Instagram’s Berliner on How They Made it Big

By David Knight |

It was the exit story of the year – a small Silicon Valley startup, with barely a dozen employees, bought out by the mighty Facebook for an eye-watering $1 billion. And among those few staff at Instagram was Gregor Hochmuth, a Berliner who found his way to the photo app platform via Stanford and Google.

His story, and what drove Instagram to become such a success, ensured a packed auditorium on Friday evening at IdeaLab!, where the attendees had already enjoyed speeches from Oliver Samwer, Eileen Burbidge and Lars Hinrichs.

Gregor is an unassuming guy who clearly believes passionately in building innovative products. His explanation for what helped Instagram rise above the competition, which at the start included two better-funded companies, was to concentrate on solving a real problem rather than trying to find a big problem.

He said: “At Instagram we care about solving a real problem. And the real problem that we started with was [that] taking photos with your phone was hard, hard to share, it was not fast and your photos looked like crap.”

Cementing the Photo Trigger

This led to a focus on beauty, ease of sharing and, most importantly, speed. The triggers that cause a user to pull their phone out of their pocket and open a specific app are vital, and making the Instagram service as fast as possible helped cement the natural instinct to take photos.

Instagram’s astonishing growth is illustrated in the fact that after creating the company’s first real statistical analysis tool, he had to fix it five times as it could not keep up with the expanding userbase. Even now, with the team having moved into their new Facebook office four weeks ago, each employee represents 6.25 million users.

Gregor also revealed some of the reasons why he believes the experience of building a company in Silicon Valley cannot be matched anywhere else in the world. Having finished his studies at Stanford, he returned to Germany to work with VC firm Hasso Plattner Ventures.

There he noticed that his relative youth became an issue – he would turn up to meetings, only for people to look over his shoulder searching for the person they assumed they were going to talk with.

Whereas in the Valley, he said, age is simply not an issue – there is no ‘normal’; everything is ‘normal.’

In addition, echoing what many have said in the past few years, the attitude towards failure is completely different. In fact, he argued, failure “almost doesn’t exist as a concept” in Silicon Valley.

‘I Have a Big Beef with Copycats’

As far as Instagram’s current competition goes, Gregor insisted that they don’t pay much attention to it. When asked by an audience member to evaluate their competitors, with a specific reference to Berlin-based startup EyeEm, he said: “Independent of EyeEm, I personally just have this really big beef with copycats. I just think it’s not creative and it’s not innovative unless you’re adding something substantially new.” And he added: “I’m watching with interest what they do, the way they execute, and I think EyeEm is actually a very pretty app in that way too, but we just never care about the competition… We can just focus on what we can control, which is building our products, and focusing on the users.”

Earlier, the audience had heard Frank Thelen, serial entrepreneur and investor and most recently creator of doo, urge would-be founders to learn to code while dismissing programming languages like Java, HTML 5, declaring: “Web apps? The experience sucks.”

The morning session, meanwhile, included a rare public appearance from Oliver Samwer, who provided some mixed metaphor-laden tips for entrepreneurs. He was followed by Eileen Burbidge talking for the first time about the early days of Skype and how it became a multi-billion dollar business.

The annual IdeaLab! conference is organised by the students at the WHU, one of Germany’s most prestigious business schools.