Instagram co-founder on startup success: “Identify your early obsessions”

Instagram (S fb) might have been valued at $1 billion when it sold to Facebook this summer, but just a few years ago, co-founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom were just two guys doing a startup near a lot of others in the same building in San Francisco. Krieger said they saw plenty of startups, and they learned a few lessons along the way. Mainly, startup success isn’t as much luck as people would think.

“The ones that had a weird name and weren’t really working on a particular product are all gone,” Krieger said, pointing to startup counterparts like TaskRabbit that were tackling a problem and are still going strong. It’s not enough to just have funding and a vague idea — a successful startup takes passion, dedication, and intent. “What you find over and over again is that years of work go into this. For me and Kevin, it was being obsessed with photography and playing with little plastic cameras. Identify some of your early obsessions,” he advised.

Krieger dispensed both practical advice for integrating design into startup success at 500 Startups’ Warm Gun conference Friday in San Francisco, talking about how truly hard work and pinch-hitting go into that success. He described his first job out of school at Meebo, where he sat down ready to follow classroom design principles only to learn he had two weeks — not a semester — to complete the project. He went on Craiglist to find usability testers, noting that you can find some bad apples in that process.

“One of them actually stole my identity, drove to Burlingame, and spent $300 at Petco,” he said. So, be warned.

So how to combine design principles you learned in school with the reality of startup life? Here were a few of Krieger’s tips:

  • Draw on previous experience and understanding: Kriger said plenty of founders want to think they can start at the beginning with something they learn from scratch, he said, but true success usually doesn’t start from a blank slate. “The reality is that in a startup, you don’t have much time for that. You have to find what you’re an expert at and go from there.”
  • Identify your blind spots: Don’t know a particular type of coding, or realize your design skills need a refresher? Figure out where your skills are lacking, and get to work fixing them. Krieger noted that he needed more practice building for mobile apps, so he built a crime app that mapped crime in San Francisco, and put it in the app store. It wasn’t beautiful, but it taught him a lot. “You could stress test it by going over to Bayview,” he joked, noting the app would tell you when you were in a high-crime area.
  • Identify why you’re different: “The fact that you’re smarter isn’t a good enough reason,” Krieger said. You should be able to tell people what your product does and why it works, and how it’s different from your competitor.
  • Pass the bar exam: Validation of your idea in social settings is like the bar exam of startups, Krieger said. Figure out how you would pitch your app or product to a stranger in a bar in 20 seconds, and if it’s too complicated to explain, re-think the simplicity. He said with their precursor to Instagram, called Burbn, they failed the bar test and realized they needed to re-work it.