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Instagram, Not Instant Success

Like other tech entrepreneurs in San Francisco / Silicon Valley, when I heard the news this week of Instagram’s ginormous deal with Facebook and contemplated its meteoric rise from $0** to $1 billion in less than two years, I was in awe, excited, and curious to figure out: how did this happen?

As a newcomer to the tech scene and a relative outsider in the Valley (not sure how many of my fellow entrepreneurs also spent the last year serving as ambassadors of goodwill in developing countries), I’m still figuring out how the norms of this place work.

Earlier this morning, I got a pretty good lesson from a front page article in the NY Times:


Networks matter. A lot.

Extended summary:

Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, has a network – and an ability to tap into it – that made serendipity commonplace…

He went to Stanford, where he met Adam D’Angelo (key contact) .

He worked at Twitter, where he met Jack Dorsey (key contact).

He worked at Google, where a colleague introduced him to Marc Andreessen (investor).

He was a Mayfield Fellow, where he met a “stud engineer” named Mike Krieger (co-founder).

He went to an elite private academy in Massachusetts.

He went to startup events where influencers mingled, like the one sponsored by Hunch where he met the founder of Baseline Ventures, Steve Anderson (investor).

He grew up in an area of Massachusetts where a chance meeting with Dennis Crowley, one of Foursquare’s founders, was possible at a local pub.

He is smart, talented, young, and a he.

Silicon Valley, if indeed a meritocracy, relies on key influencers and vaunted names to evaluate merit. 
The more ties you have to these institutions that convey merit (Stanford, Google, Jack Dorsey), the more likely you are to be perceived as merited, or at least given the shot to show what you are really worth.
Instagram feels like an instant success. But the social network of its founder Kevin Systrom positioned Instagram to have as good a shot as any to be a blockbuster hit, long before it was first released.

**Instagram, or its precursor, Burbn, was worth $0 from the moment the idea first occurred to Kevin Systrom until exactly 1 millisecond before he shared his idea for the first time with his network. Success was far from assured, but from that moment onward, Burbn (and its founder) were worth much more than $0 in the eyes of people who mattered, people like Steve Anderson and Marc Andreessen, who were members of Kevin’s network and invested $500,000 within weeks of hearing about the idea.