Kevin Systrom: Instagram | Lex Fridman Podcast #243 | Summary and Q&A

November 23, 2021
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Kevin Systrom: Instagram | Lex Fridman Podcast #243

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In this video conversation with Kevin Systrom, co-founder and former CEO of Instagram, he discusses the origin story of Instagram and how it evolved into a successful photo-sharing app. He talks about the importance of product-market fit, the challenges they faced in scaling the app, and the role of community in their success. Systrom also shares insights on the technical aspects of building and scaling Instagram, including the programming languages and tools they used.

Questions & Answers

Q: What was the origin story of Instagram?

Instagram started out as a company called Bourbon, with the idea of creating a better version of check-in apps like Foursquare. However, the initial concept didn't gain traction, so they pivoted to focus on photo sharing. They realized that people loved sharing photos of what they were doing and where they were, and that became the foundation of Instagram.

Q: How did Instagram differentiate itself from other photo-sharing apps?

Instagram differentiated itself by focusing on making photos look artistic and unique. They introduced filters that transformed ordinary photos into more visually appealing ones. This approach resonated with users who were willing to share their not-so-great photos if they looked intentionally artistic.

Q: How did Instagram handle technical challenges in scaling the app?

In the early days, Instagram faced scalability challenges as the number of users grew rapidly. They relied on AWS for infrastructure and made sure their code was designed to easily spread across multiple instances. They also hired experienced people who had previous experience with scaling startups. Additionally, they wrote tests from the beginning, which helped them move quickly when rewriting parts of the product.

Q: How did Instagram build a community?

Instagram focused on creating a community of users who shared beautiful photos in a certain style. They connected people from around the world through their images, enabling users to discover and engage with photographers and influencers. By seeding the platform with content from compelling users, Instagram created a social network where people could connect over shared interests and visual experiences.

Q: When did Instagram achieve product-market fit?

Product-market fit is not about reaching a specific number of users but about finding a market where the product resonates and retains users. Instagram achieved product-market fit when they started seeing consistent growth in user cohorts and positive retention metrics. It was a matter of finding the right user experience and engagement that kept people coming back to the app.

Q: How much did Instagram focus on monetization early on?

The focus on monetization depends on the nature of the business. For Instagram, which started as a social network, their initial focus was on finding product-market fit and building a strong user base. However, having a clear plan for monetization is important for long-term sustainability. While some startups may have a roadmap to profitability, others may struggle if they don't have a viable monetization strategy.

Q: What programming languages and tools did Instagram use?

Instagram used Objective-C for the client-side app development and Python with the Django framework for the backend. They also utilized Postgres as their database and Redis for solving certain technical challenges. These choices were made based on the available technologies at the time and the specific needs of the application.

Q: How did Instagram handle technical scalability issues with limited resources?

Instagram faced technical scalability challenges early on but managed to handle them with their limited resources. They focused on optimizing their code to make it performant and scalable. They also relied on AWS infrastructure for scaling the app and hired experienced professionals who had expertise in scaling startups.

Q: Did Instagram prioritize performance and latency in the early stages?

Yes, Instagram prioritized performance and latency from the beginning. They focused on delivering a fast and smooth user experience by optimizing image processing, reducing latency in photo uploads, and leveraging background loading of user data. They were able to hide certain latency issues by using clever strategies and optimizations.

Q: How did Instagram build a strong community of users?

Instagram built a strong community by allowing users to connect with each other through shared interests and visually appealing content. They made it easy for users to discover and engage with photographers and influencers, which created a sense of community around beautiful and artistic images. Additionally, Instagram's international appeal and language support played a role in fostering a diverse and global community.


The origin story of Instagram showcases the importance of finding product-market fit and adapting the product to meet user needs. Kevin Systrom emphasizes that startups should prioritize building a product that people love before worrying about technical scalability or monetization. By focusing on user experience, community building, and continuous iteration based on data, startups can increase their chances of achieving success. Additionally, leveraging available technologies, optimizing code, and making strategic hiring decisions are key factors in managing technical scalability challenges.

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