Instagram co-founder Mark Krieger talks about how he focuses on building products, the roadmap for Instagram, immigrant visas and philanthropy
Mike Krieger is co-founder and chief technology officer of photo-sharing application and service, Instagram, which was acquired by Facebook Inc., in April 2012. Instagram, which was launched on 6 October 2010, has about 700 million users currently, of which an estimated 5% are in India. In an interview, Brazil-born Krieger talks about how he focuses on building products, the roadmap for Instagram, immigrant visas and philanthropy. Edited excerpts:
How has Instagram changed after Facebook acquired it? Typically, founders to do not stay for long after their companies are acquired. What makes Instagram still a cool place to work?
Yeah! We’ve been here for almost five years. They (Facebook) have really invested in us. From the very beginning, Mark Zuckerberg said this is a huge opportunity and he wanted this team to grow. When we came in we were tiny—just six engineers for 30 million users (5 million users per engineer which is really insane). Today, we have around 300 engineers. We used to be a single track company which meant that if we wanted to work on something, the whole company had to do it. Now (with this scale), we can focus on different areas and that is a huge change that happened because we were able to hire.
The other changes is all the integrations we have been able to do with Facebook technologies. All our infrastructure now is powered by Facebook, which is very important to help us focus on monetization and our business products.
What didn’t change is that Kevin and I are still making the product decisions and running the teams. I give Mark a lot of credit for this. It is not an easy balance to strike.
What is Mark’s approach? He may surely want a say in how the products are built and the vision of Instagram…
Mark asks the right questions rather than giving us the solutions. I recall him asking this question in early 2016: Hey! When I look at Instagram, it doesn’t look like people are spending much time on it. Is it because they are running out of things to look at? Or is it that stuff isn’t interesting? When we sat down to inspect the reasons, we realised that our main feed was chronological. This made us realise that people could be missing about 70% of what they could be seeing because they were checking at different times of the day. Hence, we began using machine learning to make our feeds smarter and that has resulted in a complete transformation on how people use the product.
Where does India figure on the map for Instagram? Currently, Instagram has an estimated 30 million users in India (Facebook does not break up the number of Instagram users in India). How do you plan to scale up that figure?
India is a super interesting market for us. We think of India as one of our high growth markets. In 2012, when we decide to expand Instagram, our user base was about 50% from the US and the remaining from other geographies. Today, about 70% of our users are from outside the US and that will only be growing. Hence, we are looking at high-growth markets including India. We want people on Instagram but we also want their local take. One of our data scientists told me that there is no one Instagram. There are hundreds of Instagrams that are connected to each other. For example, you might have an international star who is based in India but has followers around the world and vice versa.
What are broad demographics of Instagram users? Are users from India similar to those in the West and other countries?
It is still early to tell because we are still growing. Moreover, when we expand to new countries, there are groups that take up to Instagram initially before others join them. I have not dug in on India as yet. But you are dealing with so many groups. For instance, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the second-most followed politician after Donald Trump, President of the US. We also see a very strong Bollywood and cricket following.
What are the three top things that users are doing on Instagram?
The number one thing is that they are discovering their interests. We have product features that not many other apps have. So discovering and following interests is a big part of what users are doing on Instagram. The Stories product is another feature that is growing rapidly with people also sharing what is happening backstage. The third interesting point, which is not in the Top Three, is that people are discovering business interests and having interactions that range from buying things from the store. Many entrepreneurs in Brazil, for instance, are not opening up stores any more. Instead, they are opening Instagram pages and then are doing almost a virtual business and doing delivery.
What’s the revenue model for Instagram?
From the beginning, our idea was that our primary revenue source would be advertising—because Instagram is highly visual and we are able to tailor ads so that the right person can see the right ad. We started advertising around the end of 2013 and now we have seen a lot of growth. We have now begun advertising in our Stories’ feature too. I am happy about how advertising is scaling up. In Stories, for instance, you can see full-screen video advertisements. The idea is to create a portfolio of features that can match advertiser needs. That’s the way will we become more relevant.
What’s the roadmap for Instagram? When asked in an interview a couple of years back on what you see in the next five years at Instagram, you even said “teleportation"...
Laughs. I like to use this as the metaphor which is: The thing we have always tried to build is the product that is going to make your relationship stronger. The way you do that is to have coffee or dinner with somebody in the real world. What can we provide in the digital world that is close to that as possible?
It started with the photo and the feed. Videos, then, brought you closer. So if you look at our products and stack them one after the other, they are all about making you feel ever closer to the people and the interests that you have. And making you feel that you could be with them in real time or afterwards. In the future, we will try to create more products that will bridge that gap. Now we have a community of 700 million people. We will continue to strive to connect them to each other and make people feel they are part of this Instagram community.
Instagram has been criticised for imitating Snapchat by copying many of the latter’s features—the ‘Stories’ feature, for instance.
We looked at the Stories’ product. We did not start with the UI (user interface) or even with the feature. We started with the user problems. We looked at our community; at what they were saying. What we heard from people is that Instagram was becoming a place for the highlights but they were feeling compelled to go to another product to post these other photos. They wanted to tell their followers about their lives but they did not want to do it in the Feed because it had become more of a highlights product. So we spent almost a year thinking about everything—right from different ways to modify the Feed and building separate apps. Finally we conclude that what would work well is bringing this feature (stories) that Snapchat pioneered and bringing it to our community. Stories, which now has over 200 million people using it daily, fits into peoples’ Instagram lives. It has been a very positive introduction and our community is way better off because of Stories.
You and your wife have partnered with the Open Philanthropy Project. What’s the thought behind this move?
I always think about how to best give back to society and I realised the way we were going about it was not very strategic. People would have a proposal and I would either say Yes or No. So we sat down with the founders of the Open Philanthropy Project. This was a great partnership. There are a lot of problems in the world. This helps us prioritize the ones you want to fix.
We are currently working on criminal justice reform in the United States and thinking through what can we do from either a policy perspective, etc., to ensure the system is fair. The other area I personally think about is immigration reform (Krieger faced major hurdles when applying for a H1-B Visa which would allow him to work in the US) to enable more passionate entrepreneurs to come to this country.
As CTO and head of engineering at Instagram, how does your typical day go?
I live in San Francisco and work out of Menlo Park, which is about an hour’s commute. So the first hour is really about catching up on all the things that have been happening—product leaders have questions like: We’re dealing with these alternatives; which one should we go with? We mostly try to resolve such issues over email.
My day mostly involves product reviews, technical reviews that say—I want to invest in this technology but it won’t be ready for nine months. Is this, then, the right technology? Because if you get it wrong, you have wasted nine months of a team. I also spend time with our engineers, asking them about the challenges they face and how they could do a better job.
Of course, my day also involves working with my co-founder Kevin (Kevin Systrom is CEO and co-founder of Instagram) on the future of the company and the product strategies. We end up catching up daily and at least three to five times a week because many things come up and it’s important to stay in sync.
Consider our Live Streaming feature which we launched in January. We think of our product strategy every half year, and so we are getting ready for H2 (second half of the calendar year). The issue we need to address is how to make Live even more interesting. So for the past few weeks, our conversations (with Kevin and others) has been around how people are using Live on Instagram today and how should it look six months ahead.
You have an MS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. How has this degree in the so-called “Science of the Mind" discipline helped shape your world view and your work?
This is a degree that only Stanford has. In the summer before my freshman year at Stanford, I was on Orkut (Google’s social networking site which it shut in September, 2014. Most of its users were from Brazil and India) and looking at the groups there, and found this Symbolic course and got very curious about it.
The website described the course as a combination of computer science, philosophy, psychology, cognition and artificial intelligence. I was wondering how all of these things were related to each other. It sounded very cool since I began programming when I was around 5-6 years old and was a pretty nerdy kid. But I was also very interested in how computers could change lives and always wanted it to be easy to use.
Computers are not necessarily intuitive. Hence, this course on Symbolic Systems helped me understand that even the best of technology will not be useful if it is not easy to use and accessible, it is as good as not developing it all. Even now at Instagram, we never start with the technology when we are thinking about a new product. We start with a user problem or a user need.
Prior to founding Instagram, you also worked at Meebo (the instant messenger and social networking site was acquired by Google in June, 2012) as a user experience designer and front-end engineer. How mature is design thinking as a discipline today?
When I was in college, I took a lot of classes in the Stanford Design School. The founder was David M Kelly who was one of the founders of Ideo—a company that really pioneered design thinking. At that time, the thinking was how to use design when you start the process (of building a product). The question at that time was: Could you do that? Today, we take it for granted that this is what you do when you incorporate design at the very beginning. At Instagram for instance, when we start developing a new product, we try to get the designers to start thinking about things, talk to real people—we get mock-ups and see how people react to these products.
What is the thinking behind your personal investments in companies such as honeycomb.io?
I try to find companies whose founders have drive and passion. The other part is identifying projects where I can be helpful. Honeycomb, for example, is working on a way to analyse real-time data from different services and infrastructure. And I looked at their product and would have loved to have it four years back when I was scaling up Instagram. Hence, I can give feedback on what I learnt and what was useful to me as we scaled. Their team is also good. So this is the right combination I seek.
What technology trends do you see in the coming few years?
I remain super interested in places where I can bridge offline or real world problems with online solutions. I am also very interested in VR (virtual reality). I have a set up in my house where I put on the headset to get a full experience. But VR is very much in the early adopter stage where people are learning about it. We have to find out what is the most inspiring use of VR. Technology that tries to be everything to everyone will never be practical. That is the path for VR in the next few years.