10 Things You Didn’t Know about Kevin Systrom

Kevin Systrom

Kevin Systrom grew up in a small town called Holliston, just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. He said he enjoyed doing many different things as he was growing up. He was drawn to Stanford when he was interviewing at many different universities, and wanted to study and learn where “people worked hard” while living in a beautiful place. He studied abroad in Florence for three months, lived with a host family, and spent his extra time creating a classified ad service called The Tree List, which helped students to buy and trade things they need for the school year. Not many people used the goods transfer service, but the skills he learned about programming and marketing were valuable for his future with Instagram.

Systrom is a programmer and entrepreneur, known world-wide as the CEO of Instagram. Together with co-founder Mike Krieger, Systrom attributes the company’s success to their simple product and collaborative working practices. The mobile photo and video sharing application provides a social networking service for smart phone users which allows them to add special filters to photos and then share them instantly within the service and on other social networks. Over 400 million people use Instagram regularly in the world. Systrom’s net worth is about $1.1 billion, but here are 10 things you didn’t know about him:

1. Kevin eats a Quest Bar every morning.

He eats different flavors of the popular protein bars. One morning he was interviewed and asked what he ate for breakfast that day; he said that he had eaten one of the Chocolate Peanut Butter bars. The nutrition company has a variety pack with one each of 12 different flavors. He says they are like eating candy bars for breakfast.

2. Kevin says that he only learned computer science as a way to enable doing other things.

He originally thought he would be an art restorer, and travel all over the world doing that. He had fallen in love with photography, art history and computer science. He thought he could combine those passions. It was his dream. But, after moving to study at Stanford, he ended up starting a company. He says that Instagram is the intersection of art and science. He took a digital art class at Stanford, which he said he really loved. He enjoyed using Photoshop to do things to change photographs in interesting ways, and the idea that it could be possible to use modern technologies to create photographs was the initial inspiration for Instagram.

3. Kevin said that people told him there would never be any money in photo sharing.

What made the crucial difference for Instagram was that new cell phone technology provided “a camera in every pocket”. People could take higher quality photos on the spot, which had never been possible before. What made Instagram successful was that the company model was based on people being able to take their photos on vacation, or in the presence tense, and share those moments immediately. The company set out to make the photo sharing process as fast as possible. Being able to upload instantly was “like magic” for people. The company also set out to invest in providing ways to make photos beautiful, and they linked Instagram to every other photo sharing distribution platform in the world.

4. Kevin met with Pope Francis.

In February of 2016, Kevin met with the Pope in the Vatican at the Apostolic Palace. Kevin wrote that the meeting was an honor, and one of the most memorable experiences, by far, in his life. Kevin presented the Pope with ten Instagram photos, hand- selected, which had captured some of the world’s most meaningful events. They included conditions after the earthquake in Nepal, Middle Eastern migrants, and the effects of arctic climate change. The two men spoke about how people around the world can be united with powerful images. The Vatican has begun to communicate with Catholics worldwide using various forms of social media; maintaining Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts as ways to allow the Pope to become more approachable. A meeting photo was posted on Instagram with the hashtags #catholic #YearofMercy #PapaFrancesco #PapaFrancisco #Vaticano #Vatican, and the caption was “More Than a Photo Op”.

5. Kevin said the company took a huge risk by adding non-square photos to Instagram.

The company team was hesitant to change the square photo model which had been working well. But, about 20% of the people who were posting started using other apps to post non-square photos. So, the decision was made to add other shape photo options to Instagram. He says that he wishes that the company had diversified sooner and more quickly with many issues which were far more important than worrying over whether or not the photos posted would all be square or not.

6. He said that 25 thousand people signed up on Instagram the very first day.

When this happened, he knew that something was different about the business. He compared it to a start-up which he had been part of, and that on had only ten thousand subscribers in one year. He said that on that first day, he felt a different kind of spirit, an indescribable kind of feeling that he had which led him to believe that it would be successful.

7. Kevin’s most meaningful Instagram photo was the very first one ever.

He took the photo himself. He was on vacation with his fiancé in Mexico, and it is of her foot in her flip flop and a stray dog. They were walking along the beach, and it was in Mexico where the two talked about filtering photos with an app. He said that the photo was actually a test of the idea of filtering, and had he known that it was going to be the very first Instagram, he would have tried harder with it.

8. Kevin believes that there is no perfect next move.

He says he had the privilege of spending a considerable amount of time talking with Marines on a Marine base about how they plan their next move. Bias toward action, is the phrase that he says he is taken by. The Marines told him that “you can spend all the time you want thinking about it, but by the time you figure it out you’re dead.” He said that sometimes you need to make the tradeoff between figuring out risk and moving forward. He said that bias toward action describes the “moving and progress which is what gets us to the next step”.

9. He said he wanted to work at Google doing any job at any wage because he could learn from the best people there.

He wanted to make a difference in the world. But one day in 2008, his boss told him that things were going slow, so perhaps he should just take a day and “go golfing”. He thought perhaps it would be better for him to simply leave. He didn’t make the choice to go golfing. He left Google, and joined a startup with other ex-Google folks where he learned all sorts of skills such as programming and building a site. He spent a year there, but he said he was able to surround himself with great people, and learn “lots of stuff” which would eventually be useful with Instagram.

10. Kevin hung an antenna outside the window of his dorm room to start his own radio station.

He loved to DJ and loved music, so he got an alumnus to donate some money toward the project, and he and couple of friends started transmitting as a radio station. In hindsight, he mentioned that it was probably illegal, though he didn’t realize it at the time. He went to the small private Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts and just decided that he wanted to have fun and do interesting things. He said he loved to start things and never had a long attention span to follow things through. He mentioned that perhaps it was a good thing that Instagram was successful so quickly.


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