Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger

Full episode transcript -


I was like, Mike, I really want to work together and I just remember his response. He's like, Count me interested and ah, I don't know how you proposed to your wife But when you asked her to marry you, if she had come back said and said, Count me interested. Would you have been like that was a yes. I mean, come on would


have asked for clarification. My career was co founder and former CEO of Instagram.


I'm Kevin Systrom, former CEO and co founder of INSTAGRAM Kevin Systrom in Mike Krieger cofounded Instagram in 2010. A year and half later, they sold it to Facebook for a $1,000,000,000. They stayed on to run the company for another six years. And then in 2018 they left together, and even now they still work together. The first time they met, though, they had no idea that it would lead to something so meaningful. In fact, Kevin doesn't even remember that first time they met. I'd like to say I d'oh, I really don't, Um the first time I remember meeting Mike was in Coffee Bar, the small cafe in San Francisco. It became my go to office because I had left my job and I was working on this app called bourbon,

and it was just me. I knew of Mike. I had seen him like we're in the same circles and I recognize Mike and I walked over to say hello. But the first thing I noticed was the thing he was working on. It was like this beautiful website, and I didn't realize he was working with the designer. So in my mind, Mike was like this amazing designer. Little did I know that, actually, he was an amazing engineer. Um, I don't know that you've ever touched photo shop, actually. So


actually, that's not true. I built the shutter on the very first version of Instagram, and it was very basic.


Wasn't the shutter literally just two gray sliders that just closed


and open? That's what I said. Yeah, it was


not That was not that good. Honestly, but that was the first time I remember hang out with you because I remember being so impressed. And I asked you what tool you were using, and I don't remember the tool, but I remember using it and just being like a man like so good to have, like a mike in your life, where you can ask him a question and they just always have the best answer. And it turns out years later, I still feel like that's


true. Everything you know, here's somebody who's actually like pursuing something that he's excited about actually building it and like, oh, a kindred spirit that's here on the weekends not just toe check Facebook or do something, but is building. So having another builder was exciting, like somebody else cares about this stuff.


I think maybe where Mike and I overlap most is the fact that we both love to make things. My dream was always to build something that a lot of people used. So our friendship revolves. Run that. And it just so happens that that also happens to be a profession.


I did know that he was working on bourbon, I think already had maybe installed it and was playing around with It


was a check, an app that let you check in a different


places. It was a way of sharing what you were up to and where you were with the twist that you could add photos and videos to it, which in 2009 was actually the only one I could find that could do that. And even though you had to jump through all these hoops to upload a photo on bourbon, people were doing it. And all of a sudden it wasn't just This person is here, but, oh, that's what it looks like. They're So that was, to me, the inkling of something interesting in bourbon.


You know, I was pitching it to investors, and one of the investors was like, Yeah, here's 50 grand. You can go work on this and like, take a small small stipend, But you have to get a cofounder. These things work best when you have a co founder. He was saying, Hey, look at all the best companies in the world, like ones that really work are the ones were. Generally there's more than one solo person running the ship. Hugo was a co founder pair. YouTube was a co founder pair. The point is,

when you have a team, you're more likely to succeed, and I agreed with that. I mean, the pattern was clearly there. The evidence was there, so kind went through the roll decks in my mind of, like, who do I know that could be a co founder? And I remember running into Mike, and I think the next time I ran to him, I floated the idea. Hey, like, maybe we should work together on this. We basically decided we're gonna prototype working together.

So we would get together at a cafe near Mike's house and we created a fake project. Why? We didn't just work on bourbon, I don't know. But we created a fake project with the fake outcome we wanted to accomplish that night. Mike would do 1/2 of it. I do a different half of it and we come together and we'd ask questions, figure out how each other worked, and we really enjoyed that experience. So, you know, I remember this fateful day standing at the Caltrain station before Mike had to go to work. And Mike, I really want to work together and my head I was probably like, I really want to work together, and I really need this $50,000 right?

So I need a co founder to, and I asked him this question, and I just remember his response. He's like, count me interested. And I was like, Count me interested, like, you know, Are you in or you out?


I vividly remember the moment he asked because I had one of those life flashing before your eyes. But not the past. The future. I was like, Okay, I could be working with somebody who I have come to really start respecting and like, want to work with. And that's for Count me Interested? Came from which to me. Sounded like it. Yes, but maybe up is a little coy, but to me, it was just like,


Oh, yeah, of course. I'm gonna ask you a question. Okay? I want a little bit of understanding here. You're now married. I don't know how you propose to your wife, but when you asked her to marry you, if she had come back said and said, Count me interested. Would you have been like that was a yes. I mean, come on,


would have asked for clarification. I look back in a lot of the major decisions in my life that I've made. This one is an easier one. Where I knew that it was what I wanted to do. and then the next week was logistically. Can I do it? You know, I come from Brazil. I was on a work visa.


You were taking on so much risk because you had everything set. They give you a job. You have this work, fees, everything. And you were jumping. And like I think, back how crazy we were to do that, we had to, like, form a company so that the government would be like, Okay, you can have this visa.


I think this is the first moment where I really started feeling this sort of mutual trust with Kevin because the count Me interested moment was January and we applied, you know, soon afterwards and 80 days goes by, 90 days goes by. And I was like, Kev lick, I know you want to get this off the ground. It's like march. It's April now, like three months is forever And start a planned. Like if you want to cut this and be like, I'm just gonna find a U. S co founder that can make this work. I'll get it. And remember, Kevin was like, No man,

like, we're gonna make this work. Let's remove the lawyer let's, like, keep pushing forward like, No, we'll wait. We'll figure this out. And that meant so much to me. I mean, it still does, because you could have easily been like, Yeah, man, this is too hard. I need to get this going and that would have been a rational decision to have made.

But instead, he was like, No, let's like, figure this out and it finally came and ah, that point, it was like, All right, I can actually join and actually do this stuff together.


We had been working on bourbon for awhile, 89 months for something by that time, and we were meeting one of our early investors, and he was like, So what do you building? What's up? Like what's new? And we're like, Well, you know, we have these features and we does this thing and it is this thing and his face was just blink like he's just looking at us like, What are you talking? I don't understand what you're trying to build, and we were so sad after that meeting because it was so clear to us that we couldn't explain what we were working on. So we went back to the office. We sat in front of a white board and we said OK, we have to focus this thing. It's trying to do too much all at once. So we stripped everything away that day and we focused just on the components that would effectively become instrument. And maybe in the course of a week or two made the first version of Instagram.


I spent far more time with Kevin than any other human being for that first year of instagram. Easily right, Like we were in there every single day fall of 13 14 hours, sometimes overnight,


you know, my would be brushing his teeth in the employee bathroom. You know, at 4 a.m. Just because, like we had been there all night,


we got Thio launch day. We launch it to the world


October 6 2010. I know that date and the date of my daughter's birth. Those of the two dates I will never forget, Right?


People liked it. People started using


it and I was taken aback because I mean, I had worked at a company before that struggled to get 10,000 people to use it over a year and we got 25,000 that first day, and I remember turning to Mike and I said, I think we've created something. I'm usually the pessimist, and Mike is usually I'm not sure optimists, But you're pragmatists, right? But like, I had this moment of clarity that there was something special because I had never seen people react this way. And Mike just looked at me like, I don't know, maybe not. Maybe this is all gonna come crashing down


with one little dinky server that we had was just, like, metaphorically and perhaps physically melting by all the traffic that was coming at it. I really felt like we had squander this opportunity. And I was like, probably at another server. And Kevin was like, No, we don't need another server. And, you know, in retrospect, I think it was like, you know, we didn't know if this thing was gonna take off his expensive Got another server like, Did we really need it? No,

I think we d'oh them like ladies like a man. Sorry. Like, well heated. You know, we would be not for 36 hours at that point, kind of fighting off sleep and also excited is both the best and worst days of our lives. Like, you know, the thing was working, but also it was crashing. I think that was, like, the only time we've ever raised our voices with each other. It was brief. It was like a probably 32nd interaction.


I approved this message, which is true. Like that was the one time that it was heated and it was just the heat of the moment.


I'm gonna take it way back. Our first disagree of it, which actually hadn't thought about in many years, two or three weeks into working together. Remember coming in one day and saying, What do you think of us like one or two days a week just working from home Because I could just jam on stuff and just stay up all night and code and all. I'd be up till noon, and it was like, I think I'll work better that way. And you're like, No, I'd really like for us to be in the same office together. I think that matters a lot and ever being annoyed for like, 10 seconds. I was like, Okay, like sure,

like we give that a try. You know, in the end, it was great, like we were a little jam on ideas and move really quickly. And if I had to, like, abstract it and what I learned about working with coming over the years, it was I don't think you're ever a person that will just agree to something, because it will make somebody else happy. But you also make sure that in disagreeing, you're also not being a jerk and making them feel bad about feeling differently. You're like, No, I've thought about this and here's what I wanted to do for it. Is there like a reason why you know, you really feel differently and then we can have the conversation. That's sort of like detoxified ability to disagree is really important.


I get annoyed really easily. But the interesting thing is, Mike doesn't annoy me like it really doesn't like. I really don't get annoyed with my Casillas character and integrity. Those are the two things I care about. Like if you're just a generally good person and when you say you're going to do something, you do it. Who cares if, like, you know Mike chose the wrong expires easy to solve a problem. Or maybe introduced a Baugur. What, like I don't care. Mike has never made. Except for that one time on the server issue, Mike has never made me angry. I don't think we ever actually had titles for the longest time.

I guess once we started doing public, you know events and we had to talk about what our titles were. There was a time where we were like, Okay, you're CTO, I'm CEO. We kind of like divided it that way, but you always say, co founder first, that's the title.


When I thought about my identity and like what we were doing, the company was like cofounder, maybe technical co founder. If you wanted to put an adjective in front of it, required technical. But I do also think that the speak star personality and our relationship it is really important for any company to ultimately have one final decision maker. And I've seen so many companies not have one and it become a mess. Some days there's a tiebreak needed or sometimes like called needs to get made. You really need to find somebody who's willing to like make that call and you all have to be ready to, like, make that person successful in that role or else it's just not gonna


work. We had a bunch of people that really wanted Instagram inside of their company. But we were having so much fun doing our own thing that, like we just didn't want to, like, be part of any other company. We didn't want to be a wing of a building. We wanted to be the building.


And I remember you turned to me at one point you like, I really don't think we should, like, pursue any of these. Like, I think we're better off independent. But if you feel differently like let me know like let's have that conversation just helpful exit made me reflect on me like No, no, this is really fun. Like I'm working with somebody I deeply respect. We're starting to build a team. It's working. Yeah, let's like, Let's keep doing this thing. We still got money in the bank.


So, you know, for the longest time, we were just like we're gonna do this thing ourselves. And the only time we literally had, like, unnumbered to face was the face book offer when we were like Oh, a $1,000,000,000 Just sounds funny to say right like it's a billionaire You think of like Dr Evil in one of these movies, right? But someone comes along and offers you a $1,000,000,000 for something you've been working on for, I don't know, all of a year publicly. And then you've got 11 employees and you're just like, man, I'd like How do you even do that calculus like, What do you say


to that? I really remember being in sort of like a days. It's like everything was just very strange.


We had a long conversation about what we want to do. At the end of the day, the thing that mattered the most to us was that they wanted us to keep running it independently, like we had been doing that. They were like, No instagrams of thing. Your community, you guys have effectively a team and a company in a culture. Keep doing that and we stayed six years. There was a lot of like, hey, checking in, how are you feeling? What do you want to do? Like we only wanted to be it in scram if the other person was that Instagram.


Every January, I would decide I wanted to consciously recommit to still being there. Make it an intentional choice. Like I come around in January and I say, Is this still what I want to be learning? I vowed to myself, It's funny, the vows you make to yourself when you're 18 years old, I vowed to myself in I was 18. I wanted to have a life full of unique years, not the same year, over and over again, like that was my biggest fear. And I look like I feel like we've done incredibly hard things. I've learned a ton, but it feels like we're on some, like diminishing returns.

Curve of learning. And I remember I had dinner with Kevin was like, Hey, man, like I feel like it might be time for me to try something different, which is like a hard conference, like it's a scary conversation. Have ever Kevin turned to me, said, like, Get where you're coming from. Is there anything that you think would still feel like a new interesting thing and I, like, listed a couple of things, Then we'll have the interesting experience of kind of doing part of Kevin's job for a few months because he went out on paternity leave and he was out. He said.

Mike, um, opportunity If I really want to be present with my kid, like, can you make sure things go well while I'm away? And it was interesting because in my head, I always have This question is the one thing that would make me stay, like to have this very different experience of being CEO rather than CTO. And I got to have that experience for like, two hands haven't heading back. Kevin. I do not want your job at all and like we'd always joke that one of the reasons we work together is that we didn't want each other's jobs, and at some point it felt like a thing. I had always said and I wanted to make sure it was actually really true. But I remember at the end of experience being like No, I'm really glad I got to try. It has made me realize that where my happy spot is, is it not in that role? It's in the role I was in, and in that role I feel like I've accomplished what I want to accomplish.


And I wanted something hard and I wanted to be bad at something again. Maybe it won't be his biggest Instagram. Maybe it won't probably won't be as big a Zennstrom. Let's be honest, but maybe it'll be justice fun to learn along the way. That's ultimately what made me want to jump. But we had no idea what we were going to dio. The first thing was resting recovery. We were kind of off doing our own thing. We wanted to just chill out and disconnect a little bit, but we reconnected. It was like, Yeah, what do you miss the most? It's like, Well, I miss hanging out, of course, and you say those nice things for each other. But I'm his building stuff.


I learned a big lesson, I think, in the middle months before we really reconnected, which was think I'm holding this idea of Kevin in my head of like, I bet he's like, already thought of like what's next? Like he hasn't told me about it, and I realized like Oh, no, no, no. I created this like think of like Oh, like we haven't talked in front and you think about it? I've never actually thought about this, but like that was the longest we want without really talking in nine years. So, like,

I think in that time I was like, man, like we haven't talked, Which must mean that, like, he doesn't want to talk to me. And I've ever having this phone call. That was so like what a relief. Like we talked on the phone. You're like, Yeah, like where you are. Like, I haven't thought about its next love to work with you. And I love to love to keep working with you to do me. The lesson learned was like,

if you have, like, a very close relationship with somebody and you just don't talk to him for a few months like your brain is going to start assuming that that silence means something that absolutely doesn't. It just meant that we just needed some time to clear our heads and have our own thing. Ellis, he talked like Okay, great. He feels the same way I do, which is like, we don't know exactly what it is yet, but we want to do it with each other. And that was a really like relief for me as a great we're on the same page, and now we can just spend the time to explore and figure out what we're excited to build


next. Both of us wanted to do something together again. Like that was rare. Like most cofounder pairs find themselves in some sort of fight along the way and break up. And the idea that we could have a new challenge together potentially, I think, was what made it way more exciting. I'm not sure we were like looking for personal relationship when we started, like a friendship. But the bond we have now is one I think I'd like in two people who, like were in the military together. And I'm not like saying we did anything even close to as important as that. But when you go through things with someone, when people try to kill your company, when people try to throw you under the bus, all this stuff has happened to us and then some. And I remember very specifically this moment we ah,

we're having a disagreement with an investor and we were so stressed out and we went to this really terrible ta Korea on Market Street. But we sat down and we both ordered, like, the greasy ist thing we could possibly imagine. And honestly, that might have been a low in the company. But it was Ah, hi for me. Like I look back on that moment really fondly because it was us against the world. It was like, we're gonna win this thing even if people don't believe in us, even if we're having this thing go on like we're going to make this work, call it friendship. But that is like a bond that you don't form hanging


out. The fact that we still like each other this long, I think, speaks like a deeper trust and like real bond. But I think the fact that we liked each other after that first year, which is like pure exposure, spoke to trust. But I think also just thio we have a way about each other. That is not one that we find annoying, which sounds trivial. But actually, when did your that around somebody for that long For that many days, you haven't showered in three days sometimes and you're eating the same lunch you've eaten every single day like it's actually really important and hard to screen for in a like, you know, a couple of nights at a coffee shop prototyping. I think that was a regard where we probably got lucky.


Could have said it better. That's exactly it. Kevin Systrom and my Krieger are partners. More than 50 billion photos have been uploaded to Instagram so far, and you can find both Kevin and Mike on there. Kevin is at Kevin and Mike is at Mikey. Kay Partners is made by me, Rishi Kesh, Your way I produced, edited and made the music for the show with editing help from Maureen Hoban and production assistance from Olivia would. This interview was recorded at Women's Audio Mission in San Francisco. Special Thanks to Helen Saltzman and Sarah Greene Partners is a male chimp podcast made in partnership with Radio Topia. Find out more at male chimp dot com slash presents and at radio topia dot FM. Thanks for listening. Really? Oh,

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