Tech entrepreneur Kevin Systrom is focused on photography

The gig: At 27, Kevin Systrom is chief executive of Instagram, a Silicon Valley start-up that attracted more than 5 million users within eight months of its October launch and has raised $7.5 million from high-profile investors. Systrom and co-founder Mike Krieger built the service in just eight weeks.

Sharing photos on the go: Instagram lets friends share photos from their iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads. Users snap pictures with their phones and add visual effects. Then they upload them to Instagram, creating a virtual stream of pictures. Users can follow one another’s photos and can “like” or comment on them. Some 860,000 photos are uploaded to Instagram every day. Among the service’s avid users are celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and rapper Snoop Dogg. Brands such as Kate Spade, Red Bull and Starbucks also use the service.

Fascination with photography: Systrom has been a shutterbug since he was a child. He used to play with his father’s Polaroid and every year asked for a new camera. He came to appreciate digital photography after taking a Photoshop software class at summer camp. Photography remained a hobby while Systrom attended Stanford University. There he created a service called Photobox, which caught the attention of Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg and one of his top lieutenants, Adam D’Angelo. Photobox allowed users to share photos they took with digital cameras in one central place. “I saw how social photos were a part of the fabric of college life,” Systrom said. “Now that we are doing this, I see that photos are part of the fabric of life, period. But now you don’t have to carry around a camera. Your mobile phone doubles as a camera in your pocket.”

Start-up bug: After graduating from Stanford in 2006, Systrom joined Google Inc., which he said was the perfect training ground for starting his own company. He had been itching to build something of his own since he interned at Twitter co-founder Evan Williams’ podcasting start-up Odeo Corp. while at Stanford. Jack Dorsey, an investor in Instagram, created Twitter while at Odeo after Systrom’s internship there.

Everything it’s cracked up to be: Instagram took off almost right away. In the beginning, it added three to four users a minute on average. Now it’s adding 30 to 40 users a minute. Systrom likes the intensity of start-up life. Instagram has just four employees who work at a small office that once housed Twitter. They call it the “cave” because it has no windows. It allows them to focus exclusively on Instagram. “Instagram is our baby. It wakes us up in the middle of the night. It makes us lose a lot of sleep. At the same time we love it, and there is nothing else we would rather be doing.”


Facing off against the Instagram “killers”: Instagram is in an increasingly saturated and competitive market. Systrom says he tries hard not to get distracted. He banned meetings with anyone outside Instagram except for the media and engineering recruits. “The first month when we would hear about Instagram killers or competitors, we paid a lot of attention. Over time we heard it enough that now we believe the right thing to do is to focus on what we are good at, building the product we want to build. We try not to be too reactionary. At the end of the day, you are your biggest competitor.”

From coding to cooking: On the rare occasions he takes time out from coding, it’s to cook. One of his favorite ways to spend the day is making molé, a Mexican sauce, with his girlfriend. He says he likes the communal nature of cooking, which he finds very similar to taking and sharing photos. “Cooking is essentially a social activity,” he said. “It’s also very analog. It has nothing to do with tech.”

How he keeps cool: “Far too often companies and people are focused on doing way too much. We have focused on doing the few things that really matter for people. If you scatter yourself by doing too many things at once, you end up going crazy.”