Kevin Systrom doesn’t know what’s next, but he’s starting by learning to fly.
Three weeks after he and his Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger abruptly left the Facebook-owned company—and three days since his first solo flight—Systrom says he’s taking time to think about what problem he wants to attack next.
At the WIRED25 summit, Systrom spoke about his decision to leave Instagram, but deflected questions about reports that he and Krieger disagreed with Mark Zuckerberg’s focus on growth and various product changes. “You don’t leave a job because everything’s awesome,” Systrom said, adding, “There are no hard feelings at all. I want this thing to succeed.”
It’s been six years since Systrom and Krieger sold Instagram to Facebook for about $1 billion, and the photo-sharing social network has grown at a dizzying speed since. It hit a billion users this year and now generates billions in ad revenue. But its creators were unlikely to stick around forever—as Systrom noted, they stayed far longer than most founders do after selling to a larger company. He compared building a company to preparing a rocket for launch: You design it, fuel it, point it in the right direction, and then let it go. By the time he left, Systrom had been at the company for eight years.
“It [Instagram] didn’t feel done by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But it felt like it was in orbit.”
So now what? “I don’t have any plans yet, except for hanging out for a little while,” Systrom said. He’s spending time with his nine-month-old daughter between flying lessons, doing some writing, working with entrepreneurs, all of which, he said, could point him to his next project, whatever it is.
If Systrom sticks to social media, he’s got his work cut out for him. He has long talked about making Instagram a pleasant “place” on the internet; Instagram gave users the right to turn off comments on their posts (thus curtailing engagement, a central goal of any social network) and developed anti-bullying policies. Yet The Atlantic reports that Instagram has deprioritized efforts to stop harassment. Facebook of course has its own ream of problems.
These companies have unprecedented power, Systrom said: the ability to reach billions of people, all at once, in an instant. “We’re learning what it means to have that responsibility as an industry,” he said. By the time his daughter is old enough to use social media (her current iPhone use is largely drool-oriented), he wants to be sure the people running those networks—whatever form they take—are paying attention to how they impact people’s lives.
“Instagram solved a problem for people at the time it was released,” Systrom said. “Photos were grainy and blurry and people were unhappy about sharing them, so we added filters.” Eight years and a billion people later, the problem’s a lot bigger and more significant, but surely there’s a solution out there. “It’s far more simple than we all understand, if we just focus on humans and the that problems they have.”
More Great WIRED Stories