Kevin Systrom: From Stanford to Startup (Full Transcript)

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.

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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.

The fact that I remember being at a party — I think it was maybe sophomore year in college when Facebook had just moved out, and I ran into Adam D’Angelo who was the CTO at that time at this little party. And we kind of kept in touch since. And on the day we went down that first day we launched, we had all these problems. I was like, ‘Who’s the smartest person I know who I can call up?’ And Adam spent 30 minutes on the phone with us just walking us through the basic things we needed to do to get back up. Those little events are the things that matter.

So as much as you’re paying attention to the stuff on the slides, make sure you spend some time after the talk getting to know the people around you.

I think Myth Number 3 that I’d like to talk about, this is something I had no clue about. It was that finding the solution to the problem is the hardest part. I always thought like, you’re faced with these problems that people have, you assume that you know exactly what you’re going to tackle, and the hard part is finding that algorithm. The hard part is scaling that solution. It turns out…thank you, Mike…that the hard part is actually finding the problem to solve.

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Solutions actually come pretty easily for the majority of problems. Not for every problem, but for the majority of problems. And in our case, what we did was when we sat down and we were deciding to work on Instagram, what we did was we wrote down the top five problems people have with mobile photos because we wanted to build a product that solved problems. We didn’t want to just build a cool app to look for a problem that people had. We wanted to do it the other way around.

So what we did was we listed out these five problems. And I remember the top three that we circled. Number 1 was that mobile photos don’t look so great. We’ve all had that experience…you’re seeing the sunset, you take a snapshot, and it looks washed out, you can barely see the sun, et cetera. And we were like, ‘That’s the major problem we want to solve.’

Number 2 was that uploads on mobile phones take a really long time. So we were like, ‘What could we do around that?’ Well, maybe if we started the upload way before you’re done even editing the photo’s caption, and what if we sized down the photo just to fit perfectly on the screen but nothing else? And that’s the small little problem and solution that it turns out really delights people because they press ‘done’ entering their caption, it’s already been uploaded.

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