In 2002, Kevin Systrom arrived at Stanford from Massachusetts to pursue his undergraduate degree in management science and engineering. Nine years later, he returned with business partner Mike Krieger as part of the university’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders series, to discuss their headline-grabbing new social networking service, Instagram.
Fast-forward another nine years, and Systrom was back on May 28—this time virtually, due to the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order—to reflect on the company’s meteoric rise, its sale to Facebook, and how the pandemic has changed him and, perhaps, inspired him professionally.
“My friends and I have started playing a little friendly poker,” Systrom said of his time in self-quarantine with his wife, Nicole, and their young daughter. “I didn’t realize that part of playing poker is almost folding everything you get until you get something really good. You learn how important it is to be dealt lots of hands in life.”
Systrom has certainly held some trump cards over the course of his career. He admits to being somewhat baffled by Instagram’s “insta” popularity following its launch in 2010 (the site saw a million users in its first month). “I’m not sure I have the answer,” he said when asked to speculate. “Here’s what I believe: We started off saying, what problems are we solving? We knew people would be using these [smart]phones to take pictures and we needed an easy way to share them. But no one liked how their photos looked, so no one wanted to share them … I think 90% of it was that [Instagram] solved the problems people were having with digital photography.”
Systrom does credit having spent time developing his own professional skills after college, as well as his “yin-and-yang” partnership with Krieger, for laying a solid foundation at Instagram. “It helped me to not start immediately right out of college; I needed a set of technical skills, a network,” he said.
“Imagine life as a game. It’s not about how many points you score, what level you get to, it’s about how much you enjoy the process of getting there.”
After graduating from Stanford in 2006, Systrom spent two and a half years at Google in marketing and corporate development. In the latter role, he says, he “realized you can either be a rocket yourself, or you can decide to strap on rocket boosters on the side of your rocket and fly even faster.” That lesson would later guide his and Krieger’s decision to sell Instagram to Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion in cash and stock. He stayed on as CEO until late 2018 and cites as a personal highlight his 2016 trip to the Vatican “to onboard the Pope onto Instagram.”
The San Francisco-based Systrom was cagey during his latest Stanford talk when it came to what he’s been working on since leaving Instagram. He and Krieger announced their departures at the same time (Krieger was then the company’s CTO), and in a statement Systrom said they planned “on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again.”
Systrom describes his work partner as “a divergent thinker, creative,” whereas Systrom is “more convergent, analytical.” He adds, “That pairing couldn’t have worked any better without those balancing traits. But here are the parts we really agree on: you always want to solve a problem. Too many people either solve their problem or only a specific group’s problem without thinking about the larger context. If you don’t solve a problem for a lot of people you don’t have a lot of customers.”
In contrast, Systrom wants to keep thinking global. He hinted at the problem he and Krieger might tackle next, and it was a timely one: “If we were managing a state or a country,” he mused, “what dashboard would we want to track how things are going [with COVID-19], to effectively manage the crisis?”
He didn’t elaborate, but it’s clear that whatever is on the horizon, Systrom will make sure it’s something that ignites the sort of passion he felt when creating Instagram. “Imagine life as a game,” he told the virtual live audience of several hundred. “It’s not about how many points you score, what level you get to, it’s about how much you enjoy the process of getting there.”
Or, more succinctly: “Choose a journey where the hard part is also the fun part.”