How Instagram Grew From Foursquare Knock-Off to $1 Billion Photo Empire

From INC:

How do you make a billion dollars in two years? Here’s a narrative look through the brief, hectic, (and lucky), 14 months of Kevin Systrom’s life growing Instagram.

Portrait of the multi-millionaires as young men: Blogger and tech evangelist Robert Scoble snapped this Instagrammed shot of Instagram founders Kevin Systrom (left) and Mike Krieger back in November of 2010, when they were building their photo-sharing app out of a $500-a-month desk rented from Dogpatch Labs on Pier 38, which was so structurally unsound San Francisco forced tenants to vacate within a year.

News of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram boomeranged around the Web yesterday with near-light-speed velocity. The interest made complete sense. Instagram, a start-up which had existed for a mere 551 days, which had never made a cent in revenue, and which employed just a dozen people, had pulled off one of the most impressive exits in recent memory. And it all seemed to happen overnight.

So how did Kevin Systrom, the 28-year-old company’s founder, pull it off?

The common, almost Tweet-sized narrative, is that Kevin Systrom, a freshly pedigreed member of Silicon Valley’s nouveau elite—he graduated from Stanford University, interned at Twitter, and worked at Google—founded Instagram in March 2010. But this is only a sliver of the story.

Beginning in January 2009, Systrom spent his days toiling as a product manager for Nextstop.com, a travel recommendation start-up which Facebook would acquire in September of 2010.

On the nights and weekends, Systrom, who has no formal computer-science training, poured his time and energy into side projects that, he says, would help him learn to code.
On the nights and weekends, Systrom, who has no formal computer-science training, poured his time and energy into side projects that, he says, would help him learn to code. Perhaps from his time at Odeo—the proto-Twitter—Systrom developed an entrepreneurial bug that made him restless.

At the time, in late 2009, Foursquare was just beginning to hit its stride of popularity, and location-based check-in apps were the quickly becoming the focus of investors and entrepreneurs throughout San Francisco and the Valley. Systrom had developed a few concepts in his spare time, but in late 2009, he concentrated his attention on one: An iPhone app that would combine elements of Foursquare with elements of Mafia Wars, a popular game developed by Zynga.

“I figured I could build a prototype of the idea in HTML5 and get it to some friends,” Systrom wrote on Quora. “Those friends ended up using the prototype without any branding elements or design at all.”

Systrom called his idea Burbn, and the app’s primary functions were to let users check-in to locations, make future plans with acquaintances, earn points for hanging out with friends, and post pictures.

But there was just one thing missing: Money. Systrom was still working full-time at Nextstop.com, so he would need an infusion of cash that would allow him to focus full time on developing his product.

Of course, no great start-up story would be complete without just a bit of luck. For Systrom, his good fortune came over cocktails in early 2010 at a party for Hunch, a start-up based in Silicon Valley.

“At that party there were two people from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz,” Systrom writes on Quora. “I showed [them] the prototype, and we decided we’d meet up for coffee to talk about it. After the first meeting, I decided to take the dive and leave my job to go solo and see if Burbn could be a company. Within two weeks of leaving, I raised $500k from both Baseline and Andreessen Horowitz, and started work on finding a team.”

That was March 2010.

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