Instagram co-founders talk Facebook, adding features, ‘tech breakup’

Jordyn Zitman

An enormous ballroom and two overflow rooms weren’t enough to accomodate all of the people vying to see “Capturing the Moment: A Conversation With Instagram’s founders and TechCrunch’s Josh Constine” at SXSW.

Instagram co-founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom discussed their humble beginnings, selling to Facebook and the future of big tech on March 11. Josh Constine, editor-at-large for TechCrunch, probed the two with in-depth, personal and thought-provoking questions surrounding their rise to success and what they think is next.

Systrom said in the beginning, he and Krieger wanted to make a check-in app, similar to many others launching at the time. Since meeting in college, the co-founders knew they wanted to do something different.

“It was important to us to solve real problems, so when we go out into the market, it was actually grounded in something,” Systrom said. ““The best way to share what you were up to wasn’t going to be through a line of text, but through a photo, and I think that’s true even to this day.”

Constine asked the founders about their ‘superhero origin story,’ or how they knew developing this app was the way to go. Both said they didn’t have one, but enjoyed building things from a young age.

“I was a kid that just wanted to play with computers, and the second I figured out you could program them to do things, I was hooked,” Systrom said. “The high you get in chasing, building something and then getting it to a billion people is just unmatched. That’s why we got into this business.”

The app came from humble beginnings, a dingy office in San Francisco where many all-nighters and food runs fueled the founding of Instagram. Krieger said it was a slow process, and one of the most trying in either of their lives.

“We were two product people with very little infrastructure experience, so scaling (Instagram) to something that would work was the hardest trial either of us went through,” Krieger said. “We had tens of thousands of users before we even hired a second engineer.”

Systrom and Krieger recalled the constant crashes of the app due to overuse, which they would mend in the middle of the night. Krieger said he even did so once while inebriated.

The next step for their brainchild, Systrom said, was strapping it to a ‘rocketship’ that would carry it far. In their case, it was Facebook.

“The idea behind it was that we wanted to make a bet on a company. The idea is to sell your company to a company that’s going to be a rocket ship,” Systrom said. “For Instagram to reach a billion people so quickly, I can’t imagine there are any regrets on the outcome there.”

Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012. Constine asked the founders if acquiring so much money affected them.

“We’re still the same people, that money doesn’t come overnight either,” Krieger said. “There's no way you can internalize it. We did what we were already doing but with a lot more media attention around it.”

Systrom said it doesn’t matter how much money a person has because what matter is the struggle or journey that they went through.

“No matter where you are on the spectrum, you struggle in different ways,” Systrom said. “Money itself is no end, it doesn’t make you happy or solve health problems. What ends up mattering is ‘Was your struggle meaningful?’”

During their time working on the app, Krieger and Systrom made many alterations and changes, including the addition of stories. They said this was intended to expand the realm of what is acceptable to post.

“There’s a self-editing that goes on in your whole life, social media is no different,” Krieger said. “We played with this idea for about a year, and that’s where stories came from. We wanted to show the moments between the moments.”

Krieger said despite their original intention, stories have become curated and perfect in the same way posts did. He said the team continues to work on moving forward and developing the next great thing.

Because they are no longer directly involved in the operations of Instagram, the founders were unable to comment on a few topics, such as the nitty-gritty of influencer marketing and advertising.

Finally, Constine brought up Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent call to break up big tech companies, including Instagram parent company Facebook.

“We live in a time where the anger against big tech has increased tenfold,” Systrom said. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all of the companies up. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix (specific) problems. Being big in and of itself, is not a crime.”