Kevin Systrom: From Stanford to Startup (Full Transcript)

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.

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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.

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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 d.school 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.

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