Instagram CEO: Other photo-sharing sites are not competitors but alternatives

Instagram's CEO discusses the state of his successful mobile photo app startup one year after launching.
Written by Rachel King, Contributor

Mobile developers should focus on doing fewer things more quickly rather than taking a long time to produce big, complex releases, advised Kevin Systrom, Instagram's CEO, while sitting down with GigaOM founder Om Malik at Mobilize 2011 in San Francisco on Tuesday morning.

"A lot of developers are close to having awesome apps," advised Systrom, "You just need to make a few tweaks in the user experience and the speed."

Systrom reiterated that mobile developers have to pay attention to details -- particularly speed, using the example that when an Instagram user is at a cafe with a friend, the last thing someone wants to do is spend five minutes uploading a photo.

Instagram launched approximately one year ago. Now with 10 million active users, Instagram sees roughly 26 photos posted per second as of September 26 -- compared to one or two photo per seconds around launch time. Over the past weekend, approximately 78 users were signing up every single minute at its peak -- equating to more than one user per second.

Systrom also expressed delight that Instagram has been global from the start, "You name it, we have users there," he affirmed.

While Systrom said that Instagram is happy with its success so far, it's nice for the scale it is at, but acknowledged that "there are much larger players in the world." When asked about photo sharing competitors (primarily Facebook), Systrom responded diplomatically.

"At the end of the day, I think anyone that allows you to take a photo isn't necessarily a competitor but an alternative," Systrom posited. "What we want to be able to do is to provide you with a single camera to upload to any service." Noting that such a concept is usually construed as "against the grain" as "most people like to keep content to themselves, Systrom pointed out that Instagram supports uploading to multiple social media sites, namely Twitter, Flickr and Facebook.

Of course, there are plenty of smaller competitors as well, as Systrom noted that there are "40 other Instagram lookalikes" available in app stores, but he admitted that "it's not like Instagram made the space." One of the ways that Instagram has stood apart is its catalog of artistic and modern filters, but Systrom asserted that's a "small percentage" of what his developers focus on, describing the filters as "icing on the cake."

There's a mood and a tone that filters lend to images, Systrom explained, arguing that there is an "emotional aspect" to them.

Systrom also attributed Instagram's initial success to the device that it runs on.

"The biggest thing that worked in our favor is that the iPhone launched literally like a week or two before we went out," said Systrom, citing that the "gorgeous" display and higher-res camera helped contribute to Instagram's runaway success.

But this is really only the beginning for Instagram. Systrom attributed how long it has taken Instagram to expand to the fact that development cycles in building apps are much longer than building websites. Systrom posited that the web is instantaneous, whereas getting apps to be approved and stay relevant takes more time.

"With limited resources, you focus on the biggest problems," Systrom explained, "We've raised some money that will allow us to grow for awhile."

Now that the second version of Instagram is rolling out, Systrom added that Instagram is focused on growing its employee base. Product-wise, the web and Android versions are also top priorities, and premium services are being considered. 

"Competitors launch every day with N-million in funding," Systrom said, "Our goal should be to lock up the space."

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