The world's largest social network may have just announced that it's acquiring the world's fast-growing social network—in a deal reportedly worth $1 billion—but the flirtation between Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram's Kevin Systrom actually started years ago.
Back in 2004, long before Instagram was a 30-million-user powerhouse, a startup called Facebook was just getting off the ground. Systrom, then a student at Stanford, had developed a photo-sharing service that caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg and Adam D'Angelo, a meeting that would foreshadow their eventual partnership.
The service that Systrom was working on at the time, however, was not Instagram. It was called Photobox. "I saw this problem: In college, tons of people took photos and they'd send out these huge Zip files over the Stanford email network," Systrom said. "That didn't really make sense: What we should do is have one place where everyone puts their photos, and can come together and basically download sets of photos if they want."
A few entrepreneurs who had recently arrived in the Valley heard about Photobox, and reached out to Systrom. "This was when I first met Adam D'Angelo and Mark [Zuckerberg] from Facebook. When they first came out to Palo Alto, I was in this fraternity at Stanford called Sigma Nu, and through a bunch of connections, we ended up meeting those guys, time and time again," Systrom recalled to me recently. "So when I met Adam and Mark, they were like, 'Yeah, we're working on some photo stuff too, why don't you come talk to us about Facebook?'"
Looking back, the opportunity was huge: the chance of working on Facebook's photo-sharing service in the early days. Yet Systrom turned down the Zuck's offer. "Unfortunately, I decided I wanted to stay in school, and that's one of those decisions that I look back at—I would've loved to have been part of Facebook's growth over the years, but it was the first time I met those guys," Systrom said. "It was certainly the harbinger for what was to come in my future."
The Instagram cofounder's comments are especially prescient now that he's finally joined up with Zuck at Facebook.
"Everyone has their Facebook story, so I won't say that's necessarily unique," Systrom said. "What I mean is that everyone has their story about how they had the chance to work at X, Y, or Z. But being at Stanford, I was given the opportunity to be in the middle of a ton of innovation, and meet some of the smartest people doing the coolest stuff in the world."