Being the founder doesn’t necessarily mean having to be the one writing the code. With a few fledgling startups under his belt, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom went to Stanford to major in graduate computer science, thinking he would ultimately end up as an engineer. When he got his first C+ in one of his major classes, “it was completely demotivating,” he says, and he quickly switched to finance.
On the surface, this seems like it could have prevented the success that Systrom has achieved. Now seven years later, his company has been acquired by Facebook in a deal that at the time was valued at $1 billion. Looking back, the founder calls it the best thing that could have ever happened, because he learned about business and got to step away from coding long enough to realize that it was the thing that truly made him happy.
“There were late nights, when it was midnight, and I was coding away until 4am. And those were the best nights, because you could create something,” says Systrom. “I ended up doing [a few projects] on the side, and that was a fun way to kind of ‘scratch the itch.’ And I should have listened to that itch way earlier, I think. Because it’s clearly something that I love doing.”
The next phase, which required a shift in thinking to that of building an organization, was one that he wouldn’t have been prepared for without the banking experience in finance.
“To go from being the person being in the code, tinkering with things and making product decisions, to then become the person that figures out who we hire — that was a big transition,” says Systrom. “It actually has nothing to do with selling, and everything to do with growing a company.”
The founder says that most people think creating a startup is about launching a product, not a company. It was an inability to grasp this concept that led Instagram to stay at six employees for the longest time.
“I didn’t realize [initially] that being a computer scientist didn’t mean you couldn’t be an entrepreneur,” Systrom recalls. “I eventually realized that entrepreneurship is very different from engineering, along the way.”
At the end of the day, the best distinction that Systrom made along the way was realizing that he was not the one to build the code. He believed that Instagram would be big from day one, but the role he’d play and the path the company would take, changed dramatically along the way.