What We Discuss with Kevin Systrom:
- Why founding a startup now is probably easier for the average aspiring entrepreneur than ever before.
- What famous brands have pivoted radically from their origins to become massively successful (including Instagram).
- How to get honest feedback (and know when you should listen to it).
- How to get honest feedback (and know when you shouldn’t listen to it).
- The simple idea that led to the creation of Instagram, and what made it stand out in a seemingly saturated market.
- And much more…
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When our guest Kevin Systrom co-founded Instagram back in 2010 with Mike Krieger, no one knew the photo-sharing site would become the social media outlet of choice for influencers, globetrotters, food bloggers, comedians, artists, musicians, fitness enthusiasts, poets, podcasters like me, and the fine ladies and gents like you who kindly listen to this show.
But Kevin, being a bit of a statistics maniac, might have had a few inklings that it would be a site worth making — in spite of all the naysayers telling him the market was too saturated and he and Mike were wasting their time. In this episode, we’ll talk about what set Instagram apart from its competition early on, how it pivoted from an initial concept that everyone was telling them they should follow, the Jedi mind tricks Kevin uses to solicit honest feedback even when his sources are resistant, how to know which feedback to follow and which feedback to ignore, and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy! This is part one of a two-part episode. Make sure to catch part two here!
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, KEVIN SYSTROM!
If you enjoyed this session with Kevin Systrom, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Kevin Systrom’s Website
- Kevin Systrom at Instagram
- Kevin Systrom at Twitter
- Mike Krieger at Instagram
- Find My Friends, Apple
- How Twitter Was Founded, Business Insider
- Amazon Web Services (AWS)
- Instagram Was First Called ‘Burbn’, The Atlantic
- Gowalla Versus Foursquare: Why Pretty Doesn’t Always Win, TechCrunch
- Hot Potato 2.0 Lets You “Check-In” While You’re Doing Anything, TechCrunch
- Correlation vs Causation: Understand the Difference for Your Product, Amplitude
- Blockchain Is This Year’s Buzzword – but Can It Outlive the Hype?, The Guardian
- Bayesian Statistics Explained in Simple English For Beginners, Analytics Vidhya
- Kind Bars
- Nature Valley
- Kevin Systrom — Tactics, Books, and the Path to a Billion Users, The Tim Ferriss Show 369
- YouTube (Circa 2005)
- Post-it Notes Were Invented by Accident, Today I Found Out
- Everything to Know about Facemash, the Site Zuckerberg Created in College to Rank ‘Hot’ Women by Sam Brodsky, Metro.us
- Getting to Plan B: Breaking Through to a Better Business Model by John Mullins and Randy Komisar
- Yelp Turns 10: From Startup to Online Review Dominance, Eater
- Amazon.com (Circa Whenever Flip Phones Were Still a Thing)
- How to Tell Someone They Have Something in Their Teeth, How Stuff Works
- Flickr Owner SmugMug Says It Needs More Money to ‘Keep the Flickr Dream Alive’, The Verge
- The 10 Most Used Instagram Filters (According to Iconosquare Study), Iconosquare
- Uber vs. Lyft: Which Ride-Hailing App Is Better?, The New York Times
Transcript for Kevin Systrom | Life Lessons from an Instagram Founder Part One (Episode 335)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with my producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant people, and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. We want you to become a better thinker. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, you'll be right at home here with us.
[00:00:40] Today, Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram, this is an app that nearly everyone uses and was one of the hottest tech unicorns in history, making the founders billionaires, and changing the way people share and interact online. This is a two-part episode because we went so long. Today's conversation Is just packed with goodness, including how to get feedback and when not to listen to it, how he got the idea for Instagram and how we can take some of that strategy and implement it in our own lives, why he stopped posting on Instagram even though it was his own app, hiring and problem-solving advice, and what do you do with yourself once you leave something you've spent nearly a third of your life creating and you've got another lifetime to try and raise the stakes.
[00:01:21] If you want to know how I managed to book all these great people, they all come from my network. I manage my relationships using systems and tiny habits in just a few minutes per day. I'm teaching you how to do this at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is all free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they do subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in great company. All right, here's Kevin Systrom.
[00:01:49] How does one start a startup? Do you start from a place of, "Look, I want to found a company," or, are you like, "I want to solve this for a specific issue"?
Kevin Systrom: [00:01:57] I think, okay, first off, I think I did it in a way that most people don't, which is -- I’m not sure I tried to found a startup -- I just wanted to work on my own, on my own stuff.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:08] Like not have a boss.
Kevin Systrom: [00:02:09] Yeah. And that's a different way of putting it but in fact, I think I've said that before. It was like I just didn't want a boss. I had been working at some great companies for some great people for a while, but I wanted the chance to build something from scratch, quote-unquote, my way. And that's the reason why I decided I was going to jump ship from the startup that I was at to go start something. I didn't know it was going to be a startup. It was just me. I was futzing around with ideas, but that was my way. In terms of how you start a start, meaning just anyone -- I mean, nowadays probably very different. You can raise money fairly quickly. There are all sorts of incubators that people are a part of. That's not the route I went. I just kind of went like, "I just need space, a table, and my old laptop and a few ideas." It took more than a few to get to Instagram, but that was why I did it back then.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:01] I'll go over some of it. Before we do the show, I'll do a little, "You started this app."
Kevin Systrom: [00:03:05] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:05] That was like the 10-billion check-in app of a decade or a year or whatever.
Kevin Systrom: [00:03:09] I think we were before 10 billion, but yeah, it’s just like ---
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:13] So top million?
Kevin Systrom: [00:03:14] I think we were definitely in the first hundred. I’ll give you some credit.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:17] Yeah, it's just funny because when you look at check-in apps now and you're like, "Wait, do we still do that?" We kind of do. We just don't use a check-in app. It’s just Instagram or whatever you're using happens to sort of know where you are.
Kevin Systrom: [00:03:30] It's true at the same time, like of all the crazy ideas that I have in my oodles of time now, I think to myself, like men, like it just feels like check-in apps had so much velocity and then just nothing. And I guess Instagram kind of took that space because you could see what people were up to et cetera. But sharing photos is like a lot more heavyweight than just sharing where you are. And I still feel like there's room for sharing your location. I feel like Find My Friends, kind of does it, but not really. And people packed it but my point is there's something there, and I'm not sure who's going to do it, but if you know anyone. I also invest these days.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:09] I was thinking about this the other day because when I was reading about your history I thought, "Oh yeah, now we use a" -- oh wait, I have no way to know if like, 'Hey, are you going into this event?' Other than texting everybody who might be going to a specific conference in Vegas. I have to look on some sort of thing. But I also don't want just anybody to be able to see that I'm there. I just want to see if my friends are there. So there's like a permissions thing that nobody's quite figured out. And then apps like LinkedIn kind of do it, but it's like, "Oh, but you have to be available all the time," and the app has to be open. I'm like, "No one's going to do that." It's got to be built into like the OS almost.
Kevin Systrom: [00:04:46] My point really is that we started in a crowded space. Then it's like everyone left the room and it's not clear to me that's an invaluable room. Is invaluable a word? You know what I mean. My point is I think it might be valuable and no one's there anymore.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:01] Yeah, yeah. It's like nobody's quite solved the privacy issue and made it useful. There's sort of like --
Kevin Systrom: [00:05:06] I hope in startups that like there's someday there will be this moment where retro is cool again. People are like, "We don't have an app. We're just on the web."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:16] Yeah. Is that Just HTML5?
Kevin Systrom: [00:05:18] Yeah, there's like this retro movement that might happen. I'm kidding.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:24] I don't know. I mean, it would be like, I think
Kevin Systrom: [00:05:25] Check-in apps are the new hot thing. Badges and gamification come back.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:29] That’s right. Well, I wonder -- do you ever wonder -- actually, let me phrase it as a question. Do you ever wonder, "Hey, people are going to want to get rid of some of these filters after like 20 years"? They're going to want to see what their actual skin color was, not like the sepia --
Kevin Systrom: [00:05:41] Oh, you mean like on their photos? Be able to undo it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:43] Yeah. Like removeinstagramfilter.com could be like the hottest website of 2035?
Kevin Systrom: [00:05:49] Yeah, I don't know. I'm not going to be the one that creates it. If someone enterprising out there wants to figure it out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:55] Why not?
Kevin Systrom: [00:05:56] Give them the formulas. They can back it out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:57] Yeah. I mean, you’ll get a lot of press if you were to give that a thing. Your mom said something along the lines of -- when you started your startup -- your mom said like, "What about health insurance?" And it's kind of a joke when you tell that story, but what people don't realize is that like half of a business is, "Wait, but what about health insurance?" "Wait, who paid the electric bill?" "How come the Internet's not working?" How did you manage that in the beginning? Because I know in the beginning, you're like, "I'm on old laptop and I'm just pushing out code," and yeah, but who's like doing payroll?
Kevin Systrom: [00:06:26] Well, first off, I think it's important, like when you start a company to find as much leverage as you can so that you don't have to figure a lot of this stuff out. What's crazy is now, if you start a startup -- it's like a meta startup -- there are startups that have been formed to help you with all this stuff as a startup. So whether it's credit cards -- I remember trying to open an AmEx and they wouldn't give us an AmEx because we hadn't been in business long enough. We made a profit and blah, blah, blah. So we were bankrolling everything on our own credit cards and then paying ourselves back and it was messy. We hired a Rent-a-CFO, which actually exists out there via all these different firms you can go do. It's a mess but what I'll say is that stuff is table stakes.
[00:07:10] And the good news is it's getting easier. Like before Instagram, you actually had to have like hardware for your servers. I remember I worked at Odeo, that became Twitter, and I remember visiting our data center and it's somewhere actually around this recording studio somewhere around here. And we walked in and we had to have headphones on. It was loud and --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:29] It was that loud?
Kevin Systrom: [00:07:30] Yeah. Yeah. A lot of computers running in their old school --running on diesel or something.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:36] Yeah, like how loud is it that you need headphones?
Kevin Systrom: [00:07:37] But now with AWS, it's like you don't even think about it. So my point is starting a startup has just become so lightweight. And I liked that because it means the true competitive advantage is basically on two things. One, the value of the idea and two, the execution. And that has meant it's become extremely competitive. Because if there were a hundred check-in apps when we started, today if that was still a space that people cared about, there would be -- you were joking a million -- but there wouldn't be a million.
[00:08:04] It's funny I started doing some angel investing. I would come across a company and I'd be like, "That's an awesome idea." And my friend who’s an investor was like, "Okay, but rule number one is to go find the other 10 that are doing the exact same thing and compare them all." Because as much as you think that's a cool idea, there are a lot and then compare the execution.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:21] That’s right.
Kevin Systrom: [00:08:22] My point is it's totally different to start a company today. And on the health insurance stuff, it is so important to make sure you're taken care of. I think we just got really lucky. This could have ended in a bunch of different ways. But I mean, listen, I was 26 I guess when I started. I'm 36 now. It's 10 years later. I didn't have a kid then. I didn't have anything to worry about. My co-founder and I, Mike, like to say, "We think there's a reason why startups started by like 20-year-olds." Like you can go hard to 4:00 a.m. every single day or maybe even longer. You don't get sick. It just works. You don't really have kids. And that's part of the beautiful thing about entrepreneurship is that you can make a lot happen with a few people, highly leveraged. And if you stay healthy, everything goes well. But we probably took some risks we shouldn't have.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:10] I agree, but I totally get it. I went to law school and it was very similar startups or even more hardcore, but there were guys in law school that were married and we were like, "Hey, you want to go out tonight?" He's like, "No, I've got to go and spend some time with my family." And we're like, "Oh my God, you've had a family this whole time. How is that possible?" And we felt bad for them, not that they had to go spend time with their family, but we’re like, “Did your kid even know who you are? We've been studying for the bar exam, like you haven't left the library for four weeks more."
Kevin Systrom: [00:09:39] Well, now it's interesting because I have a lot more time. I mean, I keep myself busy with a lot of quote-unquote work and why I say quote-unquote work. It's not like I go to an office, but I have lots of things going on. But I get to see my family and I've got two kids now, and I often think to myself, "Man, I don't see them enough." And then I think to myself, "Wait, like if I was working day-to-day like in an office and I was commuting an hour," so I have to remember like how grateful I am to have this experience now to be a little bit more flexible, but man how life changes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:10] Yeah, having my first kid, I'm like, "Oh, this is what people mean when they say your priorities change."
Kevin Systrom: [00:10:14] Yeah, totally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:14] And I just happen to be lucky that I'm in a good place where my priorities can change and I'm not like, "Guess, I better go get a job at the post office." Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a lot of people will have to kind of give up on what they like doing when they have kids and family because it's like a reality check. You're not paying your bills with the whatever you were doing before and a lot of people that kind of sneaks up on them and it's --
Kevin Systrom: [00:10:35] Trades off are real.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:36] You are really well known for keeping things simple and it looks like the original app Burbn was like this check-in app and involved photo sharing and you've managed to pare things down like, "All right, this is one of the most popular things people are doing on the app." I assume there was a process to prune away all this or were you just looking at the data and you're like, "Everyone's sharing photos. Let's just double down on this."
Kevin Systrom: [00:10:57] No, in fact, I guess a couple of ways of telling the story, but the most interesting way is just to say when we told people that we're currently using Burbn --there were maybe a hundred of them -- that we were going to be switching to Instagram, 99 complaints. And there was only one that was like, "Ah, I like this Instagram thing seems a little bit cooler than Burbn." Everyone loves Burbn. It was great. And in fact, the data didn't show that everyone was just sharing photos. In fact, they were checking in far more than they were sharing photos. So we actually had data -- and this is why business is so hard. We had data that showed that we shouldn't work on Instagram, that we should just keep working on Burbn. And who knows? I mean, we don't have the counterfactual. Like maybe we should have kept working on Burbn. Maybe it would be even bigger today like we don't know.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:40] Burbn-gram.
Kevin Systrom: [00:11:41] But we decided that Burbn didn't have a competitive edge because there were so many check-in apps. That just having a feature different wasn't going to work. We needed something that people were drawn to. Because you know, the real test is when you give Burbn to someone who isn't one of your close friends or one of their close friends. Do they retain? And the answer was no, time and time again because everyone was like, "Ah, I use Foursquare or Gowalla or Hot Potato." You name it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:07] I forgot about this.
Kevin Systrom: [00:12:08] But Instagram, the process was -- we took a look and we said, "Okay, what do we think are the most unique features?" And I don't remember the third one, but I remember number two was plans. Plans were like check-ins but in the future. So you could say, "Hey, we're going to go hang out on Thursday. Let's make a plan." And then that broadcast in advance. So instead of checking in on Thursday -- by the way, you checked in then as well -- but you’re broadcasting and then people could join. And it created this really interesting snowball effect where people would say, "Hey, I'm going to do this thing." And people could join in, and before he knew it on Thursday, you'd show up and like 20 of your friends would be there.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:45] That's cool.
Kevin Systrom: [00:12:45] It was a really nice organic way. People love that and I still think there's an opportunity there that hasn't been tapped.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:50] There is and we use texting and it's a huge pain. "Hey, are you coming?" "Oh, bro, sorry. I didn't see these until just now." We know you're lying.
Kevin Systrom: [00:12:56] Yeah. But we had gamification to like, just to go deeper on this. We had this thing where like if you made plans and you didn't follow through and check-in, you lost points. But if you made a plan and you checked in within an hour of the window, you said you were going to, you actually got like double points or something. I can’t remember --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:13] You get like a reliability badge.
Kevin Systrom: [00:13:15] Well, you just earn points. And then there was this leaderboard of who could make the number of most number of plans and actually follow through. And it was an incentive system basically to be more social and people like that. But we didn't feel that that was like a truly big enough market to go after with our startup effort. So the photo part was interesting because it was the part people were most emotional about. They were like, "Oh, it's so great that you can do this." And the fact that you could do it meant that you could share what you were up to, who you were with, often what you were eating. Like that kind of stuff and that made us just double click on that idea because it was so differentiated from what existed at the time. That's how we pared it down.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:56] That's surprisingly kind of insightful because a lot of people probably think you just stumbled upon this cool photo-sharing idea because you love photography.
Kevin Systrom: [00:14:03] I do, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:04] And there's this metaphor of like -- maybe it's not quite a metaphor -- maybe it's the real story. But I went to Florence and I went on this photography thing and I had my great camera and then this professor was like, "No, here's this crappy camera. Keep it simple." And you're like, “Ding! Instagram is simple."
Kevin Systrom: [00:14:20] I'm a huge nerd when it comes to statistics. And I think like with a classic saying that correlation is not causation. It's very easy to look back and overfit the past and like, perhaps I do that in some of my narratives, but I don't know. I think a different way of looking at this is that maybe better companies would come out of people if they just stuck to what they knew and loved. And stopped fussing around with things that they thought would quote-unquote make a good startup. And you see it time and time again. The people who found the largest things are often most passionate about those problems and most familiar with them.
[00:14:54] So I often like to say like in high school, if there was a crystal ball and they said, "Someday you're going to find a computer-based company," because I love computers. I love programming and mobile phones weren't really a thing back then. Like you played Snake on a Nokia. That was the level. "But like It's going to be advanced and you're going to be able to take photos with it and share them with friends and you'll be able to manipulate them with color." Like that was all the stuff I was into in high school. It just came full circle when I let it because that's what we knew. We had tried to focus on something that we hadn't done in the past. I think it would have been a lot harder.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:28] You're right. A lot of people will try and look at data and be like, the perfect idea is this random thing -- on the blockchain.
Kevin Systrom: [00:15:35] That’s how people do by the way, and they do okay at it. If you're going to spend 24 hours a day on something. I hope you love it because it takes away years off her life to get there. Or I guess, they didn’t like us. I don’t know, maybe other people had an easier time.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:15:53] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:07] When I worked in finance a long time ago, I was always jealous of the people that seem to really enjoy it. They'd be like, "And then we securitize these batches of subprime mortgage," and I'm just like, "I'm so jealous that you don't want to jump out the window right now. Like you really enjoy this." But everybody else that was there was like, "The data shows that I'm going to get rich working at Goldman Sachs." Period --
Kevin Systrom: [00:19:26] Interesting.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:28] -- the end. And we know the stats on how much people are miserable at those types of banks and law firms and things like that, so --
Kevin Systrom: [00:19:36] Like every step of the way, I just made non-financial decisions after non-financial decisions in a highly financial area. So that's not to say that like when I joined Google, I wasn't paid well or that it wasn't one of the top 1 percent of companies in terms of payroll, but I took a lower-paying job than I would have had I joined other companies. I had other offers that were far more lucrative. But I joined Google because I was like, this company is world-changing. I mean, it is going to be one of the companies that go down in history, it’s one of the most important companies on earth ever -- like to be part of that even for a moment is super special.
[00:20:12] I always made decisions that way. Like, what's my passion or what do I love? And now, I think about it and I'm like, "Man, that was kind of irrational," but it worked out. So I'm pointing as to anyone listening, you know if you decide to go that direction and that's the way you want to make a decision, have the faith that because you're so passionate about the stuff you're working on, good things will come of it. I think it's much harder to get into a situation where there's like high pay and no passion and good things happen. That's where burnout happens. That's all sorts of bad stuff happened.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:43] That's true. As long as you can pay your bills, I suppose, then. it's all good.
Kevin Systrom: [00:20:47] Well, you know, we talked about kids a little bit. I often think about how I will paint the picture of options for my kids. I wish someone had told me earlier that you can choose -- I mean, my parents let me choose whatever I want. I hope I let my kids choose whatever they want. Not everyone has that freedom in their family, but let's assume that for a second.
[00:21:06] It's important to know you could choose whatever you want. But everything comes with consequences. Consequences are like a loaded word. Maybe outcomes are better, but like, you know, if you choose, you want to be a painter, okay, great. Go look at the distribution of outcomes. It's like if you're okay with that and happy with those outcomes, then that's great because maybe you value creativity and maybe you want to work in a big workspace and you realize that only one percent of one percent of one percent of people ever even get to put their stuff in a gallery -- I mean, I'm stretching this a little bit because I'm not super familiar with the art world. But my point is it's not unknown when you set off to make a decision on what the likely distribution of outcomes are.
[00:21:51] So it's good to at least ask yourself, "Hey, let's imagine I can fast forward the tape 10 years from now, where am I going to be? What are the likely outcomes? What's like the most extreme outcome?" I feel like I experienced an extreme outcome, not everyone who starts a startup, right but I don't know -- the way I think about it is if I did that exercise, I'd say, "Well. I learned a lot. I'd have a ton of fun. I'd work with a small group of people. I'd get to build something and I'd probably learn enough to like get a great job somewhere else and then maybe get back into it later." And that median case doesn't feel so bad to me. But on the upside, you could potentially start something that changes the world.
[00:22:28] And don't get me wrong, when we started Instagram, there was zero belief we were going to get even close to that. A lot of people like to say like, "Oh, I knew it at the beginning. We were going --" Not even close.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:38] That always sounds funny to me. I knew it. Huh? That's congratulations.
Kevin Systrom: [00:22:41] Yeah. But knowing my point is knowing the distribution of outcomes before you make a decision and just stopping and saying like, "What could possibly happen? What's the range? And am I okay with that?" And if you're okay with that, then go for it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:56] I suppose as long as you're not delusional about your chances of rolling the dice properly.
Kevin Systrom: [00:23:00] Exactly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:01] Right, like if you think, okay, the chances of me making a big as an artist really, really, really slim as opposed to, "No, but I'm really good. I'm totally going to be the next Warhol, and I'd be hanging out with celebrities all the time." It's like, then you're setting yourself up for failure, but if you think, "I might make a modest salary owning this company that turns into an app and maybe we'll sell it later on, which would be great." That's more reasonable.
Kevin Systrom: [00:23:22] I'm going to get super nerdy even beyond where we just went with this. Okay, so like what I talked about in terms of distribution is called a prior in statistics. It's like what is your prior belief of the outcomes of what you can possibly experience if you make this decision right. But you can go ahead and update that prior. Now we're getting into what's called Bayesian statistics. People can Google it. All the statisticians are rolling their eyes right now -- but Bayesian statistics is the idea that you can update your prior beliefs with new information. So if you said, "Well, I happen to be the son of a super famous artist." I don't know actually, that like increases your outcomes quite a bit. There are lots of examples of that in art and movies and music. In startups, I don't know if you worked at Google or Microsoft or Amazon or one of the big ones. If you have a computer science degree, if all your co-founders also worked at one of those and have a computer science degree from MIT or Stanford or Harvard, like I'd probably invest.
[00:24:23] My point is you can update your beliefs over time using information, and I agree. It's important not to be delusional. But I don’t know, listen, anyone who gets into startups is a little bit delusional. Half probably.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:36] Yeah, you're probably right because it’s one of--
Kevin Systrom: [00:24:37] You're talking to one.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:39] -- it's like one of the least safe paths that you can have for the qualifications that most people have. Like, "I could take this job at McKinsey or Google or wherever." "Nah, I kind of want to just eat Kind Bars for the next three years and drink Mountain Dew every day until I pass out." I’m like then, but you have --
Kevin Systrom: [00:24:57] Kind Bars are fancy.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:58] They are, you’re right. It's probably not even that fancy.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:01] We have those granolas we lived off of natures --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:04] Yeah. The one where there are two flat ones in the pack.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:06] And then crumble everywhere.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:08] I just had one this morning.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:09] What are the names of those?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:10] It’s like Nature's Choice.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:12] Nature's Choice, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:12] And they're green.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:13] I swear, this isn't an ad but those are delicious. I lived off of them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:18] We have them in the lobby here. We'll get them for you when you leave.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:21] I'm going to show up at home and there's going to be a truck waiting with Nature's Valley.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:25] Nature’s Valley. That’s right.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:27] We got to get the sponsor correct. Okay, I'm sorry.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:30] naturevalley.org/jordan.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:22] Hard pot, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:35] Most successful things are pivots. I think you said this in another talk that you gave. YouTube was like a dating site, I think. What was the other example that Tim Ferriss gave me? Post-Its were like a failed adhesive product and turned it into a note.
Kevin Systrom: [00:25:48] I mean, Facebook was different at the beginning. YouTube is different. I think PayPal was also different, right? Most great ideas start as something else, and there was a professor at Stanford who wrote a book called Getting to Plan B or something. I can't remember exactly. His name is Randy Komisar. But you can look up the book and you can edit out my voice and put it in the real title.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:10] We'll put it in the show notes.
Kevin Systrom: [00:26:11] Thank you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:11] We'll find it.
Kevin Systrom: [00:26:12] But it's effectively the idea that like -- oh, now I'm quoting a book that was many, many years ago. But the idea is that rarely does your plan A workout. So you have to be able to be quick to move to where the fire starts. And often the best business ideas, I believe, are getting yourself into an area, putting down a bunch of kindling and really hoping that lightning strikes somewhere. And when it strikes and it starts a fire, you run over a new pile all the rest of the kindling on that thing. You don't sit over hoping that lightning strikes somewhere else because you want it to, you can't will a lightning is what I'm saying. So anyway, most ideas start as separate things and they morph over time. But yeah, it's pretty interesting to go to the Wayback Machine -- Yelp actually was different too. It was like you emailed out to a bunch of people asking for recommendations and then that turned into the directory.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:01] Oh, wow.
Kevin Systrom: [00:27:01] YouTube was a dating site. It's crazy.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:04] That's wild to think about now.
Kevin Systrom: [00:27:05] But you can go back and you can actually see in the Wayback Machine, like what it looked like way back in the day and it's striking, actually.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:13] The homepage for Amazon is the one that always comes to mind, where it was like the crappiest and like a little digital picture of a river and it was like over a hundred thousand books or something like that.
Kevin Systrom: [00:27:23] It sounds like a lot of books.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:25] It's a lot of books. Basically, a really full garage at that point. Now, just looking back at that 1998 version -- wow, that was like about 20 plus -- I mean, there are kids that like can't rent cars that were born then.
Kevin Systrom: [00:27:38] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:39] And now it's one of the largest hurdles around. You've talked about always trying to prove yourself wrong and without truth, you cannot improve. How do you get feedback when you're the boss or maybe you're not even the boss, you're just trying to get honest feedback from people? It's got to be really tough.
Kevin Systrom: [00:27:54] Well, you asked a question with two layers. One, how do you get honest feedback and then two, when you're the boss. Let me put aside when you're the boss thing because most people aren't the boss and --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:04] True.
Kevin Systrom: [00:28:05] -- and honestly, it's a special case of how do you get honest feedback anyway. It's just along the dimension of your authority. The higher your authority, the harder it is to get honest feedback. But I think in general, it's really hard to get feedback no matter who you are.
[00:28:19] Okay, so we're sitting there, we're having dinner, we're at this nice restaurant. You're like, "God, this steak sucks." And I'm like, "Yeah, mine is not that good either." Waitress walks up or the waiter and says, "How's your meal?" And we're both like, "Great, thanks."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:31] "Loving it."
Kevin Systrom: [00:28:32] "Loving it. Awesome. Thanks. Just leave us alone."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:34] Every day in my life.
Kevin Systrom: [00:28:35] And here she walks away. How many times does that happen to you?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:38] Yeah, I mean, I always do that. I would always, rarely would I complain about the food unless it's like, "This is not cooked."
Kevin Systrom: [00:28:44] But by the way, like you just said, a really interesting thing here, which is one, feedback is seen as like complaining about something or someone. And you don't want to be that guy or that person doesn't want to be that girl. Like you feel like the social pressure not to, but it's funny, like now that I've invested in a couple of restaurants and I see that the lack of feedback leads to bad outcomes. I’m like if something's wrong, I'll say, "Hey, like I just want you to know." And this is my line. I say, "If I were you, and if I were working here, I'd really want someone to tell me about this" because I feel like probably no one's going to say anything, but "Hey, listen, this is just for you. And it's like, my thing was totally overcooked. Like I enjoyed it still, but it was totally overcooked." And maybe I shouldn't say I totally enjoyed it, but my point is I think you have to go out of your way to see feedback as helping someone rather than complaining or criticizing.
[00:29:39] That's not answering your question about how to get feedback that’s answering how to give it, but I guess it starts with giving.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:43] It makes sense. I mean, as a business owner, you're a business owner of many businesses now. But as a business owner now, I go in there and if something goes wrong, I'll go, "Hey, look, I love this place, but this is not a good fit," or, "This doesn't work," or, "This person probably shouldn't be in this position."
Kevin Systrom: [00:29:58] What's really interesting though is sometimes I give the feedback in the way I just described and the reaction is really negative.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:03] Really, yikes.
Kevin Systrom: [00:30:06] Well, I think to myself, I'm like, "Hmm, that's like a failed opportunity for that person to learn about something really important." And you know, like there's this one restaurant and every single Yelp review mentioned the word salty. And I thought this thing was too salty too. So I tried my best to be like, "Hey, like FYI, I think this, and also if you look, you'll see it says it over and over again. And you know, I don't think the reaction was terrible, but it's just like people sometimes bristle and I wish I could find a way to be like, man, if I were in your shoes, I would really want to know this because then I could make it better."
[00:30:41] So let's now flip this to how do you get feedback. I think you have to actively ask for it. The idea that people are just going to offer it up to you is rare and then actively asking for it. Like, I love to cook. We were just talking about food, but let's do another food example. I’d cook a Thanksgiving dinner and I made this really special turkey thing. These amazing potatoes where you slice on a mandoline and you line them all up. It looks really pretty. It was intense. I worked really hard and everyone knew it. But we sat down and we ate, and I'm thinking in my head, "Oh, interesting. That thing sucks. That's undercooked. But that's good." And then I asked the table, I said, "Hey guys, what do you think about the food?" And everyone's like, "Ah, so good. It was great." And I was like, "Oh, I disagree. Like I think there are some things that need help but what do you guys think?" And I asked like three or four times, people would not give it to me. And I knew for instance, the bread hadn't cooked all the way. So it was kind of weird but no one said anything.
[00:31:38] My point is like even in family, even when you're asking for it. So then I said, "Okay," this is the fun part, "Rate everything from your favorite to your least favorite." So of the four main dishes, you got to give me what your top. You know, and then rank it down to the bottom, then they don't have a choice. They have to ring something on the bottom. So one of the ways I guess, of giving feedback is like, "Hey, like what are my top three things that you think I'm good at? And what are the three things you think I should work on the most?" That's like forced ranking potentially, but even still, I think it's really hard.
[00:32:12] Maybe the last thing I'll say on this is if you say to someone, "Hey, I'm really trying to improve," like in this case, imagine I said, "I'm really trying to improve as a chef and I know not everything is perfect. So I really want to know from your eyes what stuff was the best and what stuff wasn't the best." And maybe that disarms it a little bit. And you know, my father-in-law said the best thing. He goes, "The butter wasn’t salted." And I said, "Okay, listen, if that's the worst thing, I can buy a different butter next time."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:39] Right. Good point.
Kevin Systrom: [00:32:40] But still, even that was like easy feedback to give because it wasn't my thing. People find it really hard.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:45] They do because they're not thinking, all right, this is going to be helpful for you. They're thinking, "He spent like seven hours cooking all this. I'm not going to sit here and be like showing up with a deck of cards for later and be like, "Ah, this is too overcooked. This is --"
Kevin Systrom: [00:32:58] Now imagine a presentation or a product that you slaved away on for a month.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:03] Yeah.
Kevin Systrom: [00:33:03] So again, I think the best thing to do is just say, "I really want to improve and the only way I'm going to improve is if you let me know what stinks about this." I think people would be more open to giving you feedback if that were the case.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:17] I sometimes pull the old, "If you had to pick something, even if that something was still kind of good, but it was the worst thing in your mind, what would that be?" And you find like half the table agrees and then you know that that thing sucks.
Kevin Systrom: [00:33:29] Yeah. The other way of doing it, at least in food, is just to look at what's the least eaten.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:34] Yeah. You kind of like have a real report card.
Kevin Systrom: [00:33:36] Yup.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:37] Yeah. That's good. I didn't think about that. That totally makes sense.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:33:41] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show. We'll be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:45] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help. Depression is very real, and if you're tired of burying your problems deep down in your subconscious and taking everything out on your co-workers, you can also try Better Help online. So what's the smarter solution? Yelling at Jim in accounting over Slack that he doesn't respect you because your dad didn't come to your football games or solving all that stuff yourself by calling Better Help online. Better Help online counseling is there for you. Better Help offers licensed professional counselors who are specialized in issues such as depression, stress, anxiety, relationships, sleeping, trauma, anger, family stuff, grief, self-esteem, and more. Maybe you're feeling a little stuck. I don’t know cabin fever. I can understand that right now. Connect with your professional counselor in a safe and private online environment. Everything's confidential. Text and chat with your therapist. If you're not happy with your counselor, you can request a new one at any time. Also, it's affordable. Jason.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:15] How do you know who to listen to? Because I would imagine people are like, "Oh, photo sharing, we don't need any more of that." So you can't listen to them, but then you also do have to listen to some people because they have good ideas. So how are you parsing, "Okay, this is good feedback that makes sense versus that's just a person who doesn't understand what we're doing."
Kevin Systrom: [00:37:35] Yeah. I think often people lump people into overall believability buckets, meaning, "Wow, this person started a startup. They're so smart. I got to listen to everything they say." I think that's a mistake. Instead, I think people have different dimensions. So listen, if you’re really, really good at producing podcasts and you've done one after another and just all of them have been hits. Of course, I'm going to believe you about podcasting or frankly like audio equipment or studio equipment. Of course, you're going to be my first call. But I don't know. Let's say I have a headache. And I'm trying to diagnose, why do I get this. I'm not going to call you because frankly, just because you're good at this thing doesn't mean --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:21] I would make your headache a lot worse.
Kevin Systrom: [00:38:22] Right, but my point is I think people have dimensions of expertise. And I think the idea is you have to seek out people who aren't just impressive but rather are impressive on that specific thing. So when we were designing the new logo for Instagram, we had very specific people we've talked to about branding and iconography. And we researched the masters of this world who have created logos before for all the major companies that had lived on forever. We did that research on those, but we didn't go to the company, "Hey, vote." Like we didn't just say, "Hey, everybody, vote for you fave." Because that's free for all. That's not going to give you, I wish someone would write the opposite of The Wisdom of the Crowds book because it's so clear to me that you need to find people who are good at that thing and just go deep with them and don't overgeneralize.
[00:39:12] But the number of people that told me photo-sharing was a terrible business to get into was like not a million, but it's several.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:19] There are many.
Kevin Systrom: [00:39:20] But maybe the last thing, definitely, the last thing on this is in order to be great. I think you have to be contrarian, meaning you have to bet against what most people think, and you have to be right. Making a photo-sharing startup at the time we did was very contrarian because there had been a ton. There had been Flickr, SmugMug, Shutterfly. We list all of them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:43] Hipstamatic.
Kevin Systrom: [00:39:44] But Hipstamatic was popular at that time.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:46] I was on Hipstamatic.
Kevin Systrom: [00:39:46] It still is, but at that time, it wasn't a nobody app. It was a big thing. People cared deeply about it and the idea was like, "Whoa, well, how are you guys going to --” Like, this is silly when I just share it on Twitter. So it was very contrarian to go that direction and we happened to be right. We happen to be right that some fundamental things change. Like the phone changed everything
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:09] I was going to ask if you are going to ride that wave because cameras now are so awesome. That you have to try to take a bad photo and then you can throw a filter on there if you still want to.
Kevin Systrom: [00:40:17] Yeah, and I agree with you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:19] And it looks great.
Kevin Systrom: [00:39:20] By the way, back up for a second, like imagine Instagram hadn't started and photo sharing -- that vein of value hadn't been tapped. And someone said, "Hey, I'm going to start Instagram today." I don't think it would work. It would be, "Ah, filters, like, I don't know. My photos are pretty good." Like, I don't know. Facebook, Twitter, et cetera -- like it’s very easy to share photos online now. I think at the time it was just the right moment of like, you couldn't quite share photos on a mobile phone and when you could, they didn't look quite right. So we kind of jumped ahead by making them look good and we just jumped ahead in the future a little bit and good is relative. I don't know that they looked good. There’s one filter called little green men, by the way. I think we cut it eventually, but it made photos look terrible. It was like green and sugi and --
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:10] Little green men. Here’s how you make a great photo look like it has [indiscernible] all over it.
Kevin Systrom: [00:41:15] Yeah. It was bad.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:16] I read the story about how you were in Mexico with your now wife. And she was saying, "Oh, I don't want to post photos because they don't look good like so-and-so." And he said, "Well, he uses a ton of filters," and she told you, "Well, then you should have filters in the app."
Kevin Systrom: [00:41:29] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:29] That was the exact reason that it took me so long to get on Instagram. And my wife was like, "Why aren't you using it?" And I go, "My photos suck. You tell me yourself. They're not framed right." She's like, "You know, you can like pinch, twist, crop, and then swipe and then it changes everything. And like it makes you lose 10 pounds because you're in black and white." She showed me. I went, "Oh my God." And I've been on that thing every day ever since. You kind of have to hold it in your hand and see that you can actually be proud of your work. If she told me, "Hey, this makes your photos look good." I wouldn't have cared at all. But when you do it and you feel that sense of like, I actually made something work well, so it's almost -- I'm looking for this lesson in here somewhere. Like if your app can make people feel like they're accomplishing something or doing something or creating something that they couldn't have done before you have like one ingredient for a hit potentially.
Kevin Systrom: [00:42:16] Yeah. We talked a lot about having like one top magic, which is -- I'm going to zoom all the way back to my days at Google. I would play around in Photoshop with my photos and edit it, a nice digital camera, and I took photos and everything, but I'd bring it into Photoshop and I would mess with the curves and I mess with hue and saturation. I'd overlay textures and blah, blah, blah. It’s not like I was the only one in the world doing it, but I was like, "Wow, this is cool. I like this. God, this is a lot of work." All Instagram was like that hour and a half in Photoshop in 0.5 seconds at the beginning, going down to what, five milliseconds towards the end, like being able to take magic and making it super easy. That was the key to Instagram and think about it with, I don't know, things like Uber or Lyft right. The idea that you don't have to call a busy cab call center where the person puts you on hold and then says, wait, where are you? And there's confusion. And then you hope that the cars are on the way, but you don't really know, and then it comes. And then is this a good cab driver? Is a bad car driver? And if it's bad, you have no recourse. And if you -- by the way, if you lose something in a cab, there's no way to get it back. All of that got solved because of things like Uber and Lyft. Not to say that they're all great, but like the system got so much better and like that's one top magic. That's what I look for in companies that get started today. The hardest part is just -- it's in terms of mobile, it's been picked over in terms of like experiences. That's not to say that things won't continue to get created, but we're kind of waiting for there to be this next platform or our next big shift where all of a sudden there are a bunch of new use cases. It's like we went from cars to scooters to bikes. We're now getting down towards the marginal, like the incremental idea on some of these things.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:10] Yeah. I would imagine as an investor, you see pitches that are like, it's Uber but for dog grooming, which exists already, but I can't think of a really dumb example off the top of my head. But you must see this all the time and you're thinking, "Wow, we don't need Uber for like colored pencils."
Kevin Systrom: [00:44:26] I don't know. Now that I have a kid, I'm like, man, we need color -- well, actually, Amazon Prime is kind of that, to be fair.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:32] It is. That’s true with same-day delivery.
Kevin Systrom: [00:44:35] Yeah. You know, I often spend a month or two each year outside of California in nature -- California doesn't have nature -- but I go elsewhere. And the one thing that really blows my mind when I come back is how spoiled we are with all these services, whether it's Postmates or DoorDash. Prime now it's like if our baby's sick, you could just order the thing and it shows up at your door. It's all there. And when we got to the middle of the country and it's just nothing. And you realize how far we've come in terms of building the services. It's really special. And then when you realize you're a little microcosm in San Francisco is small, that you actually have all of these other places you can expand to in the US but also in the world. You realize the tech has hit, but like not even close to the type of penetration that we're going to see over the next 20 years.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:24] I've read an article that said something about how in the early days you had so much trouble getting Instagram to work overseas because the phones couldn't process the posts. It couldn't take good photos. It couldn't run -- I don't know, maybe they couldn't run the app as it was like the latest version of the app and there were different versions of the app for like Southeast Asia where people are using really old phones that are over 10 years ago, here is five years ago. And you've got different servers that are faster. It just seems like people don't really think about that. They think, "Oh, everyone's got fiber in their house now. Everyone's got broadband. So we'll just make this huge high-res file."
Kevin Systrom: [00:45:59] We've spent a lot of time early on making sure that Instagram would work on the worst phones that were out there, and that was because I owned the worst phone. Mike and I would argue about how fast it needed to be on my clunker phone and Mike was like, "Will you please just buy the new iPhone 4. Will you please just get it." And of course, I did eventually, but I think something got lost there when I upgraded because man, we really paid attention to speed and performance on the low-end stuff. And interestingly, now you can basically instrument your app or your site to the point where you have tracking on just about everything. We can understand how fast it is for different people. That didn't exist in the same way when we started, so we had to live it with terrible devices.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:41] So you got your razor or whatever, like a little flip.
Kevin Systrom: [00:46:45] No, I had the, I was the iPhone 3G. it wasn't even like the 3GS.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:50] Wow, like the smooth, curved metal back.
Kevin Systrom: [00:46:52] Oh yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:53] Oh man. That's like some oh gee.
Kevin Systrom: [00:46:55] Yeah. Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:56] And that was in the day when the iPhone 4 was available. You had the 3G
Kevin Systrom: [00:47:00] Totally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:01] Yuck!
Kevin Systrom: [00:47:01] Yup.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:02] Man, I hope --
Kevin Systrom: [00:47:03] I don't know where it is actually. Yeah, I don’t know where it is. Well, I've gotten rid of it a long time ago.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:11] It’s like it belongs to the computer history museum at this point.
Kevin Systrom: [00:47:14] That'd be cool.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:47:17] Thanks to Kevin for doing this. Stay tuned in a few days for Part Two. We have a lot more where that came from. Links to everything Kevin Systrom will be in the show notes. And please do use our website if you bought any books or products from the show because that does help support the show. There's a video of this interview on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. And also in the show notes, there are worksheets for each episode, so you can review what you've learned here from Kevin Systrom. We also now have transcripts for each episode, and those can be found in the show notes as well.
[00:47:47] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits. That's over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Don't do it later. Do it now. Dig the well before you get thirsty. You got to build your network before you need it even if it means starting from scratch. The drills take just a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. You can find it all for free at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show do subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and/or follow me on social. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[00:48:28] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFillippo, engineered by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I'm your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own, and yeah, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know a startup founder, if you know someone who runs a business, if you just know someone who's interested in tech, share this episode with them. Hopefully, you find something great in every single episode of the show. Please do share the show with those you love. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[00:49:15] A lot of people are bringing their businesses online, selling digital products. I've got my friend Omar Zenhom here from Webinar Ninja. This is an all-in-one webinar software that allows you to host live automated hybrid webinars. So it's got built-in tools for marketing, selling your digital products during, after the webinar. Omar, what makes this different? Aren't there like a billion different programs, pieces of software that do the exact same thing?
Omar Zenhom: [00:49:38] Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, a lot of our users come over to us because we're easy to use. It's super simple to use. A lot of people are looking for a solution not another headache, and that's what we provide. They also love the fact that we're all-in-one, so they don't have to buy any other piece of software to make this happen. They can just go with us and everything's included under one roof. And our customer support is the best in the world.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:00] But there's stuff that Webinar Ninja has besides great support that is exclusive to you that no other webinar platform has, right?
Omar Zenhom: [00:50:07] Yeah. So with Webinar Ninja, we include all the landing page software inside. We have the email marketing software built-in inside. Auto replays, that way you don't have to find the video and then download it and paste it somewhere. It's all provided and sent to your registrants right there. We basically make it so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you run a webinar.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:28] Check out a 14-day free trial at webinarninja.com and you really have built something amazing here. I've known you for years now, and I remember when this was like basically an idea, and now it's this amazing piece of software, so that's kind of impressive.
Omar Zenhom: [00:50:41] Thanks, man. I really appreciate the support.
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