India key driver on Instagram’s path to 1 billion users, Mike Krieger says

November 17, 2017
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MENLO PARK, CA:

Mike Krieger
co-founded the popular photo-sharing app Instagram along with his Stanford college mate Kevin Systrom in 2010. As the company co-founder and CTO, the Brazil-born Krieger steers all product decisions along with building the vision for the seven-year-old firm, which has emerged as the most prized acquisition for Facebook.


In a freewheeling interview at Instagram’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the 31-year-old spoke to
TOI
exclusively about how India has emerged as a key market for the company as it chalks out its path from the 800-million to 1-billion monthly user mark, the Facebook leverage, its cloning of features from Snapchat, and hot button issues like immigration in Silicon Valley.

Edited excerpts:


You’ve had a great run last year or so, especially after the launch of Instagram Stories in 2016. How important has India been in this journey?



We grew from 700 million to 800 million monthly active users, or MAUs, just in a space of 100 days. India is a huge contributor to that growth. We think of it as a market with a lot of promise and excitement. So as we draw up the path from 800 million to 900 million to a billion users, we see India as being a very key market for us. India would be a primary component of in that journey.


What has worked for you in India and other emerging markets?



There have been a couple of milestones. In 2012, we launched on the Android platform, which opened up the market for us internationally. Five years ago, we were still an even split between the US and international, and now it is 70% international, if not more.


How did you start focusing on countries outside of the US?



About three years ago, we were at 500 million monthly users. We started thinking how the product was getting in the way of those wanting to use Instagram. We identified a few things. Our app was using a lot of data, so it was difficult to use if you did not have a perfect LTE connectivity. We put an engineering team in New York and had them focus on how Instagram would work as well, no matter what phone or network you were on. I spent a lot of time with that team and they looked at offline mode and optimising for data usage. Also, we thought of videos on Instagram.


How much of the product development was based on insights coming from places like India?



The engineering and product teams are actually in India right now doing ground research, talking to people on what’s working well and what’s not. Another issue which was raised was of people who were not sure about installing Instagram on their phones, and for them we started building our mobile web experience. We were very mobile-focused and till about a year and half ago we had a very basic website. But then in the last year we let users post pictures on the web, we are even trying to test Instagram Stories (a feature launched in 2016, which lets users share videos and posts that disappear after 24 hours) on the mobile web. We have invested a lot in mobile web based on the feedback we have gotten from users in emerging markets like India. We try and be very problemcentric at Instagram. The biggest issues like our app uses too much data, takes too much space — we thought if we solve these two problems then we get more people to try us.


What role did Facebook play in Instagram going for growth in markets like India?



One of the most important things that has come up from talking to the Facebook teams is the opportunity size in markets. India is a huge market for Facebook, even knowing what the benchmark is can be really helpful. And then there is a ton of research they’ve done over the years on data usage, and on ways one can think of countries in a more nuanced way and treat people as people and not as a country. They have been able to bring that nuance because their infrastructure has the ability to figure the network connectivity, the device the person is using, rather than targeting by country which is too broad.


You started Instagram in 2010, two years later it was acquired by Facebook for $1billion. What’s the last five years been like?



The amount of output that we had and the size of the community we supported was totally disproportionate to the team size then. For the first 2.5 years of being here (Facebook), it was about growing the team and the management to support the community. It is kind of scary — in 2012 we were growing a lot, but had only six engineers, we were very slow at hiring. We had no management experience. I can easily imagine us, if we could not have the ability to grow the team like we did while being at Facebook, having a lot of scaling issues. We could take two years and build out an engineering team and infrastructure, learn a lot — both Kevin (Systrom) and I — on managing and growing a team, and then you saw us getting into gear in 2015-16. We are now shipping products at a cadence which is much better than in 2013-14.


What has been the most significant transition for the company after the sale to Facebook?



A big part of the transition has been thinking about the company as much as about the product — they are both related. For the first few years, we were 100 miles prior going on the product part and the company part was just enough to let us get by, but it was not sustainable for the long run. We were putting ridiculous hours and it would not have lasted very long. It’s been great last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the team culture and who we are hiring. It’s less immediate gratification than shipping a product, but it is the only way you will sustain the growth in the long run.


Was it the right move then to sell so early on?



Yes, and more so for hiring. We went from those six engineers in September of 2012 when we arrived here to 24 by the end of the year. That was a big cultural thing but we brought in good people, and now we are at 300. We could have built that team independently but with a lot more challenge, especially at that early stage. I call it the recruiting cycle of death — when your team is so busy to recruit which makes them busier and then you spiral downwards. That’s where we were. I was trying to keep the site up with 30 million people using it and also recruiting, but was unable to do either enough.


What made you and Kevin decide to say yes to Facebook?



All of the issues around hiring, scaling up, but also because of the alignment of values and mission with the Facebook leadership. We spent a lot of time talking to Mark (Zuckerberg) and Mike Schroepfer (Facebook CTO). Our engineering cultures were very aligned — empowering engineers, letting them move quickly and not insisting on building a perfectly crafted code that no one uses. So we balanced pragmatism with quality. Also, they thought Instagram had a big, interesting path ahead of it. We had their buyin to let it scale, which was important. So it was not the end of the journey but the next chapter for us.


You’re a Brazilian. How do you react to the present situation around immigration in Silicon Valley?



It’s a full journey for me. I came here as a student, worked on an H-1B for a few years. During the Obama administration, I was pretty much in communication with them about what worked for me in my immigration journey and what could get better. Kevin and I almost didn’t start Instagram together because I wasn’t able to get a visa to be his co-founder. When you are founding a company, you have to move at a startup pace and you can’t wait for months to get the status of your visa. Kevin had raised seed money of $500,000 because we needed to show that we had the capital and I couldn’t be shown on the capitalisation table or cap table. There was an element of luck — it could have gone the other way. Kevin raised the seed money before I signed on but there was a condition from Steve Anderson (of Baseline Ventures), who was one of our two early investors, that he had to get a technical co-founder. So I was talking to the Obama administration and hoping for a forward progress on a few of these things, like Immigrant ‘Startup Visa’ and other interesting ideas.


…which has (Startup Visa) now been blocked…



It is a setback. It’s now almost like playing defence. We need to now say that there’s a lot of good things that have come off immigrants here, which create jobs and grow the economy. I have been fairly vocal on when there have been moves to limit that and create uncertainty in the immigration process. As difficult as my process was, I knew there were steps to get there, the uncertainty is very problematic. A friend of mine directed a film “For Here Or To Go” about Indian immigrants — it’s all about that uncertainty. As a Brazilian, I didn’t have to go through that while getting my Green Card, but for a lot of folks from India it takes years. It’s a whole challenge. People talk about entrepreneurs as risk takers, but to take risks you need to start from a really stable base and that’s what I worry most about with immigration. We need to provide clear rules that incentivise good entrepreneurs to come here and start businesses so that they can become risk takers then.


What do you say to Instagram cloning Snapchat, but still being behind in getting new users in the US, although you’re ahead in international markets?



There is a tremendous power of network effects, you won’t just switch to an identical product. Just being good enough isn’t enough, you need to provide something novel and new. There are some countries where we’ve had runaway success like in Spain with Instagram Stories. There is no longer only one Instagram anymore. Every country has different composition of ages and other subtleties, which is very interesting as we grow.

As for the US, Snapchat is still strong and that’s a great thing to internalise for our teams. It’s an interesting competition. For us the path forward is what’s the Instagrammy version of Stories, which is integrated with our product and brings our own ideas to the table. We launched the polling sticker because feedback and comments have been part of Instagram since the beginning.

The key is that if we would have brought it (Stories) and stopped there, then it would have been the only narrative and people would have said, ‘Look at Instagram, they copied Snapchat and it didn’t work’. But instead, we have continued to iterate and done a bunch of work. One of the biggest things we have focused on around Stories is performance and that has helped in it being used.


Does it work for you to not face Snapchat outside of the US?



It does make a lot of sense. But for us, we are such a visual platform that since we started we always thought we could reach all across the world. For me, it’s awesome to see that people who were not using the Story format are adopting it to share their life-on-the-go.


Recently, you doubled your advertising base to 2 million. What’s the monetisation plan for emerging markets?



I have seen this closely in Brazil, where we are not thinking only of big advertisers but the long tail of small businesses. I saw owners of, say, a doughnut store, or a fashion designer selling products through Instagram. A lot of the products we are building now is to help enable these small businesses. We are also working on Instagram Direct (which lets users send messages to one or more people) to help business owners. As we look to the future, monetisation and commerce are not only for generating revenues but our role in the world is towards empowering local businesses and giving them tools to grow.