Transforming Burbn to Instagram

Katie May
Katie May
Oct 3, 2017 · 5 min read

Instagram, an app used by you and 800 million other users every day, did not start out in the clean and simplistic way as we see it today. Instagram is a social media app that lets registered users share photos with their followers, similar to other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The original version of the social media platform included a feed which included all the posts from the accounts that you chose to follow, a homepage with all your photos that you had posted, and the ability to follow and like other people’s photos. The initial uniqueness of Instagram that separated it from other social media platforms was that it only allowed you to post photos in a square format. The feature that really separated it from the crowd was the photo editing capabilities. It allows users to edit their photos with a variety of different filters. Many basic, well known filters like sepia and black and white are filter options, but others that were specially made like ‘slumber’ and ‘crema’ are available as well.

Instagram was created in October of 2012, but was not under the same name that is so familiar to the general population today. The beloved app stemmed from different ideas and projects created by founders Kevin Systrom and Michael Krieger. The idea of Instagram was born through a creation of another social media platform call Burbn. Burbn was check in site, similar to foursquare and wildly popular for the time. On the site, you had the ability to check in at an event or place you were at or were going to be, but what made Burbn different was that you had the ability to post photos as well.

Burbn was originally the brainchild of Kevin Systrom. After receiving a large seed funding from investors Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz he was required to transform the Burbn site into an application for smartphones so it could be easily accessible to users and the expanding smartphone market. Kevin Systrom was ready to do so, but in an interview with the podcast, Decode Recode, Kevin Systrom would confess that he hadn’t originally made Burbn into an app because he simply did not know how to. Thus ushered in the partnership with Michael Krieger.

Michael Krieger and Kevin Systrom had met while attending Stanford University together back in the early 2000s. While they never had previously worked on the same start up projects together, their careers overlapped time to time. They had always relied on each other for advice and tips on whatever they were working on.

While working on improving the prototype of Burbn, Systrom and Krieger realized they had to stop trying to make things work with Burbn and refocus their objectives and path for what it could be. In an interview with The Atlantic, the creativity researcher of Burbn, Keith Sawyer, had described Burbn as having “a jumble of features that made it confusing”. Burbn was trying to do too many things at once- it had too many aspects to it. In an interview about the very beginning and development of Burbn and Instagram, Kevin Systrom states that

“We decided that if we were going to build a company, we wanted to focus on being really good at one thing… We actually got an entire version of Burbn done as an iPhone app, but it felt cluttered, and overrun with features. It was really difficult to decide to start from scratch, but we went out on a limb, and basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram.”

It was decidedly too similar to the wildly popular social media platform of the time, foursquare. It needed to specialize its abilities and differentiate from their competitors if it was ever going to gain any popularity. It was decided that they would focus only on the photo sharing aspect of their social media platform. Through this, was the birth of Instagram.

Kevin Systrom argues that this was one of the best decisions because they looked at how the iphone was developing, especially since the iphone 4 had just come out, and how the cameras were increasingly improving. They saw how this area of technology was expanding with the smartphone market, and jumped onto the bandwagon.

Photography was always something that interested Systrom because he had always loved photography. In the app, that would later be renamed to Instagram, he applied his loved for chemically developing photos in school with the different filters like sepia. Based on this interest, was the preface of why he made it one of the key functionalities of the app. He admits in the same Decode Recode interview that in the beginning, the first users who had downloaded Instagram had no idea that it was a social media outlet, but instead a photo editing app. Once people started to notice that their pictures were getting ‘likes’, the popularity shot off.

Within 2 months of of launching Instagram, it already garnered 1 million users. It becomes such a huge success. Now as of September of 2017, the photo sharing social media platform has garnered 800 million users. Along the way, Instagram continued to change and improve the app to continue to facilitate the popularity and growth of the app. Some changes would include adding the ability to share videos, post stories, go live, and the ability to post photos with their original size- moving away from their unique square photo premise. Much of the success came from Instagram joining Facebook

On April 9th, 2012, Facebook released a statement that it had bought Instagram for $1 billion. This had given so many possibilities for Instagram to expand. The plan was for Instagram to remain separate from Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, released a statement on Facebook about the purchase saying

“We believe these are different experiences that complement each other. But in order to do this well, we need to be mindful about keeping and building on Instagram’s strengths and features rather than just trying to integrate everything into Facebook.That’s why we’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently. Millions of people around the world love the Instagram app and the brand associated with it, and our goal is to help spread this app and brand to even more people.

Since the plan was to keep Instagram separate, Kevin Systrom and Michael Krieger stayed on to work on Instagram. Facebook had provided them so many more valuable resources that Instagram in its original state. At the time of their purchase, Instagram was still only a 13 person micro-business in San Francisco. Now with the access to so much more capital and manpower, Instagram could finally keep up and expand and evolve with the changing technologies and trends.

Katie May

Written by

Katie May

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