Instagram CEO on Stories: Don't Call It a Copycat

Among the widespread opinions in Silicon Valley, one particularly irks Kevin Systrom: Facebook copies Snap.

It's not that Mr. Systrom doesn't think Snap Inc. deserves credit. The chief executive and co-founder of Instagram, the app owned by Facebook Inc., readily says that Snap is responsible for coming up with popular formats like Stories, where users can post photo- and video-montages that vanish after 24 hours.

Instagram introduced its own version of Stories last August, part of a broader effort to hold its ground among teens and millennials, a lucrative demographic that is becoming harder to reach over traditional media channels.

So far, it has been a hit. Some 200 million people use Stories every day, more than Snap's flagship app, Snapchat, which has 166 million daily users. Instagram's success with Stories led Facebook's other apps to embrace the feature, starting with WhatsApp, then Messenger and finally Facebook.

Mr. Systrom says he understands the critics, but he disagrees with the idea that Instagram's embrace of emerging features is untoward. Execution matters more than originality, he says. What critics call copying, Mr. Systrom calls competition.

Mr. Systrom sat down with The Wall Street Journal to discuss Snap, Instagram's next set of challenges and its relationship with Facebook.

Edited excerpts:

WSJ: What surprises you most about Instagram these days?

Mr. Systrom: The thing that I'm learning that has surprised me the most is you have a window of relevance and unless you reinvent yourself within that window of relevance, you die. I call it "success syndrome," where you're successful, you do all the things that made you successful and you keep doing those things thinking that that's why you're going to be successful in the future. Things change.

WSJ: Walk me through the decision to launch Stories.

Mr. Systrom: The first decision was to focus on a problem we had heard from people directly, which is, "I feel like this photo isn't good enough to share on Instagram." Focusing on high-end highlights is wonderful and, honestly, it makes Instagram, Instagram. But just by focusing on that we're missing out on this tremendous wealth of moments in your life that could bring you closer to other people.

WSJ: What about the narrative that Instagram is taking features from the Snapchat playbook?

Mr. Systrom: Stories is definitely similar to Snapchat. I think anyone would say that. The first time you see a product show up somewhere else it feels a lot like copying but imagine a world where the only car was the Ford Model T. I'm really glad there are a lot of car companies producing different cars. Just because they have wheels and windows and AC doesn't mean that you're copying. You've got DreamWorks and Pixar and Disney, they're all doing computer-animated film. That doesn't mean they're copying each other. They're building upon a technology. I would just judge [Stories] based on how many people use it actively, which is over 200 million every day. It clearly provides unique value to people that they're not getting elsewhere.

WSJ: How do you keep engineers motivated when you are replicating features from other apps?

Mr. Systrom: This is the other misconception. If you take the 700 people that work at Instagram, how many of them do you think are working on Stories? A tiny fraction. We do a lot of things. We're working on Live. We're working on Feed. We're working on advertising, [which is] like a crazy business that went from nothing to something in a very short amount of time. We're trying to scale in developing markets with our existing platforms. People have a lot to choose from when they come to work here.

WSJ: You seem to have thought about this a lot.

Mr. Systrom: It's because I do a lot of these interviews where people ask a lot of these questions.

WSJ: How does the relationship between Instagram and Facebook work?

Mr. Systrom: I have never had an instance where we've had to run anything by [Facebook] to get approval of anyone and that's the magic. We touch points on a bunch of really important things that I think help us move more quickly, but the product process is super independent. What makes it work is that independence and autonomy and, frankly, the enormous support on resources and coaching that Facebook has given.

WSJ: What's the next challenge -- the next thing you're trying to tackle?

Mr. Systrom: Instagram can't just be for developed markets with nice phones. I love using Instagram because I follow my favorite cyclists, my favorite baristas. It makes my day. How can we give that to everyone in the world? Stories is a tremendous amount of video and bandwidth hungry. How do we do that in other countries where you may be on a limited data plan?

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 30, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)