Success stories about startups don’t get much more compelling than the humble tale of Instagram.
The photo-sharing app was created in 2010 by Stanford University graduates Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger working out of an old pier in San Francisco. Today it boasts 700 million registered users and more than 400 million people come to the platform every day. More than 80 per cent of users are outside of the US and around 18 million are in the UK alone.
The quadrilateral logo depicting a multicoloured stylised camera is recognised the world over and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the app a fundamental part of popular culture. It’s a symbol of today’s youth – a social network for creatives, photographers and people who would describe themselves as neither of those two things.
But as it hurtles into its seventh year of existence it’s also adopted the role of a kind of incubator for budding businesses – the world’s biggest mentor, if you will – and a crucial publicity platform for many companies for one simple reason: it’s free.
On a warm morning in early June, in a redeveloped factory in the heart of Shoreditch in east London, Krieger hosted a panel discussion with four budding London-based businesses to an audience of dozens of other startup founders, hoping to glean insight into the 31-year-old’s success strategy.
One of the panellists, 22-year-old Julius Ibrahim, is the founder of Second Shot Coffee, a coffee shop that employs homeless people and operates a pay-it-forward system, where customers can pre-pay for food and drink that the less fortunate can later be served free of charge. Others include Sophie Lee, the founder of mail-order plant company geo-fleur, Made in Chelsea star Hugo Taylor, who’s launched an eyewear brand, and Sarah Deane, the founder and CEO of candle brand Evermore.
All make the point that Instagram has been integral to spreading the word about their business and building a following – often right from the very first prototype.
The smiley, bespectacled Krieger is the current chief technology officer of Instagram, which was bought by Facebook for $1bn (£776m) in April 2012, and even though he’s estimated to be worth around $300m, he doesn’t exude any of the haughtiness that some of his fellow Silicon Valley execs do.
When speaking about Instagram’s journey so far he’s quick to stress his and the management team’s inherent focus on making sure that the company develops in exactly the way they want it to. And that’s Krieger’s first piece of advice for the scores of wannabe entrepreneurs wishing to emulate his achievement.
“We did a lot of it ourselves for a very long time and it worked,” he says in an interview with The Independent on the sidelines of the event. “It’s very important that users feel a connection to the people behind the product, it may sound daunting but that’s what gives your business a personality.”
Instagram is indeed going out of its way to give users that one-to-one feel.
Last year, the company launched “Instagram Stories” – a function that allows you to share multiple pictures and videos in a single slideshow. The photos and videos disappear after 24 hours, meaning that they serve their purpose of sharing an experience but don’t disrupt a carefully curated account.
Krieger himself uses “Stories” and is an avid poster on his personal account. To date he’s posted almost 2,000 times documenting his personal and professional life side by side, regularly featuring snaps of his wife Kaitlyn Trigger and their Bernese mountain dog Juno, whose own Instagram account boasts more than 7,500 followers.
Krieger’s second piece of advice is to be very careful about who you hire. The Brazilian-born software engineer says that he spends a lot of time scouting for talent and finding people who embody Instagram’s ambitions and values while also having the necessary technical expertise. That’s not always an easy job and in the booming world of tech – where workforces can balloon to the tens of thousands in a matter of years. Instagram can still be considered somewhat of an exclusive club. It employs around 500 people. Twitter employs around 4,000.
“Don’t try to become too big too quickly,” Krieger says. As a startup evolves into a more established player, he says, it can be easy to expand too quickly but Instagram has always taken a more cautious approach – favouring “organic expansion”.
“It can be tempting to grow fast, but it’s a fine line and can lead to losing perspective of exactly what you want to do and where you want your business to go.”
In between trips around the world, recruitment drives and other engagements, Krieger says that he still tries to code as often as possible. He’s certainly not afraid to roll his sleeves up and do the legwork, so to speak – after all, he’s a computer science graduate and his passion for that faculty is what helped him make his fortune.
He’s also still deeply committed to personally speaking to users for pointers on what the company can do better.
Based on such feedback, Instagram has recently made it much easier for companies to convert their personal accounts into business accounts. The company’s also made it easier for business account holders to analyse the demographics of their audiences through detailed analytics. And it’s given businesses the ability to provide contact details on their accounts.
And in the same way that Instagram never charges for personal accounts, business accounts are free too. “We don’t charge because we think of Instagram as a living, breathing being,” Krieger says, joking that due to its sheer size, it may be more accurate to describe it as a “country or even a small continent” than a “being”. “It feeds off itself and grows organically in that way,” he says.
Asked where next for the app that’s seemingly already taken over the world, Krieger is guarded but his toothy cheek-to-cheek smile suggests that the ideas and inspiration are certainly not lacking.
“I’m travelling a lot and we’re continuing to build out products that make people feel close and help people build businesses,” he says.
What that means isn’t quite clear, but if we’ve learned one thing from the two-man company that started out in a pier in San Francisco, it’s that if you have a computer, an audience and a passion for disruption anything might indeed be possible. Be that on a pier in San Fransisco, or an old factory in Shoreditch.Reuse content