πŸ“» β€” Mike Krieger: The Untold Story of Instagram’s Pivot to Less, Not More

Reading Time: ~ 4 min.

Good morning yeniverse!

Today’s issue was a slightly different trip down Instagram lane with one of the cofounders, Mike Krieger. I’m always interested in learning how successful builders and entrepreneurs build their products and communities and so I eat up as many of these types of interviews as I can!

And, of course, I’m sharing with you my personal notes. Enjoy!

  1. The Wolf does Wall Street. A new hope. Clubhouse is having a moment.
  2. The good fight continues. Superpeer does subscriptions.
  3. Support creators. OnlySheets. LOL. Skin in the game. Birdwatch, a game.
  4. Global, local HR. Community leaders making money. Podcast revenue.
  5. Visual financial planning. Earn rewards doing stuff. Virtual live classes.
  6. Daily active shitheads is a metric now. Transformation groups.
  7. If you’re not making mistakes, then, you’re doing life wrong.
  8. Microsoftie. M1. Trader principles. Dunning-Kruger is not real?
  9. Successful subscription monetization. It’s about that promise.
  10. And Daft Punk out of 2007! A Peerboard (paid community) review.

To infinity & community,

β€” john


This “untold story” and episode was really fascinating and I had a blast thinking through my own experience of the product over the last 10 years. I took a few notes and so here they are…

Mike started to get into computers and software via games like Prince of Persia and then being able to see the code. He didn’t really think about building a startup company or business.

Something that most folks know but is worth mentioning is that both Mike and Kevin did not formally have Computer Science backgrounds; Mike focused on symbolic systems at Stanford.

It was through networking events (alumni dinners) where he was introduced to other entrepreneurs who had built their lives around their projects and he realized that they were no different than him.

When Instagram first created the iPhone had just launched and he would spend time learning how to code and other technologies. Kevin, someone he knew from college, was also hanging out in the same place and eventually the two became cofounders.

Fast-forward and Kevin decided to move forward, get funding for Burbn, the image sharing app that eventually became Instagram, and since Mike had already been a user, was already interested in partnering.

He started working for free and so it felt like a “big leap” but also a natural one. I think most great founding stories are like this where the risk vs reward equation, at some point, no longer makes sense.

It just “feels” like the right thing to do.

They put together a business plan (last minute) and here are a few unique screenshots of that:

The pivot to Instagram was really about focusing on the right features, not necessarily adding new ones; Mike shares this specifically when he says:

Product-Market Fit never comes from being N+1.

Mike Krieger

I agree that feature set isn’t never the growth engine that ultimately drives a clear market winner β€” it takes a process and even when you’ve continued to saturate one market you have to start working on the next!

The point is this: Business-building, just like building community, is a never-ending process of removing elements, not adding them. You must be ready for this long-term commitment of editing and reduction if you’re going to build anything truly meaningful. This is very counter-intuitive.

Mike and Kevin learned this the hard way though and after spending time building too many features they realized that there was a very small audience that absolutely loved the image sharing part and the “pivot” was about removing features.

And then they focused on how to make the core experience even better β€” two innovations specifically helped accelerate adoption:

  1. Background uploading of images while the user worked through their metadata which make it feel “instantaneous” to the user when they published the image post.
  2. Filters made the images look even better because people aren’t good at taking photos. Making outcomes better via similar or even the same user behavior is a real #powermove!

This reminds me a previous issue where we talked through a better way of building product: Community-first β€” too many great reminders in that issue that resonate with what Mike is sharing!

Then, the TechCrunch moment β€” a lot of things broke on the first few days.

But, Mike shares a precious moment where he was able to see that there was something very special about what he was working on after pulling some all-nighters and on his way home: Seeing a real user (in the wild!) use the product.

And I know that feel and it is a real drug! I simply can’t get enough, especially because my personal mission is to teach everything that I know.

Two ideas that I was able to pull out of the interview that were useful reminders for business and community builders was:

  1. Do the simple things first. Mike’s focus on building a real version of a usable (and feature-complete) MVP makes sense and he shares how this guided their product design for “years”.
  2. Build for the problems that you know you have today, not that you think you’ll have tomorrow. When you start a new business or community you’ll want to keep things small intentionally anyway!

On the topic of ranking and an algorithmic feed, Mike shares the story of how they came up with that and how he handled the pressure.

Social networks, according to Mike, consists of 3 core things:

  1. Format
  2. Audience
  3. Vibe

How does the platform dictate the vibe of the experience is a question that Mike and the rest of the team constantly think about.

Mike answers a fast-round of questions and then a few introspective questions near the end. Mike loves the idea of being remembered as someone who helped people visually think differently while also (obviously) see the world differently.

The full video is great and is here:

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