How Kevin Systrom Turned Instagram Into A Billion-Dollar Company

kevin systrom instagram

Kevin Systrom, cofounder and CEO of Instagram, is one of Silicon Valley’s newest hundred-millionaires, having sold his photo-sharing service to Facebook for $1 billion shortly before the social network went public.

The early days

Systrom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and first dabbled in computer programming while in middle school.

He eventually attended Stanford University, where he studied management science and engineering. Even though he didn’t major in computer science, he coded on the side and made basic projects like a student marketplace and an Internet radio station. (Systrom also DJs as a hobby.) 

Systrom’s first startup experience

While at Stanford, Systrom got his first taste of the startup world when he interned at Odeo, which later turned into Twitter.

After he graduated from Stanford, Systrom took a job at Google as a marketing associate product manager. Google’s associate product manager program, despite the bland name, is its highly effective system for grooming new talent. While at Google, Systrom worked on products like Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, and Spreadsheets. 

Systrom later left Google to join Nextstop, a startup founded by some former Googlers. But while doing marketing at Nextstop, Systrom started doing more engineering at night and working on ideas that helped him learn how to program. 


One of the ideas he was working on combined location check-ins with elements of social games like Mafia Wars. That turned into a social check-in service called Burbn.

While at a party for a startup called Hunch, he met investors from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. Within two weeks, he secured a $500,000 investment and soon after brought Mike Krieger on board. 

Once Krieger joined, the two were able to build Burbn into a mobile Web app that let people check in to locations, make plans, earn points for hanging out with friends, post photos, and more.

“We actually got an entire version of Burbn done as an iPhone app, but it felt cluttered, and overrun with features,” Systrom wrote on Quora in 2010. “It was really difficult to decide to start from scratch, but we went out on a limb, and basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities.”

The birth of Instagram

The two eventually decided to switch gears and  make photo sharing the core feature of the app after hearing that Facebook was doing something similar with check-ins. It was also around the same time other check-in services like Foursquare and Scvngr emerged.

“Instagram came from a realisation that people didn’t like our first product,” Systrom said in an interview with Simone Baribeau of Fast Company. “They thought it was too complicated.”

Since most of Instagram’s code came from Burbn, it only took about eight weeks to build Instagram with just two developers. 

A month after launching, Instagram had grown to 1 million users. A year later, Instagram hit more than 10 million users. Earlier this year, its former competitor, Facebook, acquired the photo sharing app in a cash-and-stock deal valued at $1 billion at the time. (The value has since fluctuated with Facebook’s stock.) 

Even though Facebook owns Instagram, the photo-sharing app still exists outside of Facebook. It recently launched Web-based profiles for users and currently touts more than 100 million users.

Systrom is still making waves, with Facebook giving him considerable autonomy. For example, he recently decided to yank Instagram’s photos from Twitter’s news feeds—not to favour Facebook, but to bring users to Instagram’s revamped website.