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How Luck And Intuition Helped To Build Instagram


If you have ever tried to start a new business, you know you need a bunch of things to make that happen - a great idea, of course, maybe some seed money. But there's at least one other thing.

KEVIN SYSTROM: I have this thesis that the world runs on luck. Everyone gets lucky for some amount in their life. And the question is, are you alert enough to know you're being lucky or you're becoming lucky?

GREENE: Luck - the person talking about it there is Kevin Systrom, who you might say was extremely lucky to come up with the idea for Instagram a few years ago. Maybe you've heard of it. He is one of dozens of entrepreneurs being profiled on a new NPR podcast that's called How I Built This. The podcast is hosted by my colleague Guy Raz, who is also the host of NPR's Ted Radio Hour. He's been coming on our program to talk about the new podcast. He's back with me. Hey, Guy.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Hello, David.

SYSTROM: So remind us about the podcast, How I Built This.

RAZ: Well, it's about people like Kevin Systrom, you know, innovators who build ideas and businesses from nothing. And I've been trying to figure out, you know, what are the qualities that they have? And some of them are ones you'd expect, you know, things like grit and perseverance.


RAZ: But in the case of Kevin and his co-founder, Mike Krieger, they also had a pretty strong sense of intuition, you know, a sense of knowing how to seize an idea at exactly the right moment.

GREENE: And before hearing about that, I mean, we should remind people Instagram is this wildly successful photo-sharing app.

RAZ: Right.

GREENE: So these guys, I mean, how exactly you come up with an idea like that?

RAZ: Well, so about six years ago, Kevin and Mike were, you know, they were just a few years out of college. And as Kevin Systrom explains to me, this was about the time when the picture quality on smartphones was getting a whole lot better.

SYSTROM: And because of that, everyone started taking photos on their phone. But they had no place to put them. Or if they did, it was hard. And we just happened to be the right tool for that job at the right moment.

GREENE: OK. So great timing. And it sounded like, I mean, the original concept was storage...

RAZ: Right.

GREENE: ...Where to put these things.

RAZ: Well, you know, the thing that really helped make Instagram a huge success was a feature that Kevin decided to add, you know, almost by accident. And it happened when he was describing the app to his girlfriend, Nicole.

SYSTROM: I'm like, you know, Nicole, I think we're going to focus on photos. And she goes, I don't think I'm going to post that much. My photos aren't that good. They're not as good as your friend Greg. And I was like, well, Greg uses a bunch of filter apps to, like, make them look nice. And she goes, oh, you should probably add filters. And I was like, ah, that's it. Like, we just need to be able to make people feel like their photos are worthy of sharing.

RAZ: And I should add here that Nicole, the girlfriend, is now his wife.

GREENE: Maybe not just because he's, like, an amazing innovator.

RAZ: Right. Yes.

GREENE: Probably other reasons as well, but (laughter).

RAZ: Yes. Right.

GREENE: Well, you know, Kevin said something there. He said there were other photo apps that people were using with filters before Instagram. So Instagram wasn't the first to do this?

RAZ: No, it wasn't. In fact, what they did was to make it really, really easy for amateurs to create incredible photos with filters. And another really smart decision that they made was to make it an open network. So you could follow anyone you wanted to on the app, friends and, of course, celebrities. And you didn't need their permission to follow them.

SYSTROM: And that hadn't really been done before in photos. If you look at every photo service before then, it was basically a friends-only network. And we were the first ones to really open that up.

RAZ: You know, the decisions that the founders made back then can seem almost obvious now, right?


RAZ: But...

GREENE: I could have come up with that (laughter).

RAZ: Right. Like, of course people would want filters. Of course you'd want an open network. But in 2010, this was still the early days of social media. And the kinds of things that we take for granted now were still kind of experimental.

GREENE: You know, Kevin said at the opening it was so much about luck. Was it really? Or did they just do a lot of things right here?

RAZ: No, no. In fact, they made a lot of mistakes. Like, on the day of the launch, Instagram hadn't anticipated the demand. And they had one server...

GREENE: Problem.

RAZ: ...And it crashed and failed almost immediately. So very few people were able to sign up. And it almost sunk the company at its birth.

GREENE: OK. You can hear much more of Guy's podcast. It's called How I Built This. He talks to innovators, entrepreneurs about how they got to where they got. And to hear Guy's entire conversation with the founders of Instagram, you can go to Thanks, Guy.

RAZ: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.