A few years ago, I got a frantic email one evening. It was from a young entrepreneur named Kevin Systrom. “Hey MG, I saw you signed up for Burbn…” is how it started. He was freaked out. Someone had told me about the service and the sign up wasn’t locked down. But Kevin did not want me to write about his fledgling idea just yet. We hopped on the phone. Of course I agreed to hold the story. I’d write when he was ready.
We broke a lot of news at TechCrunch over the years. But I was always happy about the way we treated entrepreneurs with their delicate plans. Big companies are different — they can take hits. Outing young companies before they’re ready: not cool. When in doubt, defer to the entrepreneur. Michael taught us well.
Anyway, while I sat on the story of a hot new HTML5-based location app, I got to know Kevin and eventually his co-founder Mike Krieger. Really great guys. Idealists. Just insane enough to potentially change things. So when I saw the news this morning that Facebook was buying them for a billion dollars, I was beyond happy.
We weren’t investors — sadly, we came into existence too late — but screw that. This is just a great story about a great product, great founders, a great team, and great execution. And I feel sincerely happy for these guys because I was there pretty much the entire time watching from a distance.
Burbn, of course, eventually evolved into Instagram. Kevin and Mike watched how people wanted to use Burbn to share and saw an opening. Pictures. They decided to take it. I was one of the first users of Instagram. Number 28, if this is to be believed. I immediately knew it was the right way to go.
A few weeks later, I believe Om broke the news of Instagram to the world. I was annoyed — I HAD BASICALLY HELD THE STORY FOR A YEAR — but I loved the app so much that I wrote a thousand word preview anyway.
The commenters mainly took a shit on the app and the concept. Another photo-sharing app?!!! That’s why they’re commenters and not out there building things.
A few days later, the “another photo app” people looked like huge jackasses. Instagram wasn’t just a photo app. It was an application that was able to change the way people view the world around them. It was expression through image. It was a new form of communication.
I wasn’t a picture-taker. I became a picture-taker.
Instagram thrived because Flickr dropped the ball on mobile. Badly. Pictures on the desktop were interesting. Pictures from your mobile device are a thousands times more interesting. Instagram had perfect timing. The iPhone camera got very good. Instagram exploded.
People are looking at Facebook’s buy today and thinking “what the fuck?” I’m looking at it and thinking that Facebook is ingenious. They’re one of the few large companies that understands how to and when to acquire. You don’t buy at the peak. You buy on the ramp up to the peak. Instagram as it stands right now is awesome. It’s the tip of the iceberg for what they want to do.
We’ll see if they can execute within Facebook or not. Mark Zuckerberg is saying all the right things. And again, they’ve done great with their acquisitions. I have faith.
In some ways, this is bittersweet. Instagram is a not insignificant part of why I got into the venture capital side of things. I knew that I had a talent for picking companies that would do well, but Instagram was the first that I knew I had nailed from the get-go. By the time they had done their seed and A rounds, Kevin and I were talking about the potential of me doing this: finding the next Instagram. His thoughts helped steer me to where I am now.
I’ve talked before about the one company I wish I could have invested in (realistically) early on: Square. Instagram would be a close second. And today’s outcome proves the thought.
I know I’ve said this before, but it’s so easy to get cynical in today’s tech world. Uncapped note here, billion dollar acquisition there, IPO over there… At the end of the day, you have to bet on great entrepreneurs to do great things. You have to bet on 5 years from now, not today. You have to bet on the world evolving enough to be ready for what’s coming.
It’s threading the needle. But it’s so goddamn exciting. That’s Instagram.
Congrats to Kevin, to Mike, to Instagram. A fantastic exit that we all hope is the beginning.