Instagram Founder Kevin Systrom’s 30-Second Rule for App Success

Hot photo-sharing startup Instagram achieved a faster rate of growth than Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter by a running with a strategy of simplicity.



It took hot photo-sharing startup Instagram just three months to reach its first million users, and a little more than a month after that to post its second million. That’s a faster rate of growth than Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter–so it should’ve come as no surprise recently when the app-maker pulled in $7 million during its first major round of funding.

But while Instagram may sound like an instant success, the product has come a long way since its first iteration, a feature-laden app called Burbn that lacked a simple value proposition. To founder and CEO Kevin Systrom, simplifying the product–paring it down into an app that enables users to share beautiful photographs quickly–was the smartest business decision his team made–and a strategy other developers should take to heart.

“Products can introduce more complexity over time, but as far as launching and introducing a new product in to the market, it’s a marketing problem,” Systrom tells Fast Company. “You have to explain everything you do, and people have to understand it, within seconds.”

For Instagram, that meant cutting out the clutter. Systrom refers to Burbn now as a “science experiment,” a way to test “just about everything to figure out what stuck.” That meant experimenting with check-ins, posting photos and videos, adding comments and Like buttons, incorporating game mechanics, and tinkering with a feature called Plans, which related to future check-ins.

“When you’re introducing a mobile app, you look around and say, we could be doing 15 different things, but how do we communicate to someone why they would want to download and even sign up for this thing?” Systrom says. “In the mobile context, you need to explain what you do in 30 seconds or less because people move on to the next shiny object. There are so many apps and people are vying for your attention on the go. It’s the one context in which you’ve got lots and lots of other stuff going on. You’re not sitting in front of a computer; you’re at a bus stop or in a meeting.”

Still, there were benefits to its see-what-sticks approach: The team realized its users were gung-ho about Burbn’s photo-sharing capabilities and filters. “We did too much on purpose,” he says. “We were trying to figure out what got people amped.”


Like Jack Dorsey, who has found success through simplification, Instagram’s “super clear value proposition” helped “sky rocket [the] app to many, many downloads,” Systrom says.

But don’t let the Instagram founder hear you simplify the startup’s value too much. Yes, photo-sharing is a simple concept, but Instagram is more so an elegantly executed idea, with huge potential.

“I don’t see us a photography company at all,” Systrom says. “Yes, we do photography, but that’s like calling Twitter a text company. I don’t think that does them justice.”

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About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.