Kevin Systrom: From Stanford to Startup (Full Transcript)

March 26, 2016 6:10 am | By More

Instagram Co-Founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger on From Stanford to Startup…


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Dr. Tina Seelig: Kevin worked at Google for a couple of years and Mike went on to work at Meebo before they decided to get together and start their company. They have wonderful things to tell us about their experience, and I won’t get in the way and let them start. So welcome back to Stanford. Thank you so much.

Kevin Systrom: Thank you, Tina. Thanks so much for having us, Tina, and Stanford. It’s great to be back here. I remember, how many years ago now, like four or five…sitting in this exact room and watching people stand up and give advice about entrepreneurship and their experience, and it’s a little surreal to be standing up and giving back. But it’s a really exciting opportunity because, I think in the past year or so since we started what would become Instagram, we’ve learned a lot. And today what we want to do is go through a series of myths that we think we had learned along the way, or thought were true along the way. And as we did Instagram and as we went through the process of founding this company, we learned that not all of them were necessarily true.

So the big caveat here today is, although we’re saying all this stuff, experience is what matters. And going through your own experience in a startup is really what helps you debunk these myths as well. So this is our chance to share some learning with you guys.

My background, obviously, I went to Stanford. Mike went to Stanford. I studied MS&E, Mike, you studied SymSys… SymSys here. And that was the beginning of our entrepreneurship experience in the Mayfield Fellows program. Like Tina said, we both had really amazing internships then that got us to get interested in entrepreneurship and get excited about doing it when we got out. And both of us after a year or so of working in a larger company decided we wanted to do something. And hopefully today, through that experience, we can shed a little light on what we learned.

So what we’re doing today, Instagram, is kind of interesting because it came out of something we were doing before that didn’t quite work. How many people here have actually heard of Instagram/use it? OK. Awesome. Most of the room.

How many people here have heard of Burbn/use it? Used it. Yeah, like three people. That’s awesome.

So that’s why we started working on Instagram because that’s basically the number of hands that went up in the room when we were working on it. Burbn was this check-in app that lets you check into different places, and while you were doing that allowed you to share pictures or videos of what you were doing.

Long story short, we worked on that for a little while and then realized it wasn’t really going anywhere. But the thing people loved the most about it was actually sharing images of what they were doing. So today, Instagram has about a little less than four million users all sharing images of what they’re doing out in the real world through their iPhones on a daily basis.

How many mobile photos do we upload per day about now? It’s like…

Mike Krieger: Jesus, six a second, more or less. So whatever that times…

Kevin Systrom: Yeah, it’s a lot. And this is pretty awesome to be in this position only six or seven months after having launched. But the myths we’re going to talk about today, I think, really helped us get to the next level and start Instagram by learning that those myths weren’t necessarily true.

So to start, I think Mike’s going to bring you through the first myth.

Mike Krieger: So the first one, when you’re just starting out and you’re dealing with the bucket of uncertainty that is being an entrepreneur and getting started, you want to latch on to things that you’ve seen before. We really quickly learned that you just cannot really learn to be an entrepreneur from a book, a blog or a talk, and it turns out that a day on the job was worth a year of experience. And what happens is the collection of experiences and knowledge you can get from those sources are super important. And I’m not dismissing them entirely as something that you should just ignore, but that first day when you’re starting to make those decisions where the data isn’t really there and there hasn’t been a blog post posted to Hacker News that was like, setting what to do on the first day of your startup, or making this really tough decision, it turns out a lot of it is very specific to your situation and all you can really learn to do beforehand is try to deal with that uncertainty.

So making snap decisions or quick decisions in the face of a lot of uncertainty. We’ll hit up on situations early on where we weren’t sure if we were going to take Instagram a follow model, for example like Twitter, or more friendship like Facebook. And there is just no blog, book or talk that we could’ve ever really seen beforehand that would have taught us to do either of those things, since that was about sitting down and saying, Well, what do we know beforehand? What does our gut tell us? And trusting your gut, I think, is a theme of this talk. And so developing a better gut is the work you can invest in beforehand, and then saying, ‘All right, let’s invest in this. Let’s stay the course for a while and really see it through,’ rather than wavering for months at a time being, ‘Oh, why don’t we build both? Then we’ll switch off,’ maybe make it a preference like ‘worst mistake ever,’ give up on making that decision and instead make it a preference, and so and so forth where you’re having these micro decisions that in the end sum up to what becomes your product basically.

And we really rapidly found that, as tempting as it is to go search off for prior accounts of something similar, that snap decision is what makes a difference. But what you can be doing is doing quick projects, side projects during school, even when you’re outside when you’re doing a job. And most of what we learned and applied into our startup were things that we were doing on the weekends which, depending on the companies, either something encouraged or discouraged. But usually if you’re excited enough about something you will find the time to work in it.

The other thing is, once you do start a startup, it’s super tempting to get caught up in the meta part of doing a startup, so going to entrepreneurship events and being, ‘Yes, I want to talk about being an entrepreneur.’ We were incubated at Dogpatch Labs, which was a great experience. We were surrounded by 30 startups, a rotating cast. We were there for probably longer than anybody else. Too long.

We saw three or four different classes of startups go through that. And the successful ones were the ones that were in it 9 am and left at 10 or 11 pm and were just putting in the work, and not the ones that showed up at 10, hung around, left at 6, who in my opinion were doing a startup as a lifestyle choice because they didn’t want a boss. That’s not really a good enough reason to do a startup. It should be that you wake up and you’re obsessed with this idea and you want to make it happen, and you’re not there to hang around in this club or have this fun chat with people. And that distinction wasn’t that apparent to me Day 1 because everybody’s doing a startup, this should be a thing.

And then one month in people were like, “You guys work really hard.” We kept hearing that comment at Dogpatch, and we were. We were working the hours that we felt we wanted to throw into the startup. And I guess it’s a gut check if you’re finding yourself getting drawn into the meta part of the startup of being an entrepreneur, of being really excited about. Somebody said to us earlier, the phrase was like, “You can’t call yourself an entrepreneur. Somebody has to call you an entrepreneur in a way.” And it’s true. It’s very tempting to get caught up in that. And I would encourage you to step back a little bit and find out, the only thing that ships products and the only thing ultimately end users care about is the product you deliver to them, not how will they talk about you in TechCrunch or exactly who your investors were or which events you attended.

Another myth that we encountered as we started our company, we talked to our friends who were holding back from starting companies…is that startups only come from Computer Science students. Neither Kevin nor I studied Computer Science. And that’s something that we’re actively proud of, not because Computer Science is a bad degree by any means but because it means you can get the technical chops you need to get things off the ground to get things prototyped and shipped. We built all of the initial version of Instagram ourselves from things we mostly just were self-taught in.

The early Twitter employees, none of them even went to college, and our first engineering hire didn’t go to college, either. I think with Twitter, maybe they didn’t finish college. Maybe they went to it. But it turns out there’s things you can do in school that I think are valuable, and when you’re trying to pick courses and figure out where to focus your time, the classes I look back to now and think, ‘Wow, these are the ones that helped me deal with that uncertainty day to day’ are the ones where Day 1 of the quarter they tell you, we don’t know what you’re going to be doing for the rest of the quarter. You’ll get this at the a lot and all of the entrepreneurship classes. It’s your job to ask the question, figure out the question that you’re going to tackle, and then answer it for the rest of the quarter. And that’s just a very different experience from, well, these are the 10 problems that you’re going to tackle and then we’ll deliver them at the end. And, of course, going through those motions is really important as well, but having that ability to ask the question, and Kevin will talk a little bit more about this in the next one — but also just work through the rest of that quarter.

And the rest of it is, the engineering we end up doing we call ‘Sink or Swim School of Engineering’. So we launched on this little machine server in Los Angeles. We had no idea what we were doing. We were like well, maybe some people would sign up. Within 24 hours, we had so much demand on that one machine that all of a sudden we had to scale out to what we now have, millions of users. None of us had touched Amazon’s cloud platform at all before launching; we’d kind of heard of it but shied away from it. And it turns out that there’s no motivation stronger than a bunch of people knocking at your door saying, “I want to use your product. Fix your thing.” We’d put in a lot of…I don’t really remember the first two months of our startup because we didn’t sleep, and I think short-term memory goes out of the way. I’m told we put in a lot of late nights that were all about saying, ‘What do we need to do to get our products to a place where people can keep using it, get excited about it, scale to the challenge?’ And you’ll learn those things because you’re bright and intelligent, you started a company because you trust yourself.

So having that faith and not shying away from a big challenge because you’re like, ‘Well, what if we’re successful? We won’t know how to scale…’ I barely really knew how to use a lot of the Linux Sysadmin stuff and now we know it really well, and if we did it again we’d have a totally different approach. But it’s a little bit of zen beginner’s mind: you focus on the simple, important stuff first if you’re not worried about scaling ahead of time.

Kevin Systrom: It’s really good to have friends that are Computer Science students.

Mike Krieger: Absolutely. It’s all about building that network. Week 1, I had worked at Meebo beforehand and I was doing mostly frontend development, so I wasn’t doing a lot of hardcore scaling stuff. And I remember like 8 am in the morning I’d be waking up my friends who led more normal jobs and be like, I have no idea what this means. How do I do this? They’d come in, we’d buy them beer. And you build that network and they’ll help you out because they’re excited about what you’re doing, and it becomes less about feeling like you’re the entire source of knowledge for yourself.

Kevin Systrom: Right. And I think what I’d add to the original point of going to events or talks is that it turns out what you get from those things aren’t necessarily the takeaways that we’re going to put up here on the board, but it’s the people sitting next to you, it’s the people you meet before the event, after the event. The people that you’re sitting next to chatting with them about the stuff that you’re doing, they’ll end up being the most valuable part of your entrepreneurship experience going down the line.

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