Less than a year after it launched its photo-sharing service for the iPhone, Instagram has more than 10 million users who are uploading an average of 26 new pictures every second, co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom told attendees at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference in San Francisco on Tuesday — and new users are joining the service at a rate of more than one per second. While he admitted that this sort of growth is “kind of mind-boggling,” Systrom said the company is thinking hard about what comes next for the company, and how it can turn that growth into a “Google-sized” opportunity.
When Instagram first launched as a photo-sharing app in October of 2010, the company had already tried to create a Foursquare-style location service called Burbn, but didn’t like the finished product, and it became obvious the company was going to have to “pivot” (as the Silicon Valley startup community likes to call it) and find another business. It wasn’t clear that photo-sharing was going to work any better than location-based services did: as Systrom acknowledged at Mobilize, there were dozens of photo-sharing apps already, not to mention some giant photo-sharing services like Facebook and Flickr.
So what made Instagram so successful? Some of it was good timing, Systrom said, since the app launched not long after the new iPhone 4 was released by Apple — a device that had a much better camera than its predecessor. This led to more demand for a good photo-sharing service, and one that could make photos look even better by using smart filters to add different effects. Systrom also noted that Instagram was one of the few photo apps that connected to other services as well as its own, including Flickr and Tumblr and Facebook. Said Systrom:
[M]any services like to keep content to themselves, but we like to push it out to other services. That was a real pain point for people, and that’s one of the things that made us stand out from the beginning, I think.
Instagram has also been focused from the very beginning on the speed of the app, which Systrom said has been a competitive advantage. “When you’re with a friend at a cafe or whatever, you don’t want to waste five minutes waiting for your phone to upload a high-resolution image,” he said. So Instagram deliberately provided a much lower-resolution image than its competitors, because that made the upload process a lot faster — and the app also started uploading to the service before users even clicked the “done” button, to speed the process up even further.
In the most recent iteration of the app, Systrom said Instagram tried to speed up the rest of the app as well. Filters can be applied even before the user takes a photo, because the company rewrote how the filters work to make them much faster, and higher-resolution photos are now supported because it made that faster as well. The new features have increased signups to the point where new users are joining at an average of about 78 per minute, the Instagram CEO said — and on Monday, the app recorded a new peak upload record of 26 photos per second.
When it comes to monetization of the service, Systrom said that while the company doesn’t have to think about that for a little while — since it recently closed a $7 million round of financing — it has been brainstorming internally about what a revenue strategy might look like in the future. “In a space where a lot of people are trying to attack the same problem, we think our goal should be to really lock up the space,” he said, but potential monetization could take the form of both premium services or features, as well as sponsorship or advertising-related offerings. “Instagram is one of the few services where people subscribe to brands like Burberry” and Red Bull, he said, and that has the potential for growth.
In the end, Systrom said that the company sees Instagram as providing not just photos but “short entertainment experiences” that can connect users with their friends but also with brands. And the Instagram CEO said that the company is looking ahead to when it can provide more than just an iPhone app — with the near-term focus on both an Android app and a web-based version of the service.