What Is Instagram and Why Was It Successful?

Kirsten Rohrs Schmitt is an accomplished professional editor, writer, proofreader, and fact-checker. She has expertise in finance, investing, real estate, and world history. Throughout her career, she has written and edited content for numerous consumer magazines and websites, crafted resumes and social media content for business owners, and created collateral for academia and nonprofits. Kirsten is also the founder and director of Your Best Edit; find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

The story of dabble dating Instagram’s explosive rise reads like a Silicon Valley fairy tale, with the company gaining staggering momentum within just a few short months. The photo and video-sharing social media application took only eight weeks for software engineers to develop before it was launched on Apple’s mobile operating system in . In less than two years, Facebook (META) had acquired the company for $1 billion in cash and stock.

But, like all good tales, the process involved many twists and turns, failures and successes, conflicts and synergies, and a dose of fortuitous happenstance.

Key Takeaways

  • Instagram is a photo and video-sharing social media application that was launched in 2010 by Kevin Systrom.
  • The first prototype of Instagram was a web app called Burbn, which was inspired by Systrom’s love of fine whiskeys and bourbons.
  • The Instagram app was launched on , and racked up 25,000 users in one day.
  • From the beginning, the primary focus of the app was to feature photographs, specifically those taken on mobile devices.
  • Just prior to Instagram’s initial public offering (IPO) in 2012, Facebook acquired the company for $1 billion in cash and stock.

History of Instagram

In 2009, Kevin Systrom, a 27-year-old Stanford University graduate, was working at Nextstop, a travel recommendations startup. Systrom had previously worked at Google (GOOG) as a corporate development associate and interned at Odeo, a company that would later evolve into Twitter (TWTR).

While Systrom had no formal training in computer science, he learned to code on nights and weekends while working at Nextstop. He eventually built a prototype of a web app called Burbn, which was inspired by his taste for fine whiskeys and bourbons. The Burbn app allowed users to check in, post their plans, and share photos. Although at the time, location-based check-in apps were very popular, the photo-sharing feature of Burbn was very unique.

Venture Capital Funding

A crucial turning point came in when Systrom attended a party for Hunch, a startup based in Silicon Valley. At the party, Systrom met two venture capitalists from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. After showing them the prototype of his app, they decided to meet for coffee to discuss it further. After their first meeting, Systrom decided to quit his job and focus on Burbn. Within two weeks, he had raised $500,000 in seed funding from both Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz to further develop his entrepreneurial venture.

This seed funding allowed Systrom to start building a team of people to support his venture; the first to join him was 25-year-old Mike Krieger. Also a Stanford graduate, Krieger had previously worked as an engineer and user-experience designer at the social media platform Meebo. The two knew each other from their time as students at Stanford.

Pivot to a Photo-Sharing Application

After Krieger joined, the two reassessed Burbn and decided to focus primarily on one thing: photographs specifically taken on mobile devices. They carefully studied leading apps in the photography category at that time. For Krieger and Systrom, the Hipstamatic app stood out to them because it was popular and had interesting features that you could apply to photographs, such as filters. However, it lacked social media-sharing capabilities; Systrom and Krieger saw potential in building an app that bridged Hipstamatic and a social media platform like Facebook.