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Kevin Systrom: From Stanford to Startup (Full Transcript)

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger

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

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Kevin Systrom on From Stanford to Startup [Entire Talk]


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.

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