I’m at the Future of Mobile Conference in London today. First up is Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, talking about how to get a lot of users fast… Liveblogged notes follow.

Instagram has a user base about the size of London – there’s a huge opportunity in reaching a worldwide audience with truly mainstream apps.

It started off as Burbn – an HTML5 web app that was meant to be a location-based game. "Checkins" was a magic word for investors two years ago. But the product was confusing, undifferentiated and slow. People outside their circle of friends were confused by it (good test of your product).

This sort of pivot away from the site's original purpose isn't unusual: YouTube started as a video dating site! They saw unexpected behaviours – people were passing around a range of video, not just dating proposals. The same thing happened with Burbn – people were using the photos aspect more and more. The founders were keen photographers, the apps for photos weren’t great… The path forward became obvious.

Dealing with crappy photos

Still a tough decision to take what you’ve put work into and switch to something else. But they did. And they focused on problems users have with photo apps. For example – at the time most mobile photos still looked rubbish (this was just before the iPhone 4). The filter-based apps were the most popular in the store because they helped solve that, so they looked at that idea as a solution.

The second problem they wanted to solve was speed. This would be the key to succeeding in mobile. They decided they would only send the minimum size needed to display on the iPhone 4. The 640 x 640 ristriction was a core part of their success. Also, they used asynchronous technology in the background to make sure photos could be shared to multiple networks in one go without a noticeable user delay.

At launch, they targeted a user group who were passionate about the problems they were solving. BUT inviting influencers doesn’t guarantee anything. They have to love the product.

Other key factors:

  • Early internationalisation
  • A small team, able to be nimble
  • Single platform from the beginning – no reason you need to be on two platforms from day one.
  • Minimum viable product at each step
  • Invested in community very early

Ubelly.com has blogged the session, too.