I was having lunch with a new client yesterday and the subject of Instagram came up.  “1 Billion dollars…with a “b” was pretty much how he put it.  And it is amazing.  But it isn’t necessarily the story that’s interesting…it is the rest of the story.

It didn’t take 2 years to get “there

There are plenty of articles that talk about Instagram’s meteoric success.  They state it like it happened in just a couple years time.  But the reality was that the owner, Kevin Systrom actually started playing with photo sharing applications 8 years ago. In fact, Kevin’s flirtations with Facebook started back in 2004 when Zuckerberg offered him a job working in the photo-sharing division of Facebook.

This never happened.  He decided to stay in school….

When he graduated from Stanford, he worked at Odeo (which eventually became twitter) as an intern and eventually landed a job at Google, in which he worked with for 2 years. He wound up in the corporate development division of Google and that is where he got the itch to try out another start-up.

The start-up was another photo-sharing application, this time burbn. If you had used burbn when it first came out, you would see that there are a lot of similarities between it and instagram.  But burbn was the photo sharing version of 4square.  It didn’t take off like instagram.

Which leads us to instagram, which is really just a stripped down version of burbn.  It took off because it piggy backed off of another great company (Apple) at a time when more and more people were taking photos from their phones.

A year later, it sold for $1 billion.

Want to see a little more behind the scenes? Check out this Vanity Fair article on Kevin Systrom, which highlights the 18 month roller coaster ride that ended with a 1 billion dollar offer.

The Money Shot

When we see things, we usually see it from the destination point of view. It’s easy to look at that musician turned superstar and think how lucky he/she must be.  What we don’t see is the journey they took to get there.

We don’t see the thousands of gigs before they started selling out arenas.  We don’t see the times they played to 2 people in a hole-in-the-wall bar.  We don’t see them making the connections that is going to move their career further.  We don’t see the times they slept on someone else’s couch because they couldn’t afford a hotel.

We don’t see the struggles.  We only see the pinnacle of their success after they paid their dues.

And then we think how lucky they are….

But they aren’t “lucky”.  They just stayed on the path that they chose, weathered the storms and slowly evolved into what we see as a success story.

Now 8 years to 1 billion is not a lot of time.  And there is some luck involved.  But don’t dismiss the fact that Kevin Systrom didn’t just wake up one day and say to himself, gee, I am going to start a company that will make photo-sharing using the web easier for everyone.

It was an evolution.  He had to first learn the mechanics behind actually creating it, in which he learned in Stanford. During that time, he started playing with photo sharing applications.  After Stanford, he went to work at Twitter and likely met a lot of people involved with funding start-ups.  From there he went to Google and worked with people as bright as himself.

He started a new start up (which in all likelihood was possible because of the people he had networked with) and was actually funded.  And this eventually became instagram, which at the time, happened to be created in an environment where people saw value in it.

All the work leading up to the application is where he paid his dues.

He could have chosen a different path.  For instance, he could have flip flopped to different applications.  Instead, he focused on one-  photo sharing.  And he did it despite the lack luster efforts of his preceding photo sharing applications.  He honed it.  He figured out what worked and what people wanted.  And then, when instagram was formed, it happened at a time when the environment was just right.

So, say what you will about how impressive the mountain he climbed.  But don’t discount the dues he paid to get there.  There may have been a bit of luck involved (right place at the right time) but the reality is that there was work as well that led up to his creation.