram. […] Still, to this day, I come back to that. “
Four reasons why Instagram became a $1bn company in two years
Kevin’s tale has become a classic Silicon Valley lore — and for good reason. It embodies most of the truths that go into building a world-changing product.
#1. Instagram was ridiculously simple
Most apps try to lure in users with their vast menu of features, continuously adding new ones, drifting further into irrelevancy. Instagram was literally born by taking an app that already exists, and stripping it from all features that showed the least promise.
“Really, you should not be afraid to have simple solutions to simple problems. Too many people believe you have to solve things in a really complicated way. At the end of the day, if you delight people even a little bit with a simple solution, it turns out it goes very far.”
Kevin emphasizes that simplicity goes a long way when working with limited resources — which, for most startups, is the day-to-day reality. Most founders, however, prioritize the elegancy and sophistication of their product — not necessarily its effectiveness.
“When you’re small, and you’re two people, and you’re coding, late into the night — you don’t have time to make things complex; you have time to make things work. Otherwise, you end up over-optimizing.”
It’s not just the product that was simple — simplicity runs in Instagram’s DNA. After the company gained momentum, Kevin introduced ‘decision meetings’ — where nobody would leave the room until all the decisions that needed to be made would be made. And if you hear him talk, you’ll quickly see that his childlike curiosity and humbleness stayed very much intact over the years.
“I feel like I wake up every day with a lot of the same worries I had before Instagram was a thing. Am I working on the right thing? Did I do nothing today? Is that idea the right idea?”
Indeed, simplicity is not the only criterion for a billion-dollar exit. You also have to find a billion-dollar problem to solve.
#2. Instagram was born out of a field test — not imagination
You don’t have to look far to find massively successful ideas that were initially designed to do something else entirely. Kevin reminds us that Youtube was initially designed to be a video-based dating site, while Samsung started out as a dried fish exporter.
“Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” — Biz Stone, Co-Founder of Twitter
The problem Kevin stumbled upon with Burbn was that people did want to share their lives via photos, but they weren’t satisfied with the quality of their images. Back when iPhone 4 was the hottest smartphone available, photo quality was a serious problem.
Instagram blew up because it solved two problems at once: it allowed users to make their photos pretty with a click of a button, and it provided a platform for users to actually share their photos.
But who cares about sharing photos if nobody’s going to see them?
#3. Instagram fit into an already existing ecosystem
Before Instagram became a social network, it was a photography app — almost a portfolio platform for amateur photographers. What turned it into a multi-billion giant was its integration with Facebook — which Kevin launched right at the beginning.
Nowadays, with the social hierarchy of the Internet pretty clear, integrations are a default decision. You want your apps to plug into Facebook, Google, or whatever other network makes sense for the user.
Back in 2010, it wasn’t obvious that you should ‘submit’ your users to a larger platform instead of trying to kickstart an ecosystem of your own. Kevin, in line with his realist character, encouraged users to share their filter-enhanced photos on Facebook, effectively riding the wave of social network’s bulldozer growth. Only later did Instagram add social media features: DMs were introduced in late 2013, while hashtags were added a year after Instagram was launched.
All of these decisions seem natural and even obvious in retrospect, but the reality was a lot messier.
#4. Kevin listened to advice, but made his own decisions
Advice isn’t a rare guest in the Systrom household. He was told not to leave Google. He was told not to work with Facebook. But he was also told to add photo filters.
After years of sifting through advice, Kevin has made a conclusion that sometimes people just say things because they like or dislike you — not because they’re being rational.
“That’s what starting a startup is like. Really, no one believes you until they believe you. And no one is a fan until they’re a fan. […] Part of being an entrepreneur is like, yeah, these two sides are going to exist always. Sometimes it’s gonna be weighted towards hate, and sometimes it’s gonna be weighted towards love.”
Nowadays, it’s hard for Kevin, the $400-million-net-worth founder, to get negative feedback. He has figured out workarounds — like having people rate his public speaking on a scale from 1 to 10 — with ‘7’ eliminated from the scale. This way, he says, people can’t be neutral.
Keep it simple, stupid!
My phone just buzzed — it’s my mom. It’s the sixth time she asked me about a potential domain name for her new e-shop. It’s been about two weeks, and she still hasn’t decided on a name yet.
What would Kevin tell her? He would probably tell her to just pick a name and go test out her e-shop — because nobody knows how or when or why her e-shop will or will not work.
But I’m not Kevin, so I just told her that I liked the previous name better.