Kevin Systrom: Tactics, Books, and the Path to a Billion Users – The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • A good motto in life and business – do the simple thing first
  • There’s nothing in the world that can substitute for real experience
  • Never expect you’ll get a “no” – Go for it and take the risk anyway
  • “The key to entrepreneurship is failing really quickly – putting things out there, seeing if it works, and if it doesn’t, diagnosing why and focusing on how to improve it from there”
    • “I think a big part of knowing you’re right is working as hard as you can to prove you’re wrong”
  • “Without the truth, you can’t improve”
    • Go search for honest feedback, it significantly speeds up the improvement process
  • Kevin’s advice to entrepreneurs – “Make sure you’re actually solving a problem”
    • It’s simple, but so many people forget it
  • Instead of loving what you do, love what you’re shooting for
    • Work is HARD – nothing great in this world ever came easy

Books Mentioned

  • The book Kevin has gifted most – Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
  • Another book Kevin found useful – The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
  • How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
    • The claim – the best way to read is by first familiarizing yourself with the structure of a book before just diving in from the beginning
  • Kevin says his bedside tables is STACKED with books, like:
    • The Mathematics of Politics by E. Arthur Robinson and Daniel H. Ullman
    • A few books on flying since he’s learning how to be a pilot
    • Quantitative finance books
  • Kevin recommends – The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
    • “It’s a book about manufacturing and supply chain management. It sounds boring but I promise you it’s really good.”
    • A lesson learned from the book – a system is most constrained by its slowest process
  • One of Kevin and Tim’s favorite books – The Lessons of History by Will Durant and Ariel Durant
  • Kevin hasn’t really dug into any biographies yet, but Tim recommends:

Intro

  • Kevin (@Kevin) is the co-founder of Instagram
    • While serving as CEO of the company, Instagram grew to more than a billion users

The Books Kevin Has Gifted Most Often

  • Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
    • “It’s both a guide to life, a guide to business, and an insight into Ray
      • Ray runs Bridgewater Capital, a hedge fund with over $160 billion under management
      • Check out the Podcast Notes from Ray’s appearance on The Tim Ferriss Show
  • Another book Kevin has found useful – The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
    • One of the key principles – “Do the simple thing first”

Do the Simple Thing First

  • “People love to make their lives more difficult than they need to be”
  • In a startup  – “You don’t have time to make things complex, you have time to make things work”
    • “The right thing to do is sometimes the simplest, and it’s often the most effective”

The Story of Instagram

  • It originated out of Kevin wanting to be his own boss
  • After graduating from Stanford and briefly working at Google, Kevin started a check-in website called Burbn (like Foursquare)
    • He raised money and soon met his co-founder, Mike Krieger
      • The two worked on it for 3 months before deciding to pivot
    • One feature of Burbn was being able to add a photo to your check-in at a particular location – they decided to double down on this feature (and it eventually became Instagram)
      • “We got to the idea by cutting everything away from Burbn, circling the one that we thought was the biggest opportunity because it didn’t exist yet and was a big need, and soon enough, we had the first version of Instagram”

The Mayfield Fellows Program

  • This is a program run at Stanford every year where 12 grad students interested in entrepreneurship focus on an “entrepreneurship education”
    • The program involves:
      • 3 months of reading case studies
      • 3 months interning at a startup
      • 3 months of debriefing your own experience, with a full case report written about what you learned
    • Kevin participated in the program during his junior year (the program is typically only for grad students, but the admissions depart was impressed with Kevin – specifically because of a startup he founded while an undergrad – a Craigslist alternative just for Stanford students)
      • Two lessons from this:
        • Never expect you’ll get a “no” – apply anyway
        • Do the thing/walk the walk – start a startup, don’t just go to conferences and talk about it
  • Something Kevin learned from the program? – There’s nothing in the world that can substitute for real experience
    • If you want to be a chef, get in the kitchen
    • You can’t learn about investing unless you invest
    • “Real experience is so much better than what’s in a book”

The Best Way to Read a Book

  • Check out How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
    • The claim – the best way to read is by familiarizing yourself with the structure of a book before just diving in from the beginning
      • So first, really focus on the table of contents
      • Then skim the book and figure out what the main arguments are
        • A tip – Most authors, in the last few sentences of each chapter (especially at the end of a book), summarize their main arguments
        • “By reading just those paragraphs, you get a pretty good feel for what the book is about”
      • Then go back and read how you’d normally read
  • Kevin says his bedside tables is STACKED with books, like:
    • The Mathematics of Politics by E. Arthur Robinson and Daniel H. Ullman
    • A few books on flying since he’s learning how to be a pilot
    • And a few quantitative finance books

Odeo

  • Kevin’s internship as part of the Mayfield Fellows Program was at Odeo”
    • “It was one of the best experiences learning from Evan Williams
  • Odeo was the precursor to Twitter
    • Originally, the company was a podcast directory (right idea, just a little too early)
      • A lesson from this – sometimes timing is everything in entrepreneurship
    • Eventually, the company pivoted to an idea originated by an engineer there, Jack Dorsey (side note – Jack started at the company around the same time Kevin did)

Lessons Learned from Evan Williams

  • For background, Evan has had quite the string of successes in his career:
  • He’s super calm under fire
  • Kevin said Evan had an insane work ethic
    • He was the first one in and last one out
    • “The work ethic required to get startups off the ground, it’s incredible”

Pivoting – How do you know, as a startup, when it’s time?

  • Kevin thinks that most successful companies are the result of a pivot
    • Side note – check out the Wayback Machine Internet Archive – you can type in any web address and see the history of it visually
      • One cool fact – YouTube used to be a dating site
    • Why? – It’s really hard to tell what will work before you put it in people’s hands
      • “The key to entrepreneurship is failing really quickly – putting things out there, seeing if it works, and if it doesn’t, diagnosing why and focusing on how to improve it from there”
  • “Far too many people, because of ego, stick with ideas far too long”
  • Related:
    • Post-it Notes were a failed adhesive
    • Viagra was a failure as a blood pressure medication, which is what it was initially intended for
  • “I think a big part of knowing you’re right is working as hard as you can to prove you’re wrong”
    • Too many people are afraid to gather honest feedback about their products
  • “Most of the successful people I know have TONS of bad idea – they’re just good at editing them out”

The Importance of Feedback

  • When Tim is asking friends for feedback on his books, in order to get an honest response, he’ll send them a manuscript and say something like:
    • “If you had to cut 10-20% of this chapter, gun to the head, which parts would you cut out?”
  • People just aren’t wired to give honest feedback, they’re wired to avoid conflict
  • “Without the truth, you can’t improve”
    • Go search for honest feedback, it significantly speeds up self-improvement
    • “If you have spinach stuck in your teeth, you need someone to tell you” -Tim
  • One way you can more easily give honest feedback:
    • Say – “Listen, if I were on the receiving end of this, I’d want to know X. Do whatever you want with this.”
  • Another tip from Tim:
    • If you ever ask someone to rate something from 1-10, don’t allow them to use a 7

The Tougher Times

  • “I feel like I wake up every day with a lot of the same worries I had before Instargam was big”
    • Kevin frequently finds himself wondering:
      • “Am I working on the right thing?”
      • “Did I do enough today?”
      • “Is this idea the right thing to work on”
  • “Getting knocked down is a really common thing no matter where you are in your career, no matter where you are in your progress of building something”
  • Instagram struggles:
    • There were many along the way, but….
      • “The thing that kept us going…the reason we got back up each and every time was because we loved what we were doing”
      • Another thing that helped – Kevin had no choice but to get back up (he had no other job, had raised a bunch of money, and loved what he was working on)
        • “Every time one of these failures would occur, what was the other option besides getting back up…a desk job?”

Selling Instagram

  • Instagram was sold to Facebook in April 2012 for $1 billion plus stock (the company only had 13 employees at the time, hadn’t made a dime, but had amassed 50 million users)
    • For many entrepreneurs, this means you “won”
      • But things were far from over – Instagram has since surpassed a billion users

Growing Instagram and a Tip For Hiring

  • After selling, Kevin had the sole goal of hiring the smartest people he could find
    • “By hiring people way better than you…you actually end up creating the best possible team”
      • Many people hesitate when it comes to hiring superior talent for fear that that whomever they’re hiring will eventually take their job – but you need to get over this fear
      • The lesson – “Hire really great people that you feel one day should have your job”

A Lesson Learned From Supply Chain Management

  • Kevin recommends the book – The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox
    • “It’s a book about manufacturing and supply chain management. It sounds boring but I promise you it’s really good.”
    • A lot of business folks say it’s their favorite book
    • A lesson learned from reading the book – any system is most constrained by its slowest process
      • The slowest part in the chain limits output
  • Think:
    • A company is made up of raw ideas which go through machines that transform them into reality
      • Idea —> mock —> final draft —> version —> beta testing —> out to the real world
        • You need to make sure all parts of this are running at highest capacity

How does Kevin choose which books to read?

  • He doesn’t read fiction
  • Kevin focuses the best books in certain subject/topic areas
    • “A big part of me reading is usually to get a certain outcome” – like to learn a new skill
      • “If you want to learn a new skill, there’s nothing like sitting down with a nonfiction book on the topic”
  • One of his favorites:
  • Kevin hasn’t really dug into any biographies yet, but Tim recommends:

Advice From Kevin and Tim

  • Tim commonly gives the following advice to authors:
  • Kevin’s advice to entrepreneurs – “Make sure you’re actually solving a problem”
    • It’s simple – but so many people don’t do it

A Common Mistake Among Entrepreneurs and Creatives

  • Going at it alone – you most likely need a team
    • “There is incredible power in having people around you”
    • “Trying to do it all yourself is a recipe for not only getting it wrong, but also not being able to get back up”

What would Kevin put on a billboard?

  • “Follow your passion”
    • “As long as you’ve thought through it, and you’ve done the math, go for it and don’t let people stand in your way”
    • Tim adds – “Life is short” – Don’t forget it

Parting Advice

  • All the little things you’re worrying about, probably don’t matter all that much – keep this perspective
  • “A lot of people say you should love what you do. I agree, but I think it’s more you should love what you’re shooting for.”
    • Work is HARD – nothing great in this world ever came easy

Random

  • The first version of Instagram didn’t have filters
    • The filters came about after Kevin got the suggestion from his wife while on vacation in Mexico
  • Check out The Golden Personality Profiler
    • It told Kevin he learns better by reading, not by hearing lectures
    • It’s a variant on the Myers-Briggs Test
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