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27 Million Users, 13 Employees: Inside Instagram’s Success

Attendees of South By Southwest Interactive were treated to some unexpected wisdom Sunday. A canceled session led to an impromptu sit-down conversation with, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of the booming photo-sharing service Instagram.

The duo broke some news. First, the company now has 27 million registered users, astounding growth for an app less than 2 years old. Secondly, Instagram is currently testing an app for Google’s Android mobile system, opening it up to far more users. (It’s currently only available for the iPhone.)

Perhaps more importantly, Systrom and Krieger gave insight into the principles that have guided Instagram to success. While many factors contribute to the app’s growth in popularity, two things appear to be pushing it forward: barebones infrastructure and gigantic ambition.

Riding the Wave
Instagram wasn’t born out of nowhere. The founders had seen the writing on the wall with the anticipation and startling growth of the iPhone.

Catapulting on that success required a succinct vision. “We set out to create the simplest, most beautiful thing out there,” Krieger said.

It worked. Instagram gave users a way to dress their photos in nostalgia and share them with friends. 25,000 people signed up the first day. With the launch of the iPhone 4S, another wave of users discovered the app, Systrom said.

Even with that growth, Instagram has kept staffing minimal with 13 employees. Using a cloud-based infrastructure enabled a small team to keep up with insatiable demand – more than 400 million photos shared to date with 60 photos shared per second.

“We are constantly on call,” Krieger noted. “We’re never more than a couple minutes away from a computer with access to the Internet.”

Big Ambition
Keeping resources tight hasn’t limited the scope of Instagram’s ambitions. Though Systrom admitted similarities with Flickr and Twitter, he said the company’s goals are to do deliver something unique to the market.

“We’re trying to create a long-term viable company,” Systrom said. “Not something that comes and goes.”

That means experimenting with other platforms and networks like the Android system and Facebook. As Krieger argued, creating integration across systems requires changing the “discourse from how we’re all going to destroy each other to how we can all play together is better for everyone.”

Integration with other services will be key to accomplishing Instagram’s ambitious goals because, as Systrom argued, people aren’t excited about how pretty their photos look, but the connections they’re making.

And for Instagram, a few million people isn’t enough. “To get to the place where you’re impacting the world,” Systrom said, “you need to get hundreds of millions of people.”

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