As a small business entrepreneur, Instagram has become an invaluable platform for me to connect with customers and promote my brand. But I never stopped to think about where Instagram came from until recently. Who invented the app that’s so integral to social media marketing these days?
I decided to dig into the history and origins of Instagram. What I found was the classic Silicon Valley startup story – two entrepreneurs building an app in a small office that would go on to change the world.
The Mind Behind Instagram: Unpacking Kevin Systrom’s Background
It all started with Kevin Systrom, a software engineer and entrepreneur who was born in 1983 in Holliston, Massachusetts.
Systrom showed early signs of his entrepreneurial drive. As a child, he made money shoveling snow, mowing lawns, and even starting a lawn-mowing business with a few employees.
He graduated from Stanford University in 2006 with a BS in Management Science and Engineering. Right out of college, Systrom went to work for Google as an Associate Product Marketing Manager. He spent two years at Google before leaving to join Nextstop, a travel recommendations startup.
It was at Nextstop that Systrom first began working on a side project that would eventually evolve into Instagram.
The Initial Spark: Systrom Begins Working on Burbn
While working weekends and nights on this side project, Systrom created an app called Burbn (named after his love of fine bourbon whiskeys).
Burbn allowed users to check-in at locations, post future plans, earn points for hanging out with friends, share photos of what they were doing, and more.
Location-based check-in services like Foursquare were taking off at the time, but Systrom saw room for another player in the space focused more on photos.
By 2010, Systrom decided to pursue Burbn full-time, leaving Nextstop to focus on the startup. It was the first pivotal point on the road leading to Instagram.
Joining Forces: Mike Krieger Enters the Picture
To build out Burbn, Systrom reached out to Mike Krieger, a fellow Stanford student he had met while studying management science and engineering.
Krieger had built his own photo-sharing app previously and had the programming chops to complement Systrom’s entrepreneurial vision. The partnership between Systrom and Krieger filled crucial gaps for the fledgling company.
According to Systrom:
"Mike was one of the first ten to fifteen people to actually use Burbn. We immediately clicked because we were both interested in both consumer and tech. Fast forward two weeks, Mike and I met up and hashed out together what eventually became the Instagram app."
With Systrom focused on product and Krieger bringing programming expertise, they had the essential skills to build Burbn into an innovative new app.
Streamlining the Vision: Pivoting Burbn to Focus on Photo-Sharing
In 2010, Systrom and Krieger made a decision that would prove crucial to Instagram’s success – they pivoted Burbn to focus solely on photos.
The complexity of Burbn, with its multiple features around location-checking, future planning, points, and more, was too confusing. Systrom realized they needed to simplify and refine the app into one core function: photo-sharing.
By laser-focusing Burbn exclusively on photos, filters, and social sharing, Systrom and Krieger stripped out unnecessary features to build a faster, cleaner app that users would find addicting.
This pivot laid the foundation for Instagram‘s meteoric rise.
Launching a Juggernaut App: Instagram is Born
On October 6, 2010, Systrom and Krieger officially launched their refined photo-sharing app on iOS, calling it Instagram. The name combined “instant” with “telegram” to evoke the app’s immediacy.
The streamlined app allowed users to:
- Snap photos directly within the app
- Apply filters to transform the look and feel of photos
- Seamlessly share on Instagram as well as Facebook, Twitter, and other networks
- Interact through likes and comments
The response was nothing short of explosive. Within the first day, Instagram gained 25,000 users. After a week, it hit 100,000 downloads. The app was an overnight viral sensation.
According to Josh Constine of TechCrunch:
“In October 2010 when it launched, Instagram was a jaw-dropping feat. Its photo filters made low-res cameraphone shots look like works of art.”
Two months after launch, Instagram reached 1 million registered users. User growth accelerated from there as the app added features like the Explore page and Stories.
Keys to Instagram‘s Success
Several key decisions and innovations fueled Instagram’s extraordinary adoption:
Simplicity – Stripping down to just photo filters and sharing created an app that was incredibly easy and enjoyable to use. Taking friction out of the experience was crucial.
Speed – Applying filters and sharing photos needed to be instantaneous for maximum addictiveness. Lag would have killed the app.
Social Integration – Allowing seamless sharing across other networks like Facebook and Twitter helped Instagram spread exponentially.
Mobile-First Design – Optimizing completely for smartphones with in-app cameras was essential to capturing the on-the-go moments users wanted to share.
Tap Into Creativity – Photo filters transformed average looking photos into stylized works of art, tapping into users’ creative expression.
Explore Tab – The Explore feature helped users discover new accounts and visual content based on their interests and habits.
Stories – Cloning the Stories format from Snapchat in 2016 made Instagram even more engaging and irresistible to users.
These were the sparks that fueled Instagram’s explosive rise in users and popularity. Systrom and Krieger made smart product decisions while retaining simplicity.
Acquisition by Facebook Cements Instagram‘s Legacy
With 30 million registered users by April 2012, Instagram had undeniably made its mark on the app world. It caught the eye of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Negotiations quickly led to Facebook acquiring Instagram for approximately $1 billion in cash and stock. Systrom and Krieger had stood firm on keeping Instagram as an independently run entity based in Silicon Valley.
This acquisition by Facebook cemented Instagram’s long-term viability. The resources of Facebook allowed Instagram to continue growing and innovating without worrying about monetization.
Since the 2012 acquisition, Instagram has risen to over 1 billion monthly active users. It has become Facebook’s most successful and profitable product aside from WhatsApp.
The acquisition by Facebook will likely go down as one of the smartest tech deals ever.
My Take as a Small Business Entrepreneur
As a photographer and jewelry maker running a small business, Instagram has been a game changer. The visual nature and engagement of the app makes it perfect for connecting with potential customers and driving sales.
I’m amazed that an app that feels indispensable today started through the vision of one entrepreneur.
Kevin Systrom identified a real frustration point around mobile photo-sharing and social media. By creating a streamlined solution focusing on users’ needs, he changed how hundreds of millions communicate.
It’s a good lesson for any entrepreneur – build what you yourself want to use, and make it simple and delightful enough that others can’t help but use it too. Meet a real need, and growth can follow at staggering speed.
Instagram’s story shows that an app that feels truly magical can go from zero to worldwide sensation in under two years. With focus, refinement, and simplicity, Systrom and Krieger created something that became a defining part of social media history.