‘Selfie-effacing’: Mike Krieger’s own image is rarely posted on the service he founded with Kevin Systrom and then sold to Facebook
‘Selfie-effacing’: Mike Krieger’s own image is rarely posted on the service he founded with Kevin Systrom and then sold to Facebook

Mike Krieger must be more at ease behind the camera than gazing into the lens. Just look at his account on Instagram, the photo-filtering app used by 400m people worldwide. The feed is dominated by pictures of his Burmese mountain dog, Juno. There are stills of beautiful landscapes and skies. Rarely does he put himself in the frame.

This is surprising because Mr Krieger is a co-founder of Instagram. Yet the 29-year-old Brazilian is hardly seen on a service which, perhaps more than any, has made selfies the way that millions choose to chronicle their lives.

Mr Krieger’s lack of exposure is reflected in the telling of Instagram’s founding story. Profiles (not least in the Financial Times) are devoted to Instagram’s other founder, chief executive Kevin Systrom, who has no qualms about selfies. He has been snapped on the front row of fashion-show catwalks and counts Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef, as a close friend.

By comparison, Mr Krieger is Instagram’s invisible founder. Perhaps that is because he does the less glamorous work as the group’s technical lead, rather than the frontman who both runs and speaks for the business. Yet, as half of the team that created one of the world’s most-used internet services, does it not bother him that his contribution fades into the background?

“To be totally honest, there are moments where I’m like, ‘oh yeah, that would be nice, to be more visible’,” he says, speaking during the recent Web Summit, the annual tech get-together, in Dublin. “At the same time, with the personalities we have, I think we are really well suited to what we ended up doing. The joke I always have with Kevin is that the reason we’ve worked together for five years is that neither of us wants each other’s jobs.”

In his home country, Mr Krieger struggles less for recognition. He is the subject of a book called O Clique de 1 Bilhão de Dólares (The Billion Dollar Click), by Brazilian journalist Filipe Vilicic. He only became aware of its publication when his mother sent him a snap of it on sale in a local bookshop.

Mr Krieger was born in São Paulo, where his father worked at Seagram, the Canada-based multinational beverages group; the job saw the family move frequently. As a child, he lived in Portugal, Argentina and the US, which helped him become multilingual. When he was six years old, his father brought home a computer. It was the start of an obsession as a computer “tinkerer”, learning to write software and build his own hardware.

This might suggest an introverted personality, the geek who prefers the glare of a computer screen to the limelight. But in person, Mr Krieger is charismatic. He leans forward as he sits, smiles broadly and speaks confidently. When I admire his shirt, he encourages me to feel its soft fabric. The only hint of nervousness is betrayed by how he twirls his wedding band. He married his long-term partner, Kaitlyn,last month. “I’m still getting used to it.”

His interest in computing took him to Stanford University in California, at the heart of Silicon Valley. At 18, he studied “symbolic systems”, an influential degree in tech circles, taken by Yahoo’s chief executive Marissa Mayer and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. Mr Krieger describes it as an “interdisciplinary major that combines psychology, philosophy, cognition, artificial intelligence and computer science”. The subject analyses human-computer interaction, or how people respond to machines.

The influence of this teaching can be seen in Instagram’s design. It is a simple app that is no technological feat, but with filters that beautify every picture and a scrollable feed that draws the eye, its design has proven to be addictive to many.

In 2010, Mr Krieger was working at Meebo, another hot Valley tech start-up, when he kept bumping into Mr Systrom at a favourite haunt: Coffee Bar, a two-storey coffee shop in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco. The pair began exchanging ideas, particularly about an app Mr Systrom was building called Burbn, a check-in and photos service similar in conception to Foursquare, a rival check-in location app.

Mr Systrom was a proficient coder but needed help from someone with stronger technical competence. He convinced Mr Krieger to join as co-founder. Soon, they decided to scrap the original idea, based on users revealing where they were, to focus on one that simply displayed pictures. Instagram was born. When it launched in Apple’s App Store in October 2010, it was an insta-hit. Within 18 months, 30m iPhone users were hooked.

This caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive. In April 2012, he asked Mr Systrom over to his home, where they discussed a sale of the start-up, which had only 13 employees and no revenue. After a couple of days of negotiations, Mr Zuckerberg offered $1bn: $300m in cash, the rest in Facebook stock. Later, Mr Systrom met Mr Krieger on the platform of a train station to discuss the proposal. They agreed to sell. The deal was sealed over the course of a weekend.

Instagram now has more than 250 staff. It runs as an independent unit, separate from Facebook, but the social network’s influence is clear on its business model. In 2013, it introduced an online advertising system that allows marketers to target photographic ads inside users’ Instagram feeds. Some analystshave estimated that Instagram could generate between $1.2bn and $2bn in revenues in 2016.

Retailers want Instagram to go further, believing the app could become an online store. Maybe Instagram could make more money if it allowed users to buy the clothes worn in a selfie by its most popular users, such as the model Cara Delevingne? Mr Krieger says Instagram is unlikely to provide a shop window in the near future. “For now, it’s a simplicity problem,” he says. Instead, the company is looking at smarter ways to advertise a retailer’s wares. Mr Krieger says there’s a “bunch of work” to be done to improve Instagram.

The work attracts little fanfare. Mr Krieger calls this a “blessing” as he prefers to lead a more private life, even on Instagram. “A couple of hundred thousand people follow me, which is a weird thing,” he says. “I’m not a celebrity. I’ve been a lot more conscious about what exactly I’m doing and posting . . . My dog can be the public persona.”

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