“I think the best products are usually built based on personal experience from your past and you never know exactly what parts of your past will come together to form that puzzle and be a product that you want to build for the world, but inevitably something from your past triggers a memory and you say, ‘You know what, people might just like that,'” says Systrom.
Of course, it would be several years until Systrom launched Instagram. Systrom graduated from Stanford in 2006 and then worked at Google. From there, he joined the travel start-up NextStop which was founded by some of his Google colleagues. On nights and weekends he worked on his own projects and one project was a check-in app, Burbn. It was supposed to be a gamified version of a check-in app.
“It turns out, like, I wasn’t good enough to build all of the gaming features. So it was just a check-in service and I gave it to my friends and they started using it,” he tells Hoffman.
After some venture capitalists interested in Burbn required Systrom to have a co-founder, he reconnected with his old college friend Krieger and brought him on board.
Traction on Burbn was slow, so Systrom and Krieger focused the app on the photos they had people upload when they checked in to a location.
As for the filtered aesthetic the app is known for, Systrom’s wife, Nicole, brought it full circle thanks to a Mexico trip.
“We rented a little room in a bed and breakfast and I was working on Burbn at the time and we were pivoting to photos but she was like, ‘I don’t think I’m going to ever use this app…. [M]y photos aren’t good…. [T]hey’re not as good as your friend Greg’s.’ “I was like, ‘Well, Greg filters all his photos.’
“And she looks at me and she’s like, ‘Well, you should add filters then,'” recounts Systrom to Hoffman. “I was like, ‘Ah, you’re right. I should add filters.'”
Via the dial-up Internet at the bed and breakfast in Mexico, Systrom researched how to write the code to add filters to his app. “I made the first filter there on the spot. It’s still in the app, called X-Pro 2,” says Systrom.
At the time, the latest version of the Apple smartphone was the iPhone 3G. And the camera was “not so great,” says Systrom.
“I was like, you know, the goal here isn’t to make this beautiful, the goal is to like deal with the imperfection. So that’s like honestly where the inspiration came from,” says Systrom, just as it was in Italy.
“So, like, the iPhone 3 cameras [were] like little mini digital Holgas,” says Hoffman, making the connection.
“Totally,” says Systrom.