ETL Speaker Series: Kevin Systrom, Instagram | Summary and Q&A

May 27, 2020
Stanford eCorner
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ETL Speaker Series: Kevin Systrom, Instagram

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In this video, Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, reflects on his 10 years of experience in entrepreneurship. He discusses topics such as the right time to start a venture, the importance of building a strong team, the balance between product development and other business aspects, and the process of deciding to sell the company. He also shares insights on his current projects related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Questions & Answers

Q: Was there a right time for you to start Instagram?

There is no right time in the world to start a venture, but there is a right time for an individual. Kevin believes that it's important to have the right skill set and network before starting a company. He reflects on how his technical skills, network, and experience gained from working at Google and Nextstop prepared him to start Instagram. However, he notes that you will never feel like it's the right time because there's always more to learn and it may not feel safe.

Q: Is it a great time or a scary time to start something during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kevin believes that it's both a great and scary time to start something during the pandemic. While there is uncertainty and a lack of prior knowledge on where the world is heading, many successful companies have been started during downturns. He suggests that innovative ideas can come even in uncertain times, as there may be opportunities in unexplored areas. It's important to be ambitious and excited about solving a problem, as that can lead to starting something spectacular.

Q: How did you choose the people on your team and what is the importance of team building?

Kevin believes that building the right team is crucial for success. He reflects on the importance of finding people who believe in the mission and have the necessary skills. He shares that his partnership with Mike Krieger, his co-founder, worked well because they had complementary personalities and skills. Kevin also highlights the importance of hiring venture capitalists who align with your company's vision. He emphasizes that people are the reason for success, and a strong team can help recover from failure and come up with new ideas.

Q: How did the balance of responsibilities in building Instagram change over time as the company grew?

In the early stages, Kevin was more involved in product development and coding, while later on, his role shifted to finding the right people to scale the company. He mentions the concept of leverage, where one's hour of work should produce more output through the work of others. As the company grew, Kevin's job became dynamic, with new challenges every day. He highlights the need to embrace discomfort and evolution in leadership roles and the importance of having a team that you can learn from.

Q: In the clip, you mention that the hard part is finding the right problem, not the solution. Can you discuss the problems you're currently trying to solve?

Kevin mentions that he and Mike are working on a project related to the COVID-19 pandemic. They noticed a lack of a clear metric to understand how things were going amidst the crisis. They wanted to provide a dashboard that could effectively manage the situation by modeling the data to correct biases and show the truth about the virus's spread. They focused on the effective reproduction number (Rt) as a metric to track the virus's spread. Kevin also mentions that this project is not their next company, but an opportunity to work together and solve a pressing problem.

Q: How did you achieve such explosive growth at the beginning of Instagram?

Kevin believes that the key to Instagram's rapid growth was solving the core problems people had with digital photography. They focused on making the app faster, enabling seamless sharing, and providing filters to enhance photo quality. By solving these problems, the product was valuable to users and created a viral loop through shares on other social networks. Kevin emphasizes the importance of addressing real problems and not just building something neat or fancy.

Q: Why did you decide to sell Instagram to Facebook?

Kevin explains that the decision to sell Instagram to Facebook was driven by the desire to supercharge their mission and vision. Combining forces with one of the best social companies at the time allowed Instagram to reach more households and scale faster. While there are trade-offs in terms of control and compromise, the opportunity to work with a larger team and bring their mission to more people was exciting. Kevin also mentions that staying at Facebook for six years post-acquisition was a testament to their commitment to see the mission through.

Q: How much was analysis versus experimentation in the early stages of Instagram's growth?

Kevin compares entrepreneurship to playing poker, where you have limited hands to play before you find a winning combination. He believes that experimentation is key and that entrepreneurs need to maximize their opportunities to find what works. While analysis is important, it's essential to take action and see if things work, learning from both successes and failures. Kevin suggests that plans are necessary but they often need to be adjusted as things rarely go according to plan.

Q: How did you feel transitioning from being a leader to debugging JavaScript in your current projects?

Kevin shares his satisfaction in getting back to the technical aspect of building products. He mentions that after leaving Instagram, he spent time coding, setting up servers, and crunching data. He highlights the importance of leveraging the skills and expertise of others, allowing his own role to evolve from leadership to more hands-on work. Kevin also mentions the importance of feeling uncomfortable and embracing ambiguity in entrepreneurship, as it signifies that you are working hard and pursuing new opportunities.

Q: What was the most important thing you learned in school that helped you in your entrepreneurship journey?

Kevin reveals that the most valuable lesson he learned in school was to focus on solving a problem rather than just building a solution. He emphasizes that entrepreneurs need to identify the biggest problems people have and create products that address those issues. By considering the magnitude and broadness of the problem they want to solve, entrepreneurs can ultimately impact the world and build successful companies.

Q: How did you decide to pivot from addressing one problem to creating the product that solved multiple problems with Instagram?

Kevin explains that the decision to address multiple problems came from the realization that people had different pain points with digital photography. By identifying the main issues with speed, sharing, and photo quality, they created a solution that solved multiple problems for users. Kevin highlights the need to consider a holistic approach when developing a product and emphasizes the importance of understanding the underlying problems people face.

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