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Why Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom Is Hot For Snapchat

When asked what companies are getting it right in mobile, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom ticks off the usual suspects. Though an iPhone user, Systrom praises Google for the "edgy" work it's doing with Android, and also talks up Facebook Home's new "Chat Heads" feature. But he also highlights a surprising startup: Snapchat, the social app that lets users share pictures or short videos with friends that disappear in under 10 seconds.

"Getting scale in mobile is really hard," Systrom told me during a recent trip to its offices, as part of Fast Company's feature on the company's first year at Facebook. "Snapchat is doing a really awesome job of creating new behaviors that you wouldn't expect... I'm not sure I have many [other] examples [of startups getting mobile right]."

It's an unexpected answer. Not only is Snapchat an increasingly popular photo- and video-sharing service—and, by default, a potential rival to Instagram—but it's rapidly becoming a direct competitor to Instagram's parent company, Facebook. The world's largest social network has clearly had its eye on Snapchat, and in December, launched a blatant copycat service called Poke, that was lambasted by the press for its lack of originality. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is right to be concerned: Only weeks ago, Snapchat raised a $60 million round at a reported $800 million valuation, and is now claiming 200 million messages exchanged on the service per day.

It's yet another example of a hot social startup luring younger users away from Facebook. Like Instagram before it—which Facebook acquired for $1 billion before it became too strong a competitor—Snapchat demonstrates the obstacles Facebook must overcome as it continues to attempt to own social. The company is forever in danger of being usurped by the next fun, novel, or gimmicky service that captures users' attention.

What catches on in social often feels random—who would've guessed filtered photos and ephemeral social media would be so popular?—and many have started to question whether Facebook can still capture whatever magic leads to the creation of services like Instagram and Snapchat. Social networks before it like Myspace faced this same issue; it's why Hunter Walk once argued that "trying to be the one true social graph is like trying to hold water in your fist."

But what's most remarkable about Systrom's praise for Snapchat is that it ignores Poke, Facebook's attempt to defend against startups nipping at its heels. "Snapchat is doing a really good job of inventing new behaviors and challenging existing behaviors," Systrom said. "I don’t think what they’re doing is gimmicky. I actually think they are doing novel things." Even with the weight of Facebook behind it, Poke didn't feel cool. It actually felt uncool because of it.

Snapchat's success also raises larger questions about Facebook as a platform. The company wants to be the social layer built on operating systems like iOS and Android, but many have questioned whether this is ideal for developers, who might not want to be so inconveniently wedded to a larger social network, like Zynga was with Facebook.

Given this environment, I asked Systrom how Facebook could defend against the social startups forever popping up around it. Even with thousands of top-notch engineers, it's a scary prospect that even a 13-person team can create the next disruptive social network. Is it a sustainable approach for Facebook to keep innovating by guessing what's next, and acquiring services if the company is wrong? Can left-field innovations like Snapchat still happen inside Facebook?

"I definitely think it can happen within an organizations," Systrom said. "Risk-taking, if done well, can be done within organizations in a way that is much safer than having to drop out of school to do a startup. Because for every Snapchat, there are probably 1,000 other startups that really try hard but never make it. If you find an organization—like Google X or Facebook—where people basically get to work on crazy projects and then the best ones get to be presented to [the CEO], that's the way chat and video were invented here."

Still, Systrom acknowledges, not every new project will be as wild as Snapchat. "It's just hard to be really out there," he says. "It’s just challenging to keep that up, because of the issue of focus. But I don’t think Facebook feels threatened by experimentation."

[Base Image: Andrey_l via Shutterstock]