The US-based video and photo-sharing app is a success story that has unfolded since its launch in October 2010 by Stanford University students Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom.
Systrom majored in management science and engineering, while Krieger studied symbolic systems – a branch of computer studies combined with psychology. When the two founders met, they started discussing their idea for a new app and realised they shared a goal: to create the world’s largest mobile photo-sharing app.
Fellow students recalled Systrom as being naturally gregarious and a budding entrepreneur from a young age. He briefly ran a marketplace that was similar to Craigslist for fellow Stanford students. Krieger had different skills and one of his university projects had been designing a computer interface that would gauge human emotions.
Prior to Instagram, they had collaborated on a similar platform called Burbn. They decided to strip it down and use it as the basis for Instagram. Burbn had features that enabled users to add filters to their photographs, so the duo studied every popular photograph app to see how they could progress further.
Eventually, they decided it wasn’t working and scrapped Burbn in favour of creating a completely new platform. Their first effort was Scotch, a predecessor to Instagram, but it wasn’t a success, as it didn’t have enough filters, had too many bugs and was slow.
When Krieger and Systrom created Instagram for iPhones, it didn’t force users to add tags to photos and the picture could be posted with just three clicks, simplifying the process. They made Instagram public by default and were finally ready to launch it on 6th October 2010.
Immediately after the launch, in a matter of a few hours, thousands of people had downloaded the app. In fact, it was described as going “crazy” and the computer systems kept crashing because there were so many users.
This was largely due to Systrom’s marketing skills, as he had permitted numerous influential technology bloggers and other contacts to try a test version of the app before it was officially released. From an initial 25,000 users within the first 24 hours, there were 300,000 by the third week and it quickly grew into having tens of millions.
When celebrities such as Justin Bieber got on board, fans flocked to follow them, further boosting the numbers. Instagram’s success was driven by a tightly-knit collection of investors and entrepreneurs, with the ethos that ideas are disposable, so that if one doesn’t work, you move on to the next, making your own luck.
The connections Systrom had forged at Stanford proved vital to the success of Instagram, as they helped him to find engineers, improve features, set up databases and attract investors. Systrom had already won $500,000 seed funding in 2010 with Baseline Ventures and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
On 3rd April 2012, Instagram was released on Android phones, in addition to iPhones. Systrom and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg were already in talks, with Facebook interested in taking over Instagram. On 9th April 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion, with the condition that Instagram would remain independently managed.
Since the acquisition, Instagram’s founders haven’t made many changes to the user experience, preferring to stick to the app’s simplicity. Its rise in popularity proves that people enjoy the way the app works and like the photo-based connections it provides.
One of the most important lessons of Instagram’s success is that the founders didn’t waste time trying to save their original idea, Burbn. Once they decided it wasn’t going to work, they moved on quickly and invented Instagram. Systrom said its name was based on “instant telegram”.
The app was launched at just the right time – and with only 12 employees initially, the user base had expanded to more than 27 million before Instagram was sold to Facebook. Today, most celebrities use it as a platform for promotions and with one billion users, it continues to go from strength to strength.
On 4th December, Instagram announced it would ask new users to provide their date of birth when creating their account. The aim is to make the site safer for younger users and to provide targeted ads. The users’ birthdate will not be visible publicly.