Entreprenueurial Lessons From the Instagram CEO

As early as summer of 2010, Instagram had yet to enter the internet world’s lexicon. Today, however, it is one of the fastest growing brands on the internet. Even after having been purchased outright by Facebook in 2012, it still retains near complete autonomy and self-identity. Currently, with more than 100 million users, it is, in the eyes of many, the next true “big thing” to hit the cyber world.

All of what Instagram is and will be is due to one man, Kevin Systrom, its co-founder and CEO. His story can be framed in many contexts and all would make for interesting reads, however, it is his story as an entrepreneur, a business visionary, from which one can derive the most added value.

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Let us begin by looking at Systrom in the vaguest sense. He is 29 years old, a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in management science, and, oh yes, he co-founded a company which in 18 months he sold to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook for $1 billion dollars, profiting $400 million personally off the deal. Clearly that sort of trajectory leaves many fruitful takeaways.

Takeaway ONE – Build a Business Around a Personal Passion

Systrom’s creation of Instagram presents a clear example of how one of the paths toward entrepreneurial success is to build a business revolving around one of your personal passions. Instagram is an application which allows users to take pictures on their iPhones or Android based phones and share them with their followers. In the process of sharing photos, commentary can be added and by employing one of the many visual filters to the image, its styling and appearance can be augmented to add impact and broaden the communicative power of the photo.

It should be no surprise that Systrom holds a personal passion for photography, especially vintage photography. Systrom has stated during interviews how, while still in college during a trip to Europe to study photography, he was introduced to the aesthetic appeal of soft focus images. It endeared the retro look of vintage imagery to Systrom. A few years later, this passion for just such a visual aesthetic helped catapult Instagram to the forefront of social communication.

If Systrom had merely rested upon his passion for vintage imagery, it certainly would have given him hours of personal enjoyment, but it would not of had fueled the skyrocketing of his start-up to a $1 billion valuation in 18 months. In the case of Systrom, as with countless other entrepreneurs, combining your passion with your business equates success.

Takeaway TWO – Adapt Quickly

Instagram was created from a previous incarnation known as Burbn. This service was not as defined in its scope or functionality as Instagram would one day be. It was loosely a social location service which only incorporated user uploaded images as a way to supplement a post. The vaunted image filters, which now are so important to Instagram’s success, were not in place.

It was during the first few months of Burbn’s operation that Systrom realized that in its original form the service was doomed to obscurity. What he did then is a classical lesson in entrepreneurship. Systrom stripped the service down to the core elements that had received the greatest attention and praise from its users. He made Burbn into a service which focused solely on the social uploading of photographs via mobile devices.

Still not satisfied with the new version, which by then was built around the iPhone app ecosystem, Systrom implemented yet another facet to the service. He had taken notice of how some of the early photos posted to the service during alpha testing stood out aesthetically over the rest. These photographs had gone through filtering applications outside of the service. This observation combined with his aforementioned passion for vintage photography provided Systrom with his own personal “aha” moment. Systrom quickly added filtering functions to the service and re-branded it as Instagram. By October of 2010, Instagram was on Apple’s App Store and the rest is history.

Obviously adhering to an “adapt or die” mindset helped Systrom give rise to what is today Instagram. Current and future entrepreneurs should also take note that all of the radical changes during the development of Instagram all came within a very short time frame. These changes, some quite radical, all took place within months, not years.

Takeaway THREE – Rely On and Develop Your Own Abilities

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Systrom does not have a degree in computer science. His degree in management science and engineering basically prepared him for a future in finance or marketing. As a matter of fact, Systrom’s first job was with Google, not as a programmer, but rather as a copywriter and cash flow projectionist. You would figure that this sort of experience would not directly translate into the founding of a new social app, but Systrom once again did what good future entrepreneurs are good at… he leveraged his experience. During his stint at Google Systrom was able to gain keen insight in how deals were structured in Silicon Valley. This was a huge plus for him when he had to secure start-up capital for his own venture.

After his stint at Google, Systrom went to work for Nextstop, a travel guide website. During his tenure there he taught himself to write code like a professional. An indispensable skill for his future success.

What can be learned from Systroms’s employment experiences is that regardless of where you are or what you are doing, if one has the fire for entrepreneurship one will be able to leverage one’s experience, no matter how mundane the position may be. A prosperous entrepreneur must always maintain a vigilant eye for seeking added experience wherever he or she might be.

As Systrom’s example clearly illustrates, one can gain unique insight simply by being exposed to the overall environment in which one wishes to one day flourish. Also, new skill sets can be acquired through direct practical experience much faster than through theoretical academic methodologies.

Summing Up Kevin Systrom

By analyzing the trajectory of young Kevin Systrom we can draw both insight and inspiration for our own entrepreneurial aspirations. As is the case with all success stories, all are unique on to their own in terms of trajectory and result, yet all share a common thread in the tenacity and determination of their authors.

Systrom and his success with Instagram proves that doing what one loves can fuel one’s ability to make it into a successful business. It also reiterates that experience and opportunity are ever present and that one must strive to recognize them. It also advances the Darwinian business notion that one must be willing to adapt or modify ones business model to avoid becoming extinct.

Yes, every entrepreneur lives under a different set of paradigms, but all can certainly benefit from Kevin Systrom’s story.

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