On a balmy evening in Mexico, a San Francisco couple took an impromptu photo while waiting in line at a taco stand.

It was a typical arrangement of iPhone pixels: a stray dog next to a foot inside a flip-flop. The photo could’ve been any normal scenario, any normal moment in time. But in that fleeting second, something special happened — the very first Instagram photo was taken.

And the guy who took the famous photo? His name is Kevin Systrom.


Instagram’s allure doesn’t come from the vintage filters or fancy suite of editing tools —  it’s in the community of people who want to remember. Since that first Instagram photo was taken, more than 300 million people have used the platform to capture the parts of their lives that others rarely see.

So how did Instagram go from that first unscripted photo to the vibrant community that lives on the platform today? Systrom recently visited Gusto to share a few of the lessons he’s learned while building the world’s most iconic photo-sharing community.

Find the problem you want to solve

Building solutions is easy; the hard part is finding the right problems to solve. Before Instagram was a household name, Systrom and co-founder Mike Krieger identified the main challenges around sharing photos on smartphones:

  1. Mobile photos didn’t look as good as the ones taken on digital cameras.
  2. Uploading photos took too long.
  3. Users wanted to share their creations on social channels.

Once they crystallized the challenges, uncovering the solutions proved far less daunting.

Just start

On Instagram’s first day alone, more than 25,000 people downloaded the app. At the end of the day, Systrom turned to Krieger and said, “I think we just created something.”

Systrom credits a lot of their early success to working with a group of people who did whatever it took to turn their ideas into realities. At Stanford, Systrom coded on the side, and taught himself “just enough engineering” to get his startup going.

Being able to learn from your mistakes is another quality needed when just starting out. “Sometimes you’re going to get it right, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong, but what matters is that you’re flexible.”

Create a one-team feel

A company can only reach success with the right mix of people, says Systrom. “People who are mission-oriented, want to build great things, and never feel like it’s the last chapter.” When everyone on the team has that same spark to do more, the team comes together. Systrom also believes in cultivating that feeling by rewarding talented people who have been at the company for a while. “Give people the ability to step up and do new things. It’s really inspirational to see when they knock it out of the park.”

Keep your company culture intact

Systrom believes every team member should live and “repeat” the culture and values every single day. It’s everyone’s duty to become “keepers of the flame,” through communication, codification, and most importantly — ritual.  

“You need to make sure that the things that really matter to your culture remain in your culture.”

Focus on community

Systrom started Instagram on the belief that “each and every person has a visual voice inside.” That love of people has been with the company since the beginning. In fact, Instagram’s very first hire was a community manager.

“Our community is our biggest asset and we do whatever we can to keep them excited,” Systrom says. Each week, Systrom receives a list of the top ten issues users are having. “If the issues aren’t dropping off the list, then we’re doing something wrong.”

To create a community-centric mindset, you have to thread it through much more than customer care or engineering — it should be a part of everything. “When we’re making decisions, we’re always asking ourselves: how do we keep the community involved in everything we do?”

So what is Systrom’s favorite moment, captured forever by Instagram? It isn’t the most composed or polished photo. It doesn’t capture the light just right, and it doesn’t have a ton of likes. But that spontaneous taco stand photo is still his favorite, in all its X-Pro II glory.

“It was just a moment of time in our lives.”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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