It took Flickr, one of the world's largest photo-sharing sites, close to 2.5 years to reach 150 million photos, which could be uploaded from any computer and shot on any camera. But it took San Francisco-based startup Instagram roughly just nine months to hit that same milestone--with just one mobile app, available on just one device maker's OS (Apple's).
Today, cofounder Kevin Systrom, one of our Most Creative People in Business , announced the 150-million photo milestone, telling Fast Company that he feels both "excited and humbled" by the startup's success. The growth of Instagram, which lets users snap pictures on their iPhones and apply one-click vintage filters, is staggering and seemingly unwavering--it's growing at a faster rate than Facebook , Twitter, and Foursquare were during the same stages. But now comes the hard part: Turning its massive initial success into a sustainable business model.
Systrom is still not ready to explain the big picture, saying that it's just too early to determine what Instagram's business model will look like. Behemoth brands including CNN, Starbucks, and Burberry have hopped on the service, but it's still unclear how they might help monetize the app. "The next version of Instagram definitely moves in that direction; however, I won't say the next version will monetize Instagram," Systrom says.
What he does reveal more generally is that the team will soon broaden Instagram's service, improve its mobile photography capabilities, and push toward making Instagram more known as a social network than a mere photo-sharing app.
"I think a lot of people see Instagram as an iPhone utility, something you use to filter your photo, and save it to your library, and maybe [share] with friends," he says. "What's interesting to me is transitioning from that mindset into, 'Wow, this is actually a really strong social network, something that I can spend hours inside.' The next version of our app will have some really groundbreaking stuff in mobile photography, and while I can't stay anything specific about it yet, I will hint that a lot of people will look at the next version of the app as a step-change in direction, much as when Facebook decided to not just be available at colleges anymore, and branched out beyond that."
Instagram boasts a loyal following of 7 million users, who now upload roughly 1.3 million photos each day, at the rate of about 15 photos per second. With a roster of just four staffers, each employee is supporting about 1.75 million users and 37.5 million photos, meaning Instagram requires little overhead to run beyond server costs. And the company has "yet to spend a dime on marketing," as Systrom said during our Co.Location  series, nor release an Android app.
Investors such as Jack Dorsey and Adam D'Angelo have taken notice, pumping $7 million into the service along with other VC firms in Februrary. (That cofounders of Twitter and Facebook showed interest in Instagram is no coincidence: Both Twitter and Facebook  saw potential in Systrom in their early days, although he turned down opportunities to work at the companies.)
"Part of entrepreneurship is starting a company to search for that business model--that's the phase we're in," Systrom told Fast Company recently . "You would never start a company in an area where you didn't believe you could make money."
[Image: Flickr user Martina Yach ]