From just two guys at rented desks to a $715 million sale to Facebook, a second wind on Android and a mess of privacy scares, Instagram today announced 100 million people use it every month to share the way they see the world. The startup hedged its bets by being acquired just as it expanded beyond iOS, but despite what it could have sold for now, there’s no disputing Instagram’s success.
In a heartfelt blog post that smooths over the rough patches, co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom explains the journey to building an app that’s created “a world more connected and understood through photographs.”
The untold story is that Instagram made a tough decision right after its April 3rd launch on Android. Before that it had 30 million installs on iOS. Whether it would succeed outside of the design-focused iPhone was a gamble. It could have flopped, attrition could have set in, and it was still small enough to be vulnerable to competitors. So despite racking up 1 million new users in the first 12 hours, there was a lot to lose. $1 billion (at the time) in cash and stock from Facebook for a company with just 13 employees was too good to pass up, so it sold.
If Systrom had foreseen what would happen next, he may have held out longer. The Android app maintained its sprint, and the iPhone version continued to pick up steam. Even without much help from Facebook, and in fact despite Facebook’s own competitor Camera, the Instagram juggernaut could not be stopped.
At over three times as many users now as when it sold, and seemingly beyond quick disruption, would Instagram have sold for $2 billion or even $3 billion today? Would anyone have been willing to pay that? Remember this was when fervor was frothy for the coming Facebook IPO. Social companies still saw going public as a lucrative option.
But Systrom chose to become a made-man (and make made-men out of many of his employees), rather than roll the dice. He chose greater impact by aligning with the world’s premier social network over total control. He still runs Instagram somewhat independently from Facebook, so he may be getting to have his cake and eat it too.
Twitter co-founder Ev Williams last week wrote that there are three reasons to sell your company, and any one will suffice: If the offer captures your potential upside, eliminates imminent threat, or if you want to. With one of the best exits in startup history on the table, insurance against failure on Android and competition from Facebook itself, plus a desire to connect the world just like Zuck, Systrom had all three, whether or not 100 million users was just 10 months away.
Here’s the full blog post from Kevin:
Instagram’s first office had few redeeming qualities—and insulation was not one of them. There were only two of us, so we rented desks in a co-working space on a pier over San Francisco Bay. At night, it was common to find us working in winter jackets huddled over our laptops where the air was so cold we could see our breath. It was October 2010 when we launched Instagram, and San Francisco had dealt us a particularly unforgiving and chilly fall.
One night soon after launch, about a half-mile away, Giants Stadium was full of fans cheering on their team in a race for the NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies. You see, having so little insulation in the office had an unintended consequence of being able to hear the crowd roar every time someone hit a long ball out towards McCovey Cove. Back in the office, we’d lift our heads up from code with every eruption of the fans, wondering who was at bat, what had happened, and whether the ball had made it or not. We never knew, but that wasn’t the point.
While we may only have had a few thousand people around the world using Instagram that night, we had a sense that maybe through Instagram we could tune in to what was happening just a few steps away. With a few quick commands at his terminal, my co-founder Mike’s screen filled with images of the game: the bullpen, dugout, concession stands, cheering fans and a panoramic view from somewhere up high. In a matter of hours, the people in that stadium had recorded moments in time through Instagram and allowed us to tune into an event while we sat a half a mile away, working—winter coats and all.
For the first time, we understood why Instagram was going to be different. We understood the power of images to connect people to what was happening in the world around them. And, although Instagram had a fraction of the user base it does today, that night we saw a preview of what Instagram would enable at a much larger scale down the road.
Now, nearly two and a half years later, over 100 million people use Instagram every month. It’s easy to see this as an accomplishment for a company, but I think the truth is that it’s an accomplishment for our community. Now, more than ever, people are capturing the world in real-time using Instagram—sharing images from the farthest corners of the globe. What we see as a result is a world more connected and understood through photographs.
Of the 100 million people on Instagram, there are stories that awe us: stories like Kathryn Mahoney’s (@nineteenfiftyone). Kathryn is an aid worker for the United Nations in the most remote refugee camp in Southern Sudan. She shares vivid photos of the day-to-day life of the people who live in Yida as well as the struggles and triumphs of the UN’s work there. From thousands of miles away, Kathryn reminds us of the power of images to educate and inspire.
There are love stories that move us, like the story of Cory (@withhearts) and Bethany (@bethanyolson) who began following each other a year and a half ago at the suggestion of a mutual photographer friend. After trading likes on photos, meeting for coffee, and finally joining up for a photowalk, a mutual interest in photography turned into dating. To this day, they still go on photography adventures and explore the world together with Instagram in tow.
And there are inspiring stories of small businesses and artisans. Mission Bicycle (@missionbicycle), a small, independent manufacture in san Francisco, has amassed nearly 50,000 followers as they share the photos from their daily work of making beautiful bicycles by hand. Similarly, Sightglass Coffee (@sightglass) shares photos from their harvesting grounds in El Salvador and Ethiopia to remind us that even a local business has global connections.
Images have the ability to connect people from all backgrounds, languages and cultures. They connect us to aid workers halfway across the world in Sudan, to entrepreneurs in San Francisco and even to events in our own backyards. Instagram, as a tool to inspire and connect, is only as powerful as the community it is made of. For this reason, we feel extremely lucky to have the chance to build this with all of you. So from our team to the hundred million people who call Instagram home, we say thank you. Thank you for sharing your world and inspiring us all to do the same.