Entrepreneurs

How a cheap plastic camera on a trip to Italy inspired Instagram, according to co-founder Kevin Systrom

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom
Kevin Mazur | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

A plastic camera, in part, inspired the simple genius of Instagram.

The photo-sharing app's co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, announced Monday they plan to leave Facebook, which famously acquired the photo-sharing app back in 2012 for $1 billion (in cash and stock) when it had only 13 employees. Today it has 1 billion active monthly users.

On a Masters of Scale podcast posted on Sept. 6, Systrom explained how a confluence of events led to the creation of Instagram, which launched in October 2010. 

One of Systrom's particular life events, though inauspicious at the time, would prove to be foundational for Instagram, and it involved an iconic but ultra-simple Holga toy camera (a version of which currently sells for $39.99 on B&H's website).

"I decided my junior year I wanted to study abroad, and honestly I didn't like languages, but I picked Italian because I was told it was the easiest to pick up, but I fell in love with it and I wasn't terrible at it. I got pretty good. And I was like, 'Yeah, I want to go to Italy and I love coffee and art,'" Systrom says in conversation with Masters of Scale host and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

Systrom brought with him his own very expensive camera.

"It was like the exact lens you want to use with the sharpest glass that you could get," Systrom says to Hoffman. "My professor Charlie looks at me with my camera – which is, I think an embodiment of my personality of perfection – and he looked at me and he was like, 'No, no, no. Like you're not here to do perfection. Give me that.'

"So I did and I thought he was going to tweak with the settings and then he went into the other room came back with a plastic camera. He's like, 'You're not allowed to use your camera for the next three months.' And I had like, saved for this thing. So he gives me this camera and I'm like looking at it, it's like a toy camera."

Systrom's photography professor Charlie gave Systrom a Holga.

"If you haven't seen a Holga, it's like a toy camera. It's got a plastic lens and like, light leaks into the side of it if you're not careful. He's like, 'You have to learn to love imperfection,'" Systrom says.

Systrom learned to use the Holga, and he started to appreciate the aesthetic of the photos the Holga produced too.

"I started taking pictures on the go, when I was around Florence and I would bring it back and he would show me how to develop these photos and they were square, first of all, but they were like slightly blurry and slightly artistic and then he showed me how to add chemicals to the development bath so that it could actually tone the black and white photo with different colors," Systrom says.

"So if you're listening to this and, you know, Instagram, you see a connection. Right? Like square photos and filtering photos."

Early on in Systrom's own Instagram profile, as he points out, the posts are especially simple, reminiscent of the pictures he took with the Holga, he says.

"If you go back to my profile and scroll all the way back, I mean, it's blurry, it looks like they're a light leaks, et cetera, and two and two just came together."

Indeed, here are a few posts from Systrom's account from 2010.

"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.

Nearly a decade later, when Systrom and Krieger resigned on Monday, Systrom was circumspect about Instagram's creation and what comes next.

"We've grown from 13 people to over a thousand with offices around the world, all while building products used and loved by a community of over one billion. We're now ready for our next chapter," Systrom wrote in a post announcing the news.

"We're planning on taking some time off to explore our curiosity and creativity again. Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs; that's what we plan to do."

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Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom
Kevin Mazur | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
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