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10 Questions with Instagram's Mike Krieger

Jun 1 2018
Photo by
Deanne Fitzmaurice/The Players' Tribune (Illustration by Jaewoo Ahn)
Photo by
Deanne Fitzmaurice/The Players' Tribune (Illustration by Jaewoo Ahn)
Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks
Jun 1 2018
B

asketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill for college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky in my life to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits, and outlooks on the world. Interacting with different people with different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive change in their communities.

In that spirit, I’m doing a series of interviews this season with people who I admire from afar. I want to get to know them better and share our conversations here.

My latest interview is with the co-founder and CTO of Instagram, Mike Krieger.


Harrison Barnes

First question here. Instagram was founded in 2010. Tell me about your first week after launch — what were your hopes and concerns back then?

Mike Krieger

I like to say it was the best and worst week of my life. It was just Kevin, my co-founder, and me. We’d been focused on Instagram for like four months and we were about ready to launch. We had no experience launching anything of this scale. We had a bet about how many people would join Instagram on Day One. I bet 25,000. Kevin bet 2,500. And I’m usually not the optimistic one. I remember we came into the office — it was really early, like six in the morning — and pretty much instantly, the whole site melted down ‘cause people were signing up … which is in some ways a good thing. I mean, it meant people were interested. But I was just like, Man, we probably had something good that people wanted to use and we totally messed it up and now they’re gonna leave and we’ve ruined it. So it was just a very strange feeling of elation and despair at the same time. And then you get this kind of calm and you’re like, O.K. Nobody else is gonna fix this. It’s just us. So let’s do it. And then we just sat down and for the next basically three days and got the site to the place where it could actually take all the incoming interest.

Harrison

Absolutely, absolutely. You could say you guys were practically optimistic.

Mike

Yeah. The funny part, too, is that I would turn to Kev every couple days and we’d look at each other like, “Is this working?” And Kev would be like, “Yeah. I think we’re on to something.” And I’d be like, “I don’t know.” I always thought that the next day was the day that the dream would end and everybody would say, “Well, onto the next thing.” It took a long time before I thought, Oh, this is a real thing.

Harrison

How would you describe your own personal Instagram style?

Mike

Ooh. Well … it’s evolved. It’s funny. If you go far back enough when we were posting before we launched — so this is like July and August of 2010 — I would not call myself a very good photographer. There were a lot of photos of food, which later became such a cliché that I stopped doing it on Instagram. These days, I have to hold myself back from posting too many photos of my dog, which I realize I’m not super good at….

Harrison

Oh … so you’re one of those!

Mike

Haha, I’m one of those. And it’s so bad. I got a text — this is a true story — from my mother-in-law yesterday. And she said, “Hey, I just read this article about Instagram and your role in Instagram this week and it says that your profile is just mostly photos of your dog. You really need to start taking more photos of your wife.”

Harrison

Building on that, how was the Instagram you set out to create a long time ago different from the Instagram we know today?

Mike

That’s a good question. It actually reminds me of when we launched Stories because people were like, Oh, Instagram is doing this totally new thing. They’re putting stories in the product. But if you go back and look at how people were using Instagram at the very beginning, it actually looked a lot more like Stories. I was posting, at the beginning, like eight to 10 times a day. I would never do that today. But even from early on, the thing we were setting out to create was a way of people telling their story out in the real world as it happened in a way that would help people feel closer to them.

Press Association/AP Images

Harrison

I thought when you guys added Stories, that was such a game changer. And pretty cool to see how it’s kinda taken a life of its own now. So what’s the next community or interest area where you see growth?

Mike

Let’s see … I’ve really enjoyed the kinds of narrative that people can create now. You see the New York Times doing a series — 12-20 stories in a row — and it’s really a photo essay. It’s really a whole narrative. Sports Illustrated did this whole interactive March Madness bracket where you could vote on every single game. When we launched polls, we guessed people were gonna ask, “Should I wear this or this?” And then we saw it used for March Madness, so I think that’s pretty awesome. In terms of the second part of your question, in terms of growth and what people are doing that’s interesting and new, I’ve just been super stoked to see us grow internationally. We started as very U.S.-centric. You realize that Instagram use is very different in, for instance, Spain. They got onto Stories as soon as we launched it and that’s their main use of Instagram now. In other countries, they’re using Live more than other ones. So you start getting this view that you no longer have one product and one audience. You have interconnected villages with all different uses of Instagram.

Harrison

I mean, my sister’s 19, so it’s funny how we have a difference between how I use it versus how she uses it.

Mike

Right! Yeah, even within different ages, there’s totally different usages there, too.

Harrison

As we know, one of the dark sides of social media is online harassment. What is Instagram doing to combat it?

Mike

For sure. And you know, we are probably different than most other social media in that we’re shooting for kindness. It’s something that from the very beginning was important to us. In the early days, whenever we saw people being mean or jerks or just negative stuff on Instagram, we would just delete their comments. And if they did it too much, we would block their account. And it wasn’t that we thought we could fight every single battle, but we were trying to set a tone. I think the tone you set early really matters. Nowadays, what we’re trying to do is take that original insight and apply machine learning to it. So, we’ve been doing things like training our machine learning algorithm to try to detect bullying and harassment in comments and then make those comments go away. We have a whole team called a “well-being team” that’s just focused on fighting harassment and bullying.

Harrison

I didn’t know you guys had a well-being team, but I definitely like that idea a lot.

Mike

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Kimmel’s Mean Tweets. We did a campaign over the last two years called “Kind Comments” where we had people read the kind comments that they had received from people, and it was super cool because in some cases, it was somebody who had gone through some really challenging personal circumstances, but then in their comments everyone was so supportive and actually really emotional. Hopefully people find more communities of support on Instagram that way.

Harrison

Facebook, which owns Instagram, is under fire for privacy breaches. What do you think Facebook and Instagram should’ve done differently to protect users’ information? What steps are being taken going forward?

Mike

It’s a great question and a super timely one. I think at the root of a lot of Silicon Valley and tech is a fundamentally optimistic, almost idealistic, view that a lot of these companies, including us, have. I think we need to be a lot more thoughtful and self-critical whenever we’re building something about all the ways it could be used in a negative way. So, in the Facebook case, I remember actually being a college student when that platform was rolling out. There was a lot of positive energy there, but obviously there were a lot of ways in which the data could get misused as well and I think that’s been a lesson learned on the Facebook side. And I think the same is true for us. So how can we put the protection in place before we even go out with any of these things that will be protecting of privacy, protecting of negative outcomes like bullying, harassment?

Harrison

What’s something that you believed in your 20s that you believe today? What’s something that you believed then that you have a different view of now?

Mike

Something that I believed then, and believe so more than ever now, is just the ability of small groups of people to have crazy, world-changing impact. We were two people when we built Instagram. Facebook was a very small company when it got initially built. And then you need people to scale. But the point I would always make is: more people does not equal moving faster. In fact, it usually means slower. I’m trying to imagine like 20 people on a team on the basketball court. It would be a disaster, probably.

Harrison

Would be a trainwreck….

Getty Images

 

Mike

It’s definitely true for companies as well. Even in the way it works today is when we build new products like Stories, that whole team was six engineers building a hugely important product. But people are like, “Oh, well why didn’t you put like 20? Wouldn’t you get that out faster?” No, get your six best people.

And then your other question, what I no longer believe. Hmmm, well, I think I held a belief that the way to succeed was just work harder and harder and harder. So I think finding that healthy balance of — while it’s important to stay small, but you don’t have to do it all yourself and you do work better if you take the time and just get some exercise, meditate, get out of your head. You’ll be a better person, not just in work, but in your personal life. I don’t think I had that perspective at all when we were starting. I was just grinding it out, sleeping as little as possible. And I think we have this weird thing in our culture where we’re proud to say, “I slept three hours.” I think that’s just totally unsustainable.

Harrison

Yeah, I understand that one. Because of my profession, I’m interested in team culture and how that can bring out the best in its players. What’s something people would be surprised to learn about Instagram’s workplace culture?

Mike

We give people the axe every week … but that doesn’t mean they get fired.

I’ll give you a little backstory. So Kev and I got asked by, I wanna say it was GQ, a while ago, “What’s your gift guide for 2011?” And we’re like, “Gift guide?” So we decided to do the weirdest gifts we could think of. One of the ones we were like, interested in was this company out in Brooklyn called Best Made and they make axes and hatches and camping stuff. But they have a really good design aesthetic. Basically, if Instagram made axes and hatchets and stuff, it would look like this. So we thought they were really on-brand. So we’re like, “On your holiday list, you should get the man in your life this axe.” And we sent off this list, we didn’t think much more about it. Then like a couple months later, this package arrived at work. We open it, and one of our investors had sent us this huge axe. So now we have this axe, what are we gonna do with it? And we decided to get the whole company together over coffee and donuts on Fridays and we give the axe to whoever had just a crazy impact that week — they did something that was totally unexpected of them. The security team told us that we could no longer just give them an axe, so we had to mount it to a wooden board. It’s a little bit safer now.

Harrison

What a buzzkill! O.K. two more questions. A lot of people, myself included, don’t really know what’s Instagram’s revenue model. How does it make money and what are some future revenue sources?

Mike

Our main revenue source is running ads. You have businesses, around the world, that want to reach their customers, and that’s worked really well. Obviously I’m biased, but I’ve been told that Instagram is the one place that has ads people like. I’ve met lots of people that are like, “I just bought this thing cause I saw it.” Now, I know I can’t separate myself from being the founder, so I’m probably extra likely to click, but I just bought something for my wife, which is a funny Instagram thing that I bought — a weighted blanket. I’m not joking. But apparently, it’s supposed to like help you get a deeper sleep.

Going forward, I think there will be an evolution of that. We added the ability, maybe a year ago, where you can not only tag people, but you can also tag products. And what that ends up being really useful for is saying like, “Hey, I’m wearing this outfit, do you want to go buy it? Here’s the direct link to go do it.” And it was a question we’d get a lot.

Harrison

I’m definitely gonna look at that weighted blanket, just out of curiosity….

Mike

Haha. Go grab it. We’ve only had it for two nights, so I can’t have a real product review yet, but it seems promising so far.

Harrison

I like it, I like it. Last question. Where do you see Instagram a year from now and five years from now?

Mike

Well, one year ago, we barely got Stories out. I think we had Live, but it barely started. And look at where we are now. So, looking forward a year, I think we have to figure out how they all fit together. People always ask me, “Instagram started really simple, how do you keep it from feeling really complicated over time?” Which I think is a really good question, ‘cause I think one of our core values is trying to keep the product simple. And then in product evolution, even in the next year or so, I’m super excited about Live. I’ve seen lots of athletes use it to talk to their fans and do Q&A. But I think we’re just at the very beginning of what Live can do.

And then five years from now, it’s kinda cool to be in the same umbrella company as Oculus. I think five years from now, the stuff that feels very sci-fi, Ready Player One-ish from the VR perspective, will start getting its way more into the mainstream. Hopefully the technology to do that will get better and better so you’ll feel even closer to that moment when you put on IG on your headset or whatever that is.

Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks