What does it take to start a company like Instagram? Mike Krieger, one of Instagram’s two co-founders, recently opened up to journalist Nick Thompson about the challenges, surprising moments, and core principles that have characterized the journey. Their conversation, which took place at 92nd Street Y, breaks Silicon Valley stereotypes and considers what comes next for the successful start-up.
Nick Thompson: You started Instagram a little less than six years ago. Everybody in the world was launching a photo app at that time, and somehow yours became the one used by 400 million people. Tell me why Instagram made it and those 936 other photo startups all failed.
Mike Krieger: I think about this a lot. What did we do right?
Part of it was that it wasn’t the first product we had built. All of Instagram was built on top of the ashes of this other thing that we were working on called Burbn. We added a feature to it, which was you could post photos and videos from the restaurant or the park you were at. It turns out people really loved just that piece. Nobody used the game part of it.
The thing we always start with is, “What problem are we solving?” In this case, we knew that people wanted to make their photos look good. People who were using editing apps outside of Burbn and sharing their photos to Burbn were the ones that would share the most photos. Insight one: hey, people don’t think their photos look that great. If you help them make them great, they’ll want to share more. Two was that a lot of these things were really slow. Nowadays, the internet’s actually pretty fast, but that wasn’t the case in 2009. I used to go to concerts and I’d see people in the first row trying to post their photos, and because the upload process was so slow, it would ruin their enjoyment of the actual moment. So we were trying to build something that made your content look great and let you get in and out of the moment really quickly.
Ultimately, life is what you should be experiencing, not a little progress bar. We focused on really core things and cut everything else out.
Nick: Even now, there’s nothing inside of Instagram. There are five buttons and a couple of tabs and a little settings thing. There’s so few things you can do in it versus other products. I can do 26 million things in Microsoft Excel, and I can do three things in Instagram. I can’t even use the darn thing on my desktop. Has that been one of the principles from the beginning?
Mike: Yeah. I like to say if we ever have a hamburger button — that little three-line thing that you tap and then the whole app slides over and there’s 50 options listed — if we ever have that, we’ve blown it. It means that we’ve tried to do way too much.
I show people a screenshot of Instagram the day it hit the store, October 2010. The fundamental building blocks haven’t really changed. There’s a feed of stuff that comes from the people that you follow, some exploration ability, what people are sharing with you. Then there’s the way of actually posting to Instagram. We’ve preferred making each of those better versus going super wide and trying to make this huge convoluted thing.
Nick: Let’s talk about the hamburger for a second because it hits close to home. I run a website, and everybody wants their section of the site put into the hamburger. It’s a lot easier to say “yes” than it is to say “no” because all you have to do is put a little line in the hamburger. How did you say “no” to all of these things?
Mike: At first, it was easy because when it’s just you and your co-founder, you can come to a shared understanding of what’s important. It gets harder when you have 160 engineers.
Nick: Which is tiny for a company with 400 million users, for the record.
Mike: It feels huge because we were six engineers three years ago, so we’ve grown astronomically, but it’s also tiny compared to some other companies. It’s a lot harder when your brand-new engineer who’s been there for three months comes up to you after hackathon and says, “Look, I came up with this awesome idea! Let’s ship this!” If I said yes to all of the things, we would have the hamburger problem.
I’m not sure we always get it right, but the way we try to balance it is if there are things that seem promising but we’re not quite sure are going to belong within the main Instagram app, we’ll build them as separate things. We have Hyperlapse, Layout, and Boomerang, and they’re basically different ways of creating content that we’re not sure belong inside Instagram. Then, over time, if we see them really take off, we can borrow those things and bring them back in.
Nick: Tell me a little bit about the international growth of Instagram, which happened very quickly. For a lot of products, international growth is hard. Photography is a universal language, so I would assume that Instagram grew much more quickly than other competitive social networks.
People were excited because you could follow people without knowing what language they were speaking.
Mike: This is something we saw really quickly. When you launch a new app to the Apple Store, it can take four or five hours before it’s out to enough people, so we’re like, “We’re going to hit the button at midnight,” because all of the U.S. is going to be asleep. Then, by 9am, it’s going to be up.
We forgot that there’s the whole world out there. We hit the button at midnight, and by 12:01, we had our very first Instagram user in Germany. Then, we’d see Japanese emails, so we didn’t really sleep even the first night that we launched. That was supposed to be our pre-launch rest.
People were excited because you could follow people without knowing what language they were speaking. The first person I really connected with is in Japan. Basically, he was sharing his life. I got in touch with him mostly because he was an early adopter. He helped us with our first Japanese translation of the app. Then, the natural disasters happened in Japan. All of a sudden, my experience totally changed. He was taking photos of his house that had been turned upside down and talking about how it had been affecting all his friends.
Nick: When did you realize that you had built something that actually mattered in a deep way to the world? It wasn’t just, “Oh, we got a cool project. We’re engineers. We’re young. We’re figuring this out. Let’s build something fun,” but actually, “Wait, people are using this to understand natural disasters.”
Mike: I think it was actually that moment. Kevin said, “Mike, open the Popular page.” At the time, the Popular page, the second tab in the app, was a global view as to the most popular things on Instagram. They were all custom-made images that said, “Pray for Japan,” or, “Thinking of Japan,” and, “Sending strength to Japan.”
That was the moment when I was like, “Not only do we have a growing community, there’s actually a way in which they’re connecting to people from a different country and offering support.” You would see the comments on those photos: a mix of Japanese and English and Italian and Spanish. That was the moment of, “Whoa, this is actually not just international but crossing borders in an interesting way.”
Nick: That must have been inspiring and exciting, but did it also freak you out a little bit about the responsibility you have? Because what if somebody posts false information, as they did during Hurricane Sandy?
Mike: The scariest sense of responsibility came less from misinformation and, for me, more from the reality the site was growing really quickly. I had never built any kind of infrastructure and basically my entire life was keeping the site up. Having it not just be the popular media perception of Instagram, which was, “Oh, it’s just hipsters taking photos with filters. It doesn’t matter.”
Underneath that, I knew there was meaning behind it, people really connecting and getting to know each other. That was probably the biggest thing that kept me going when it was four a.m. and you’ve been up for a day and a half, and you’re just trying to get this thing back up, because it actually matters to people.
Nick: The story of most Silicon Valley companies is they hire engineers and more engineers. When did you start hiring lawyers and this community group?
Mike: The community group was really fast. Our very first hire should have been an engineer, in retrospect, to help me scale the website, but instead, it was a community manager. From day one, we were putting a stake in the ground saying, “Interacting with people who are using the product is as important as working on any amount of features.”
Lawyers came way later. Once we joined Facebook, September 2012, there was a lot I didn’t expect from that acquisition. One of the things I hadn’t really thought through was that Facebook had policy teams and case studies, etc. We had to grow up really quickly.
I remember the first three months of being at Facebook, there was commentary like, “Has Instagram stopped innovating now that they’re part of Facebook?” No, it’s just that we had to build a subpoena tool and a law enforcement report tool and basically catch up to years of being an adult.
Nick: I like that you described Facebook as the mature adult. Facebook was six years old when they acquired you. It’s the hilarious thing about Silicon Valley.
Tell me about privacy. That must have been a huge thing that came up.
Mike: I like to go back to 2009-2010 App Store charts. Nowadays if you go there it’s YouTube and Instagram and Snapchat and other networks that are about sharing your life visually. Back then, it was Photoshop and the Splice Video Editor and a bunch of things that were way more private.
One exercise Kevin and I did was flip assumptions. One was people want to share photos privately with their friends. We’re like, “What if people want to share their photos publicly with strangers on the internet?” which at the time was scary. We built Instagram then we turned to each other and said, “Do we think our significant others are going to use this product?” We’re like, “They won’t use it unless there’s a private option so that you can approve who can see your photos.”
What’s funny is that to this day, both of our significant others, now both of our wives, don’t have a private account.
There’s this misconception that teens don’t understand privacy. What I’ve learned over time is that they really do understand privacy, and they think a lot about it.
Nick: How do you think the norms of privacy have changed since you started? What have you noticed in what people are willing to share, how they feel about sharing?
Mike: I think this is most interesting with teens. There’s this misconception that teens don’t understand privacy. What I’ve learned over time is that they really do understand privacy, and they think a lot about it. They’ve created a mental model of this is the stuff that is cool to go on Instagram, their public account their parents are on, and this is stuff that goes on their private account. Then this is stuff that goes to Facebook just to these friends. They’re comfortable sharing because they’ve begun to understand what these different modalities of sharing are.
Nick: How have you changed the product to deal with changing expectations of privacy or to fix problems you saw in the initial versions?
Mike: This is a lesson in using your product the way the people who use your product do. It sounds really obvious, but it’s not. For a long time, the only account I had was my public account. Same with Kevin. Most of the team was that way, too, because we hired a bunch of people that were really passionate about the public, showing-off side of Instagram.
One day, we’re like, “We should sign up and have a private account just to see what that’s like.” The first day, we tasked out 12 or 15 different improvements that we had been blind to.
We’re really conscious of making sure that it’s clear: this is a public account, this is a private account. I can take your photo and share it with my wife but only if it’s public or if we both follow. You can’t take private content and then reshare it publicly. The private option complicates everything we do, but I think it’s ultimately worth it to give people that choice.
Nick: Is there a different philosophy than there is with Facebook? I often find on Facebook that I’ll share something privately and then Facebook will publish my year in review and suddenly this picture of my child is now blasted out to everybody. The product is built that way. Do you have a different understanding from Facebook?
Mike: You can think of two different privacy models. One is per-object privacy, so this photo goes to my friends and this area. Then, there’s per-account privacy. We’ve opted for the latter.
The Facebook options are actually a lot more powerful in a way, but we wanted the simplicity of if you have a private account, that’s it, and if you have a public account, that’s it. You can’t make one of your photos private.
Nick: Facebook has a totally different philosophy. They will build anything. They’ll go and test it with 1% of their users. There’s 96 different Facebook products that you can see on the front page, 16 of which will be shut down next week. It’s the constant make things, break things, build things fast, ship before it’s ready. You guys have a very different philosophy. You’re owned by Facebook, so is there ever a culture clash?
Mike: It mostly comes when people join the team, because a lot of them were transfers from Facebook. One of the things that was interesting when people would come over is that they would be like, “Whoa! I thought I could just run this 1% experiment and see what I would learn.” We’re like, “No.”
Over time, it’s meant that things that were in our heads, we try to write them more. Like, “What are our principles around experimentation? Around product design?” I think that’s the only way you can scale once you hire that many people.
Nick: Facebook bought you with 13 employees?
Nick: They bought you for one billion, so each employee is worth a little under $100 million? That’s pretty good. Did you ever stop and think, “This is nuts!”
Mike: Nowadays, I think the common perception is, “That was a really good acquisition by Facebook. It really worked out.” At the time, though, if you rewind and read the articles, it was like, “Zuckerberg is crazy. They crazy overpaid. This thing’s gone in a year, flash in a pan. It’s just fancy filter.” Hindsight’s 20/20, but at the time, the pressure was on to live up to that.
Nick: Obviously, it worked out well for Facebook. Let’s talk a little bit about big issues of Instagram. How do you think Instagram has changed the world? If Instagram didn’t exist and there was no service just like it, how would we interact with each other in different ways?
There’s a desire for people to tell their story. The written word is also really valuable, but there’s something so immediate and visceral about seeing.
Mike: I think something would have emerged. There’s a desire for people to tell their story. The written word is also really valuable, but there’s something so immediate and visceral about seeing. I think that’s what it’s changed. At its best, it helps people feel like they can bring other people into that moment without having to have a FaceTime call with every single person.
Nick: Does it ever worry you that it takes people out of the moment too much because they’re thinking about what filter they should use when they take this picture of their child instead of thinking about, say, the child?
Mike: We have a metric. One of ours is minimizing the time in the camera upload process. If that’s going up, it means people are by definition spending less time out interacting. Here’s a really simple example, something we did. The filter icons used to be blurred because we thought it looked aesthetically nicer.
One of our engineers was like, “Look, I really want to test not blurring them, because it’s actually really hard to see what the photo is going to look like.” We’re like, “Okay, let’s test it.” The only metric that it moved was the time spent in the camera, and we’re like, “That’s actually worthwhile. It means people are getting tasks done faster and putting their phone back into their pocket.”
Nick: The object of the product and the product design is to get you back into your life?
Mike: Yeah, at least the production side of things. The consumption side fills in gaps you might have waiting for the bus or the metro, and you have a few minutes. That’s a way of being inspired by something out in the world.
Nick: You seem to have a very happy company. You and your co-founder have been working together for six years, you built this huge product. You’ve gone through financial negotiations, and you don’t hate each other. How?
Mike: I can’t stress how rare it is because especially in Silicon Valley, it is littered with … I was going to say “corpses.” That’s really dark. It’s littered with the stories —
Nick: — of very unhappy relationships between co-founders of major companies who go through what you’ve gone through.
If you can work with somebody for a week who’s on his same pair of underwear, you’re probably set for life.
Mike: The week we launched, we didn’t leave the office, and Kevin ran out of underwear. If you can work with somebody for a week who’s on his same pair of underwear, you’re probably set for life. Also, we have very complementary skills. We spend a lot of time talking about the future of Instagram. He’s really excited about the running Instagram part, making sure that we’re a sustainable business. I’m really excited about the technology side. We come together on product, so having that Venn diagram has worked nicely.
Where it usually goes wrong is where you have co-CEOs or two people who want the same job, and that gets really, really messy. The other part is we’re both really committed to treating each other and our company fairly. A lot of the dark stories come when there’s some ulterior motive or betrayal, but I’m really happy that six years in, we’re still good friends and it works well.
Nick: Mazel tov. This question is a little dark, but do you fear that any new idea or undertaking might not surpass or even amount to the achievements you’ve had with Instagram?
Mike: I was trying to hire somebody really senior to join the team, and he’s like, “Well, what are you working on next?” I gave him a rundown. He’s like, “Okay, that all sounds great, but what if you were all just lucky the first time? Why do you think you’re the right team to continue to build this?”
I don’t think you can ever fully know, but growing the team has forced us, as best we can, to codify the principles that underlie why and how we built Instagram. That DNA created Instagram, and hopefully we’ll create other interesting products. That’s the second-album syndrome, right? The best artists continue to evolve versus trying to do the same thing over and over again.
Nick: What do you know now about founding a startup that you wish you knew back then?
Mike: I worry if we’d known any more we would have screwed it up. If we knew better, we would have delayed launch by a month because it would be, “Oh, it has to be perfectly scalable. Let’s check off all these boxes.” Our ignorance was really powerful.
I would have way overvalued the importance of bringing people on early, because hiring isn’t a faucet. It’s not like you turn a faucet and all of a sudden engineers come flying out. It’s a huge, long-term pipeline investment. If I ever do a startup again, building the team out more quickly once it was apparent that this thing was growing.
Nick: How do you get past the feeling of needing the product to be perfect? Did you ever have the feeling the product had to be perfect?
Do the simple thing first, don’t create this mega-complicated product that solves every use case ever. Solve one problem really well.
Mike: Yeah. There’s a lot of Silicon Valley-isms. One of them is if you’re proud of what you shipped, if you’re not embarrassed by it, you waited too long or took too much time to prepare. I don’t believe in that. I think there is value in craft. We talk a lot about our values internally.
Do the simple thing first, don’t create this mega-complicated product that solves every use case ever. Solve one problem really well. We also talk about craft, and a lot of the design details are what make Instagram, Instagram. The way of reconciling those two is do fewer things better. Don’t try to build everything, but with the things you do build, go deep.
Nick: Do fewer things better. That’s a good slogan for life. I’ll put that on my LinkedIn page later. What is the biggest challenge facing innovators today? Let’s add, what is the biggest challenge facing Instagram today?
Mike: It is a lot harder to get something noticed today. People always ask, “What was your strategy? What was your go-to-market? What was your publicity strategy?” People have shifted a bit, and they’re not as app-crazy these days.
Remember the days when you would come up with your friends and they’d be like, “Hey, what apps have you gotten recently?” I feel like we’ve gotten a little bit of app exhaustion. On a purely marketing and distribution sense, it’s a lot more difficult than it was. If we built Instagram today, the odds of it actually getting noticed would be very small.
For Instagram, at 300 people, how do you get everybody to row together in the same direction? How do you keep things moving quickly? I don’t think we are 50 times more productive than we were with six people. So how do we keep ourselves being at least as productive as we can be? Part of that is not having everything funnel through me and Kevin. It’s hard to let go of that control, but that’s what we’re working on in defining the problem and then letting teams run with it.
But it’s your baby. It’s hard to let go.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. It was originally recorded at 92nd Street Y — the New York cultural center that convenes influencers and innovators who inspire a world of ideas. From the arts to business to politics to science, it’s where tomorrow’s most important issues are revealed, and today’s most intriguing conversations begin.