The One Thing That Changed Instagram from Failure to Being Worth 6x More Than Twitter

Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom recalls a critical moment in Instagram’s life cycle. Instagram was originally a check-in app called Burbn (pronounced Bourbon). Burbn was failing and was running out of cash. They were planning on laying off all their employees and shutting down. Users weren’t interested in using any of the features the app provided, with the exception of one feature. Users enjoyed posting stylized photos of what they were doing. This was very similar to the concept of Twitter at the time, but instead of texted tweets, these were status updates via pictures only—after all, a picture speaks a thousand words.

When failing, we often default to an additive mindset—somewhat analogous to adding more chairs to the deck of the Titanic. When Burbn was sinking, the founders did the exact opposite. They started stripping everything away. Metaphorically, they started tossing chairs off the ship’s deck. It wasn’t easy.

The founders struggled with destroying their “baby.” They had spent considerable time, money, and emotion-making Burbn. Stripping away these features was painful. However, they did it. They removed everything but the photos feature. People thought they were crazy, including people close to Systrom. One evening, he was walking on the beach with his wife, and he asked her if she was excited about the new app—they hadn’t yet named it Instagram.

Wife: I probably won’t use it.

Systrom: Why is that?

Wife: Well, my photos just don’t look as nice as yours or your friends.

Systrom: Ours only look better because we use filters.

Wife: Well, maybe you should add filters to your new app, then I might use it.

That evening, Systrom coded the first Instagram filter (X-Pro II). Systrom explains, “If you’re good at one thing, that’s all that matters. Successful entrepreneurs fail at many things, then they focus on the one thing that works. Doing that one thing really, really well takes care of the rest. Be the best at one thing and forget the rest.”

People loved the filters and Instagram’s popularity exploded—so much so that their server was overwhelmed with the amount of traffic. They needed to get another server or two to handle the massive increase in data. There was simple coding available they could copy and paste to keep the data organized, but instead, they went with a more powerful software solution.

This software was considered the best available to handle the traffic surges they were experiencing. However, it turns out, the software was extremely difficult to implement. After a few weeks, despite all the time they were pouring into it, it still wasn’t functioning properly.

After a few days, Systrom’s Co-Founder and top programmer took two hours to write a simple code to resolve the solution. Systrom realized he’d made his life complex for no reason. He should’ve done the simple code from the beginning and saved a lot of time, hassle, and money. Despite this, Instagram continued its rapid growth.

Systrom, along with only 13 employees, sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion dollars. Roughly $77 million dollars per employee. Many years later, Systrom reflected on the key to their success, “People in general—tend to make life more complex than it needs to be.



For more stories like this… Check out The Focus Project by Erik Qualman.

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About the Author: Erik Qualman

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