2.9 million followers
off a yacht. “That’s exactly what I was told. I’ve never been on a yacht.”
Not that Systrom doesn’t enjoy much of what fame and fortune provides. He and his girlfriend have moved out of his onebedroom rental apartment after buying a bigger place in San Francisco.
But he reckons there’s a real Systrom and the one tweaked by the cameras. “I think my personal persona is: I’m pretty outgoing. I love to cook. I like music... Versus: I’m into cocktails, we’re out drinking every night and partying. That’s not the truth.”
The founder of a social network that relies on openness has become a more private person. “There are times that we’d be out at a restaurant and having a serious conversation about life. Then the table next to us will, halfway through dinner, lean over and ask, ‘Can we get a picture because we love Instagram?’ That’s a weird jump to make if you’re a nerd who likes to make products.”
But there has been some residual hurt and fallout, such as friends falling by the wayside. “You very quickly sort your real friends from people who were just there thinking maybe they could capitalise on the rise.”
Some business relationships appear to have broken down, too. Instagram and Twitter were previously best buddies. The ability to post Instagram photos directly into tweets was a major part of the early popularity of both services. But soon after the Facebook deal was done, Instagram removed that capability. Again, this may all come back to the deal. Under oath in front of US regulators, Systrom said Facebook was the only company to have made a serious offer for Instagram. Twitter executives are said to be taken aback by this response. Reports suggest they offered, at least verbally, around $525m, only to be rebuffed. Twitter’s offer is said to have come just weeks before Zuckerberg made his move. During our conversations, the rumoured Twitter offer is the only subject Systrom refuses to be drawn on.
Twitter and Instagram now compete fiercely. Twitter has launched its own photo service, which (you guessed it) allows people to apply filters on pictures and post them as tweets. In January, Twitter unveiled a video service called Vine, allowing smartphone owners to post clips in six-second bursts. In June, Instagram launched its own video service, but its clips can be 15 seconds.
Systrom says his new mission at Instagram is to come up with ways of getting bigger and hotter without imploding in the process. He has been busy hiring new staff, increasing Instagram’s workforce to around 50. One key new face is EmilyWhite, director of business operations. White, 35, has been set the daunting task of turning Instagram from the web’s sexiest fad into an actual business.
One ofWhite’s first moves was to sit down with Systrom and tell him his company needed a mission statement. Systrom remembers rolling his eyes, “My first reaction was, we don’t need this. Why are we spending time on this pie-in-the-sky, vision stuff?”
White explained that with Instagram expanding so quickly, it would become increasingly hard to know every person on his team. He needed to be able to communicate what the end goal of their project is. They settled on a motto that is boundless, impressive and impossible: “To capture and share the world’s moments.”
The next step is to make money. Systrom says the company has been meeting advertisers and marketers but is still figuring out how it adapts the app to showcase its wares. White suggests that adverts in Instagram should appear as they do in magazines such as Vogue. “As you flick through, there’s organic content and commercial content side by side,” she said.
But beyond making Instagram into a viable business, Systrom professes no other burning ambition. You sense he is too busy enjoying the moment to think further ahead. “It’s this sense of wonder,” he says. “How did this happen?”
Later, he answers his question, unconsciously using the language of photography to describe how he continues to guide Instagram’s rocket ship. “It’s all blurry,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ll get over there. You just keep shooting in the direction that is optimal.”