Interview: Instagram's Co-Founder, Mike Krieger, Shares His Tips On How To Succeed In The Digital Era
A leading software engineer and entrepreneur, Mike Krieger is best known as the Co-Founder of Instagram. Spotting a gap in the market for a photo-sharing social media application, Mike designed and developed Instagram in 2010 alongside his partner Kevin Systrom. Since then, Instagram has become one of the most influential social media platforms of all time, currently valued at $102 billion.
After completing a BA and MA at the University of Stanford, Mike was selected to take part in their high-tech entrepreneurship program. Soon establishing himself at the forefront of the technology sector, he went on to work for several industry leaders including Meebo, Foxmarks and Microsoft. Later developing Instagram, Mike became the company’s CTO and expanded the platform’s monthly active users from a few million to one billion, a further testament to his impressive entrepreneurial skillset.
Now a leading technology and innovation speaker, Mike is an expert on all things digital and uses his knowledge and experience to discuss topics such as app development, social networks, starting a business, overcoming adversity and peak performance.
In this interview Mike touches on such topics, using his combined digital expertise and start-up experience to advice others on how to succeed in the modern world.
In the era of clickbait and crowded digital platforms, standing out is an uphill battle.
With brands constantly competing for engagement, Mike says to capture attention, “you need to focus on giving people an experience that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
“With Instagram, we let people almost teleport. Of course, we don’t have real teleporters, but using your phone you could essentially travel to the city where your friends live, or for me, it was Tokyo and Japan – I love Japan.
“All of a sudden, I could follow people from Japan, and I was in a Japanese street experiencing life as it was – that was an experience that people didn’t have before.”
Embrace emerging trends and technologies
It is vital brands embrace emerging technologies and rising trends to stay ahead of the curve, as this constant modernisation will give your company a clear competitive edge.
Mike says business leaders need to continuously ask themselves, ‘what is the trend that’s just around the corner?’
“I think this is the thing that we did uniquely well when building Instagram. We weren’t trying to invent spaceships, we weren’t trying to go to the moon – those are great goals, but for other entrepreneurs.
“We were always asking ourselves, ‘what is just around the corner, that if we do right, will become completely universal’. You have to look ahead and say, ‘what is ready to explode if we can successfully create a really great product around it?’.
“To be a really interesting entrepreneur you have to have a science fiction level of vision, and basically ask, ‘what is the science fiction future I wish existed?’, and then, ‘how can I accomplish that with current technology?’.”
Don’t be afraid to evolve
Building brand loyalty is imperative for the success of any business.
With the belief that adaptability is key to retaining audience attention in the digital era, Mike shares how Instagram evolved to successfully satisfy the ever-changing demands of the modern consumer.
“To retain attention, you need to make sure you remain very adaptable and you continue to evolve the product. Instagram as it was when it launched was just photos that were all square in one feed, in chronological order and almost all of those words have changed.
“If you look at Instagram as it was two years ago when Kevin and I left, it’s continued to evolve. It’s now photos, videos and stories. Our feed is now personalised, and you can post non-square photos.
“I find that often businesses get very caught up in the way things are and think that’s why they succeeded when actually, the way you maintain attention is always asking, ‘what are we holding on to that we think is important, but our customers wish we would move on from?’.
“Twitter went through this for a long time. They were maniacally into this 140-character thing, it was defining their whole company. And finally, they realised, ‘wow, I think that might actually be holding us back’. So, they expanded it and now people can write longer posts, and I think those things are very easy for you to convince yourself internally that they are almost sacred, when part of remaining relevant is always questioning those things.”
When creating a product or putting together a business plan, constructing a user-friendly experience must be a priority as a lack of accessibility brings lower engagement, limited reach, and reduced customer satisfaction.
Mike believes the key to accessibility is simplicity, and he remained mindful of such throughout the development of Instagram.
“With Instagram, we started with a different product called ‘Burbn’. It was in the same neighbourhood as Instagram, but we realised we made it too complicated.
“If you're finding that as you explain your product to people, they look a little confused or it's not resonating or not quite clicking, your initial instinct might be, ‘let's add more! Maybe it's just that we have 10 features, and we need 20’, but in my experience, that has never been true.
“Actually, you should take your 10 down to three and make those amazing. Once you've proven that those are important, then build back up. If you can make the simple parts of your product really great and really stand out, all of a sudden people have a reason to use you versus everybody else in the market.”
“You need to be really thoughtful about maintaining that simplicity. Even when we had a million people using Instagram, you still have to think, ‘wow, but there's still like a billion people that have never used Instagram, so how do I make sure when those people join the platform it's still great, it's still simple and it's still easy to use?’.
Encourage team mobility
The greatest products and user experiences are the result of innovative teams and so creating an inventive culture within your workplace is vital to fuel growth, stimulate change and ensure continuous improvement.
To strengthen and promote innovation at Instagram, Mike employed multiple strategies, including “encouraging team mobility”.
“I think a mistake companies make is thinking if you join a team, that's your team, and if you want to go to any other team, you've got to go through the interview process again or it's a big step. We made it very fluid to change teams which enabled people who felt as though they had learned all they wanted to learn in their given role, to transition to a different position.
“For example, I had an expert on Android who said, ‘I really want to learn to code for the iPhone’. And I was like, ‘OK well, you're probably not going to be as productive for a few months because you don't know the technology well, but once you are productive you're going to be incredible because you're going to have one foot in both worlds!’.
“We had a woman who was in customer support, and she was really interested in coding and we said, ‘great, we’ll organise mentorship from some of our engineering team’. And sure enough, within a year, she had learned enough to transition to software engineering and we welcomed her onto the team, and she was an awesome member of our engineering team after that.
“It’s important to support people’s lifelong learning journey by letting them evolve and change within their company, so they don't feel like, ‘gosh, if I want to learn something new, I have to change companies’. You never want people to feel that way.”
Give everyone the space to create
Instagram also gave its employees a platform to showcase their ideas and time to develop such concepts, further promoting an innovative environment.
To help evolve your business and stand out from competitors, Mike says it is “really important to trust the people closest to the problem you're solving.
“So, for us, every two months or so, we would give people two days where they could work on anything they wanted within the general scope of the company and then show off the projects at the end. Many of our products actually came from those; we call them ‘hackathons’.
“Boomerang, a really popular feature on Instagram where you can create looping, three-second videos, came from giving everybody at the company the space to create. Teams would come back and say, ‘hey, we made this’, and we would look at it and say, ‘that's really cool. Let's go make that into a product’.
“So, trust the folks working closest to you. I wouldn't have come up with the Boomerang idea, but the people working on our camera team did because they were immersed in it every day.”
Establish clear objectives early on
Setting out with a clear goal in mind is crucial as a lack of transparency surrounding your core objectives can result in confusion and poor execution.
Mike says “you have got to be crystal clear about the problem you're trying to solve for people.
“I've seen way too many companies starting out who think either, ‘hey this technology is cool, surely somebody will want to use it’ or ‘people are already using this product, why don't we create something just like it?’
“I think you have to be really laser-focused on understanding what problem you're solving for people. For Instagram, it was that people wanted to connect, they wanted to share, but there was no real good way of doing that on mobile phones, so we wanted to make that an amazing experience.
“It’s important to define what that problem is. Don’t list 10, because sometimes businesses try to solve too much. You need to be really focused on one, two, maximum three that really define what your real value proposition is.”
Know your audience
As Instagram grew, so did its users. International expansion meant a shift in customer wants, needs and expectations, and it was crucial Instagram kept up with such demands.
To stay universally relevant Mike emphasises the need to “stay tuned into who your customer is, and for us, that meant travelling to places.
“I would send teams to Japan, Brazil, France, to all these different places, and have them spend time embedded in the local culture.
“When they came back, they’d say, ‘wow, if we want to win in France, we need to totally change how we're doing our user registration’ or ‘if we want to win in Japan, we have to rethink how we use this camera’. We gathered all these interesting pieces of innovation that we would never have come up with sitting in the office or headquarters. You have to be able to get out there and absorb the world.
“Another point is, when you can, bring that international and risk perspective in-house. If you can build offices in different places, make sure you're hiring a team that is as diverse as the people using your products because they'll be the first people to understand how to adapt it for all the different use cases.”
Continually review your approach
With exponential growth comes team expansion, and this instantly puts pressure on your existing business structure.
What once worked can quickly fail, and Mike describes the difficulties he encountered as Instagram grew, explaining why organisations need to continually review their approach, particularly their communication strategy.
“We got advice early on from one of our investors who said, ‘your company will break every time it doubles’. What he meant by that and what I think we really experienced was, the little things that you take for granted stop working as you grow.
“When everybody's around one table, as we were at the beginning, everybody's on the same page because you can hear each other. Then, all of a sudden, you’re in two rooms. That sounds like a minor change, but it meant that teams didn't hear about the changes happening.
“You have to treat your company as a product itself, a project that needs constant tuning and evolution. We really changed how we communicated internally when we were 20 people versus 100 people.
“We changed our processes, we kept adapting, and if you take your eye off that process, it's easy to wake up and think, ‘we have a thousand people and I feel less productive than when we had 200 people’. That is because you've taken for granted that a company is itself an active, living being.
“You have to tend to it, adapt it and continue to make sure you're doing the right things so that communication flows, culture is maintained, employees are learning, and you're recruiting really thoughtfully so your product can reflect all those things.”
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