TJ interviews: Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger
Mike Krieger reveals the secret to Instagram’s exponential growth, what small businesses can learn from his success, and the industries he predicts will dominate 2021.
Innovative entrepreneur and software engineer, Mike Krieger is best-known for co-founding Instagram. Credited for the platform’s international success, he grew Instagram’s active users from a few million to one billion as the Chief Technology Officer.
After completing a BA, MA and a high-tech entrepreneurship program with Stanford University, Mike and his business partner, Kevin Systrom, spotted a gap in the market for a photo sharing social media application. They aimed to create a safe space for people to showcase creativity and interact with friends, as well as a place for small businesses to thrive.
In this exclusive interview with Champions Speakers for TJ, Mike reveals the secret to Instagram’s exponential growth, what small businesses can learn from his success, and the industries he predicts will dominate 2021.
What is the secret to Instagram’s exponential business growth?
We created something where folks could express themselves in a way they were really proud of, which meant they wanted to tell their friends about it. When you think about Instagram in the early days, you had people who were buying phones and they would take photos and say, ‘oh, that looks OK, but it doesn't really look how I felt. It just looks like the OK version of that’.
And so, with Instagram what we tried to do, first with the filters and then with other features, is to give people that feeling of, ‘wow, I created something that I want to show other people’.
It’s important to support people’s lifelong learning journey by letting them evolve and change within their company
That is a very, very basic human instinct, even children like to draw and then show you what they've created, so Instagram is basically the adult version of that! That is a really powerful instinct, and that was a huge component of our growth.
People would take photos, filter them, edit them and say, ‘I want to show this to the world. I made something I'm proud of’. If you can help people create something they're proud of that's a huge growth driver.
The other piece is being really thoughtful about maintaining that simplicity. Even when we had a million people using Instagram, you still have to think, ‘wow, but there's still like a billion people that have never used Instagram, so how do I make sure when those people join the platform, it's still great, it's still simple and it's still easy to use?’.
What can smaller businesses learn from your success?
A huge lesson is you don't need a large team to get world-changing things done. We launched Instagram with two people, me and my co-founder, and that's all we had when we went out into the world. Two years in, we had 30m people using Instagram and our whole engineering team was just four people.
It's amazing nowadays, you have cloud platforms like Amazon Web Services, other off-the-shelf technologies, and the fact that so many people have mobile phones that can install apps - if you're interested in making mobile technology - the platforms today are incredible.
So, you no longer need huge budgets or huge teams just to get started. This applies to small businesses, once you figure out what you're focused on, it doesn't take a huge effort or a huge team to make that happen, and I like to think that even as we grew our product, we kept that mentality.
When we built Instagram stories, that whole team was about 12 people total. So, it doesn't take big teams to get a lot done, just define the problem well, bring people together that have that chemistry and that spark, and let them run on that idea.
Could you tell me about Instagram’s learning strategy for its staff?
It starts at the very beginning when they show up at the company. You've spent all this time recruiting and hiring and now your job is to trust the person coming in that they have the skills, but what you have is the context. The first piece of learning is really sharing the history and context.
I would sit down with every new hire at Instagram in a group, even when we were a thousand people, and I would tell them the story. How did we start? Where did we get started? How did we grow? What's important to the culture? All those pieces that will allow them to be better members of the team.
Another strategy is empowering them to continue learning in whatever way makes sense. So, employees had a budget to buy books if they thought that was an interesting way of learning. If they wanted to go to a conference and it was relevant, it was a win-win because at the conference they might meet other people that want to join Instagram and they’d recruit them, as well as coming back having learnt more.
Another strategy is encouraging team mobility. I think a mistake companies make is thinking if you join a team, that's your team, and if you want to go to any other team, you've got to go through the interview process again or it's a big step. We made it very fluid to change teams.
That enabled people who feel as though they’ve learned all they want to learn in their give role to transition to a different role. So, I had experts on Android who said, ‘I really want to learn to code for the iPhone’.
And I was like, ‘OK, well, you're probably not going to be as productive for a few months because you don't know the technology well, but once you are productive, you're going to be incredible because you're going to have one foot in both worlds’.
We had a woman who was in customer support, and she was really interested in coding and we said, ‘great, we’ll get some mentorship from some of our engineering team’. And sure enough, within a year, she had learned enough to want to transition to software engineering and we welcomed her onto the team, and she was an awesome member of our engineering team after that.
It’s important to support people’s lifelong learning journey by letting them evolve and change within their company, so they don't feel like, ‘gosh, if I want to learn something new, I have to change companies’. You never want people to feel that way.
Are you ever going back to the office? If not, how can businesses maintain their culture remotely?
This is definitely the challenge of our times! Right now, I'm working on a lot of projects with Kevin, who is my Instagram co-founder, like the Rt.live app. And for us, the transition has been alright because we know each other so well.
I like to joke I spend more time with him than my wife! I think that balance is shifting a little bit, but there was one point I definitely spent more time with him. So, with that amount of context, it's not as hard to make that transition.
I think the office is still a valuable place. The deep collaborative work with the silences, the breaks, the walks and all of these little human interactions can lead to a better product. So, there is a phase in development where I think it is still really valuable to have that shared space.
Whether that needs to be a permanent office that is around 365 days a year, or whether that can be an off-site that lasts a few days at a certain place, I think it's very flexible now.
The world has shifted, even as the vaccines get deployed the reality is many people have made life moves that are hard to unwind. One of my favorite Instagram engineers moved to a cabin in Colorado because he's like ‘I can work from anywhere now’, and he's not moving back!
I think the office is still a valuable place. The deep collaborative work with the silences, the breaks, the walks and all of these little human interactions can lead to a better product.
If you're a tech company and you want to recruit people like that, you'll need to be flexible with where people are living, that's going to be the new normal. But I do think companies will want some version of an in-person space, and I think they can be flexible about what exactly that will look like.”
What is making you hopeful for 2021?
The vaccines, because my family are still in Brazil, I miss them a lot and I want to see them! It was a very, very difficult year for most people, but even in that we saw a lot of innovation and ingenuity around dealing with problems, wanting to help the world around us, and finding new ways of adapting businesses.
In some cases that might have been the first time a business has had to rethink itself in decades. Maybe it was a store of physical presence that had to understand how to go online.
There is a chocolate brand here in San Francisco called Dandelion and I've known them for a long time. All their sales were in person and they had to shift to online sales, which means that some recipes don't work anymore.
I think as the world hopefully returns to whatever the new normal is, it is important to carry forward that spirit of creativity and adaptability on hopefully more solid ground, I think that has real potential for 2021.
About the interviewee
Mike Krieger is a tech enrepreneur and the co-founder of Instagram. Mike Krieger and other technology speakers are available to book via Champions Speakers.’
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