TL;DR: Mike Krieger shared some lessons he learned from his 12-year journey since the creation of the startup turned into big tech Instagram:
1. Focus on your what and why. Not on how the product was supposed to be;
2. User behavior drives the product roadmap
3. Start with trust and respect to have a good co-founder relationship;
4. Building an incredible team and product is what will make you proud;
5. Being super focused with a small team can be powerful;
6. Put user experience and solving real problems over short-term growth;
7. Growth avenues get saturated. Take advantage of the next one;
8. Things are not as good, or as bad, as they seem.
A billion-dollar business is not enough for you – that's too easy. You also want your startup to impact the world in a positive way.
One of the best ways to do this is to stand on the shoulders of giants. And one of those giants is Mike Krieger, the Brazilian co-founder of Instagram.
You might not know or believe it, but yes, the co-founder of Instagram is Brazilian. Only two years after it launched, Facebook bought Instagram for US$ 1B, in 2012. Way before the unicorn frenzy!
If you were at Vamos Latam Summit in São Paulo, you watched the panel with Gina Gotthilf (Latitud co-founder) and Mike Krieger. If you didn't, you're probably feeling a lot of FOMO right now (in which case we hope to see you in Mexico City next March).
Whether this is your first glimpse into Mike's mind or you're looking to refresh your memory, we got you covered.
Has anyone ever looked at you with those eyes of "you're going to ruin this thing"?
Well, if it makes you feel any better: so has Mike.
When you set out to create an incredible product, you need to have a vision for it. That's your "what problem you solve" and your "why you care about it."
But what about all the cool features that were a huge part of how you imagined the product in the first place? Well, 9 out of 10 will change along the way.
In fact, Instagram was always meant to be a place for square photos only, until people started adding frames to their rectangular pictures to force the app to show them as rectangles. The square just wasn't doing it for them.
Let's listen to what Jeff Bezos has to say: "We are stubborn on vision, but flexible on details." Your customers will determine what the solution will become – which brings us to the next topic.
How do you find out what your customers want at scale? Drum roll, by collecting information that can be transformed into discoveries for your business.
Mike shared a quick story that shows the importance of data insights.
Gina asked Mike if they developed the product with a vanilla, one-size-fits-all code. Duolingo, where Gina was once a VP, did that: the education app created and shipped one version of the product for the whole world, instead of personalizing it for every location.
At Instagram, Mike said he worked really closely with data scientists to discover new insights about users' behaviors. Close as in "get a ticket to Japan and interview customers".
After many in-person chats, Edo-period style, he realized that a lot of users had different accounts for different interests. Japanese people loved to have one account for their work interest and another one for their baseball interest, for example.
Very intriguing. Instagram acted on that and tested a plug-in for switching between multiple accounts. Later, it was rolled out to the vanilla app. (And that's how Gina also got to create an Instagram account for her dog. See, use cases proliferated.)
Instagram's strategy was to have different features as add-ons to the main app. When it made sense, the feature would be incorporated into the original code and go global.
Guess what marriages and startups have in common? Both can last years and years, but also few of them live to tell the tale. In the end, having the right partner could be the difference between making it or breaking it.
Let's assume your startup takes 7 years to be sold, and that you work 12 hours a day and 6 days a week. In total, you would spend 1008 days with this other individual – showing "One Thousand and One Nights" who's boss.
Yeah, at least half of your dream and business is on the line, depending on this person. But also a good portion of your life. Choose your partner well and nurture this relationship, having respect and trust as a foundation.
Do not regard this as fluff stuff: you need to be comfortable with difficult talks, because the life of a founder is a difficult one.
You need to align in communication and values, but also competencies. Mike and all good entrepreneurs know how important it is that each founder has their own set of responsibilities and attacks a different problem. In Mike's case, he worked closely with tech and infrastructure, while Kevin Systrom focused on the business side.
Instagram has more than one billion to be proud of. Yes, it was sold for US$ 1B to Facebook back in 2012. But now it also has over 1B active users every month.
However, when Mike reflected on what made him proud and not proud during these last 12 years during his chat with Gina, numbers were not in his answer:
"The things that I am proudest of are the team and the culture we built. Another piece is the product's craft and polish. We didn't try to do everything, but to do fewer things better."
Building amazing teams that will build great products is your number one job as a founder. Nope, you can't outsource this to Toby from HR.
Here's why: later, when things get out of control and you don't know what to do, you'll come back to your what and why, but also to the people that have your startup's culture. They are the ones that will stay by your side and help to prioritize, craft, and eventually polish new products. They should be your biggest pride.
I am not going to repeat the David and Goliath story – small guy against big guy, strategy winning over brute force… you know the drill.
So, what does that has to do with Mike? When the big acquisition happened, Instagram only had 6 engineers.
They had the money to hire more engineers. They were just very bad at doing so. But this ended up being a blessing because having a small team can be powerful: you waste almost no energy with coordination.
Instagram planned outputs on Monday and worked really hard to deliver them on Friday. Period. Things happened smoothly and quickly. That was an unfair advantage in comparison to companies that were bigger, but also bureaucratic and sluggish.
Focus is a superpower, and with a small team, you have the sling in your hands. Don't waste that.
If you were paying attention, you might have taken a mental note a few paragraphs ago: wait a minute, Mike did not answer what he's NOT proud of! Nice going, my dear Watson.
Talking about problems is uncomfortable but necessary. If you avoid them, how to know if you're doing the right thing at the end of the day?
Mike often asks himself this, and you should too: "am I creating value?"
Your technology is on the blockchain or it can make people fly to the moon? Cool. But none of that matters if you are not generating value. If you don't find a way to solve real problems for real people through a great experience, why are you even here?!
That's purpose 101. However: when you grow and get to a billion-user base, like Instagram, it's impossible to control everything that happens.
There are many different causes and effects happening in the network, to the point where you really can't know if your solution has a net positive or negative impact on the world, especially if you consider second-order effects. Butterfly effect, yada yada yada.
But you should still take accountability for issues you created and have all the power to fix. Even if you become a big tech. Even if it means trading short-term growth for a long-term approach of making sure your company creates a healthier world.
To discover them, Mike asks himself: "What problems did Instagram uniquely create?" The overuse of Instagram is an example – and how they developed a timer to let people manage their use, even if it meant less time on the platform for them.
When we talk about growth, everyone shouts about different tactics, and some think growth hacking is about finding the hack that will 100x your revenue in one night.
Mike's answer was crystal clear: be on the winning playing field.
But the winning playing field is not what everyone else is doing! What worked for him in the past is probably not going to work for someone else tomorrow.
Growth avenues get saturated quickly, so you have to be aware and willing to find the next hot path to thrive. It might be that cool TikTok trend or that boring referral mechanism. You will have to figure it out for yourself, for your business, and at this moment in time.
P.S: the answer's probably not on Google's first result page.
You might not be a fan of music production, and much less a fan of Physics. But Mike used a concept dear to both of those areas to explain how his emotional intelligence works:
"Maybe to a fault, I have a high and low pass filter on my emotions. And I think that has served me well."
You've probably heard that someone doesn't have a filter (maybe that's you). But Mike means something deeper here.
A pass filter cut super high or super low frequencies you don't find useful on a particular music track or electric circuit. In the startup journey, you have many ups and downs. But it usually is not as up nor as down as it seems.
Adopt a high and low pass filter and think about when's the right time to celebrate and to freak out.
Remember that this is your journey, not Mike's journey. But it's always useful to listen to those who came before and can give you the experience only a second-time founder would have.
In Mike's case, insights abound. Start by focusing on your what and why. Think less about how the product was supposed to be, and more about having great co-founders and employees. Be super focused with that small team to build a product that solves real problems while providing a great user experience. Find and explore the next growth avenue. And, finally, strive for a balance in your emotions in the rocky founder's journey.
Now it's your turn to build a startup that makes you proud.