Instagram Co-Founder Kevin Systrom: How a Trip to Mexico Led to a Billion-Dollar Business

What’s the first thing you do every morning? Odds are you grab your phone off your nightstand and open up social media to see what you missed in the eight to nine hours you were asleep. In just over 10 years, Instagram has become one of the most popular, if not the most popular, social media apps in the world, and it’s all thanks to co-founder Kevin Systrom.

Instagram is where we find out about our high school classmate’s engagement, discover who won the latest season of The Voice, and stay up to date on celebrity drama. Fans can reach their favorite actors with just a click of a button, comedians can rise in popularity, and love stories often blossom in the DMs. 

But did you know the whole reason Instagram was formed was simply because of Systrom’s love of photography? Well, it’s true! Who would’ve thought something as major as Instagram was born out of such a simple pleasure?

From how he got the app started to what his net worth is today, here’s everything you need to know about the co-founder of Instagram:

Instagram on a phone

Early Life

Systrom was born and raised in Holliston, Massachusetts, which is a suburb just outside of Boston. His interest in computer programming began while attending Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts. In fact, he grew up playing Doom 2 and created his own levels of the game, as well as spent his free time hacking into his friend’s AOL accounts.

But, while he knew he was a skilled programmer, Systrom was also very interested in music. While in high school, Systrom worked at a vinyl record store called Boston Beat. He and his friends would also sneak into clubs in the Boston area in order to get work as a DJ.

Love of Photography

Despite his love of music, Systrom decided to attend Stanford University and ultimately graduated with a degree in management science and engineering. However, the real inspiration for Instagram came when Systrom went abroad during his junior year of college in Florence and studied photography. 

He brought along with him a very expensive camera in order to shoot the beautiful Italian sights, but his professor wasn’t impressed.

“It was like the exact lens you want to use with the sharpest glass that you could get,” Systrom said in a conversation with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

“My professor Charlie looks at me with my camera – which is, I think an embodiment of my personality of perfection – and he looked at me and he was like, ‘No, no, no. Like you’re not here to do perfection. Give me that.’”

Systrom continued, “So I did and I thought he was going to tweak with the settings and then he went into the other room came back with a plastic camera. He’s like, ‘You’re not allowed to use your camera for the next three months.’ And I had like, saved for this thing. So he gives me this camera and I’m like looking at it, it’s like a toy camera.”

In fact, it was while using this toy camera — known as a Holga — that Systrom began to appreciate the look of a less-than-perfect photo.

“I started taking pictures on the go, when I was around Florence and I would bring it back and he would show me how to develop these photos and they were square, first of all, but they were like slightly blurry and slightly artistic and then he showed me how to add chemicals to the development bath so that it could actually tone the black and white photo with different colors,” he shared.

“So if you’re listening to this and, you know, Instagram, you see a connection. Right? Like square photos and filtering photos.”

From College to Google

Kevin Systrom Instagram founder

So, after returning home from Italy, Systrom began interning at a podcasting company called Odeo. The company was founded by Evan Williams, who eventually went on to create Twitter, and it was actually at Odeo that Systrom met current Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey.

While Systrom wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do post-college, he was recruited by none other than Mark Zuckerburg to join him at Facebook. Believe it or not, Systrom turned him down.

“Unfortunately, I decided I wanted to stay in school, and that’s one of those decisions that I look back at — I would’ve loved to have been part of Facebook’s growth over the years, but it was the first time I met those guys,” Systrom told Fast Company in 2011. “It was certainly the harbinger for what was to come in my future.”

Instead of going to work for Facebook, Systrom decided to take a job at Google post-Stanford, where he worked for three years. After leaving Google to work at another company called Nextstop, Systrom began working on his own app called Burbn. Yes, he called the company Burbn after his favorite spirit, Bourbon.

A Trip to Mexico Changed Everything

Burbn was a social networking site, but it was primarily based on sharing photos. Systrom managed to bring on Mike Krieger as a co-founder, as well as secure investments from Venture capitalists such as Steve Anderson, Marc Andreessen, and Ben Horowitz. However, it was actually during a trip with his now-wife, Nicole Schuetz, that he realized what he wanted the app to become.

“We were walking along the beach and I said that we needed something to help us [the company] stand out. Nicole then said, ‘Well, I don’t want to take photos, because my photos don’t look good. They’re not as good as your other friend Greg’s,’” Systrom told The Telegraph.

“He was also using the early product [Burbn]. I told her that was because Greg used filter apps. So she just said, ‘Well, you should probably have filters then.’”

Systrom then decided he needed to make a filter and ultimately created X-Pro II, which is still used on Instagram to this very day!

Instagram Launches in 2010

After returning home from that fateful trip to Mexico, Systrom and Kreiger changed the name of Burbn to Instagram in October 2010.

“That first picture became everything and more than we wanted it to be. Back then, there was no way of showing what was going on in your life, as it happened,” Systrom told The Guardian back in 2015.

“Facebook was still primarily desktop, Flickr was about uploading from your SLR camera, and Twitter barely had any photo support. That left this opportunity wide open to share what was happening in your life visually.”

After just one month, Instagram had more than one million users. Then, nine months later, they have seven million.

Less than two years after launching, Mark Zuckerberg acquired Instagram for a whopping $1 billion. It is believed Systrom received $400 million in the deal, based on his 40% stake in the company.

“It was a lot of luck, a lot of opportunity and a lot of hard work. Weekends didn’t exist. Mike and I set up an alarm on our phones if the servers were overloaded and went down, and that went off every four or five hours,” Systrom told The Guardian about the weeks leading up to their deal with Facebook.

“Then as we grew, it went off every hour, or every 15 minutes. To this day, I have a Pavlovian response to that alarm: simultaneous nausea and anxiety. But it was also a sign of growth, which is a great problem to have. Now it’s different problems: what do we work on, what’s our strategy, how do we fend off competitors?”

Saying Goodbye to Facebook

Facebook and Instagram

Despite Instagram’s steady growth following the Facebook acquisition, there were reports of issues between Systrom, Krieger, and Zuckerberg. In fact, in September 2018, Systrom and Krieger announced their plans to step down as CEO and CTO of Instagram.

“Mike and I are grateful for the last eight years at Instagram and six years with the Facebook team. We’ve grown from 13 people to over a thousand with offices around the world, all while building products used and loved by a community of over one billion. We’re now ready for our next chapter,” they said in a statement to the company.

“We’re planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that’s what we plan to do.”

While Instagram began as a place for people to share photos of their day-to-day lives, it has grown exponentially in recent years. The development of Instagram Stories — which some people believe is a rip-off of Snapchat — has taken the app to new heights. The app continues to change and evolve with the times, as it more recently added a “Reels” feature, which is similar to TikTok.

What Is Systrom Doing in 2021?

Since leaving Instagram in 2018, Systrom has kept a relatively low profile. He and his wife, who is the CEO of a clean energy investment firm called Sutro Energy Group, have a daughter named Freya, but not much is known about his work activities.

But don’t worry about Systrom’s finances…the guy is doing just fine. In fact, his current net worth is $2.3 billion, so it doesn’t look like he’ll ever need to find another job again if he doesn’t want to. What a life!

And, while there were whisperings of Systrom potentially taking over TikTok in late 2020, it doesn’t look like that is going to happen (at least as of right now). For now, he’s probably just at home counting his billions as he falls asleep on the most comfortable bed known to man. Or at least that’s what I hope he’s doing. 

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