But Instagram’s success has also led to questions about whether they sold too early and for too little. At $1bn, it was much cheaper than the $22bn Zuckerberg spent on WhatsApp just two years later. Then, $1bn was a lot of money; now, there are about 80 so-called “unicorns”, start-ups that have been valued at more than $1bn, and the largest boast valuations of $11bn (Pinterest), $15bn (Snapchat) and $40bn (Uber). John Lilly at Greylock Capital, which closed a deal to invest in Instagram just days before the acquisition, says Instagram could have become a “big, durable company”. But he adds: “My guess is it wouldn’t be all that different if it had stayed independent.
It had significant scale before the acquisition. I think Kevin having collaborators in Zuckerberg and Mike Schroepfer [Facebook’s chief technology officer] and Sheryl [Sandberg] has been transformative to him.” Systrom seems most on edge when I ask about his relationship with Zuckerberg. Throughout, he has been spinning the rotating leather chair next to him, first with his foot, then pulling it nearer and turning it from side to side with his hand. The spinning gets more fidgety when the topic turns to Zuckerberg. “I see him every week, not always talking about Instagram stuff. I’m on the management team at Facebook so I also help with managing in general,” he says.
“We have dinners, not every week, that would be a lie . . . ” When pressed on where they have dinner — Facebook canteen, home or fancy Silicon Valley restaurant — he shrugs: “It totally depends.” “But yeah, we have a close relationship and I think one that is fairly productive. So it’s good,” he concludes. I try lightening the mood with an attempt at a joke about Zuckerberg’s lack of dress sense. Systrom demurs but smiles, “I don’t know. I mean, everyone has their own thing. He reads like a book a week, I wish I did that.” He clearly dislikes being compared to his boss.