Systrom was born in 1983 in Holliston, Massachusetts. He is the son of Diane (Pels), a marketing executive at Zipcar, who also worked at Monster and Swapit during the first dotcom bubble, and Douglas Systrom, Vice President in Human Resources at TJX Companies. His maternal grandparents were members of The First Congregational Church of Hancock.
Systrom attended Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, where he was introduced to computer programming. His interest grew from playing Doom 2 and creating his own levels as a child. He also once created programs that would prank his friends by appearing to hack their AOL Instant Messenger accounts.
He worked at a vinyl-record store in Boston while he was in high school.
Systrom attended Stanford University and graduated in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in management science and engineering. At Stanford, he was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity. He spent the winter term of his third year in Florence, where he studied photography.
He got his first taste of the startup world when he was chosen as one of twelve students to participate in the Mayfield Fellows Program at Stanford University. The fellowship led to his internship at Odeo, the company that eventually gave rise to Twitter.
After graduating Stanford, he joined Google as an associate product marketing manager, working on Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, Spreadsheets and other products. He spent two years at Google; during the first, he worked on Gmail, Google Reader, and other products, and during the second he worked on the Corporate Development team.
After leaving Google to join Nextstop, a location recommendation startup founded by ex-Googlers that was acquired by Facebook in 2010, Systrom thought of combining location check-ins and popular social games. He made the prototype of what later became Burbn and pitched it to Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz at a party. He came up with the idea while on a vacation in Mexico when his girlfriend was unwilling to post her photos because they did not look good enough when taken by the iPhone 4 camera. The solution to the problem was to use filters, effectively hiding the qualitative inferiority of the photographs. Subsequently, Systrom developed the X-Pro II filter that is still in use on Instagram today.
After the first meeting, he decided to quit his job in order to explore whether or not Burbn could become a company. Within 2 weeks of quitting his job, he received $500,000 seed funding round from both Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. While in San Francisco, Systrom and Mike Krieger built Burbn, a HTML 5 check-in service, into a product that allowed users to do many things: check into locations, make plans (future check-ins), earn points for hanging out with friends, post pictures, and much more. However, recalling their studies in Mayfield Fellows Program, Krieger and Systrom identified that Burbn contained too many features and the users did not want a complicated product. They decided to focus on one specific feature, photo-sharing. The development of Burbn led to creation of Instagram. A month after launching, Instagram had grown to 1 million users. A year later, Instagram hit more than 10 million users.
In 2010, Systrom co‑founded the photo-sharing and, then later, video-sharing social networking service Instagram with Mike Krieger in San Francisco, California. The name "Instagram" comes from the words "instant" and "telegram".
In April 2012, Instagram was sold to Facebook for $1 billion in cash and stock, along with 13 employees. According to multiple reports, the deal netted Systrom $400 million based on his ownership stake in the business. One of the key contributions to the acquisition is that Mark Zuckerberg stated Facebook is "committed to building and growing Instagram independently," allowing Systrom to continue to lead Instagram. Systrom stated in an interview with Bloomberg that the pros of becoming a part of Facebook were that “we got to pair up with a juggernaut of a company that understands how to grow, understands how to build a business, has one of the best, if not the best, management team in tech and we got to use them as our resource.”
In an interview with Forbes, he stated that "Instagram is a new form of communication that’s an ideal fit with the always-with-you iPhone in today’s social media world. Instagram’s a social network built around photos, where people can quickly comment on or ‘like’ photos and share them on Twitter or Facebook." Systrom identifies Instagram as a media company, which explains the roll-out of video advertisement by big companies such as Disney, Activision, Lancome, Banana Republic and CW in late 2014.
Under Systrom's leadership, Instagram developed key features like the Explore tab, filters, and video. Over time, Instagram has rolled out features allowing users to upload and filter photographs and short videos, follow other users' feeds, geotag images, name location, and comment on other users' photographs and short videos. Instagram allowed the development of web profiles in 2012, connecting accounts to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr in 2013, an Explore tab in mid-2012, and Video in June 2013. Instagram offers 19 photographic filters; Normal, 1977, Amaro, Branna, Earlybird, Hefe, Hudson, Inkwell, Kelvin, Lo-fi, Mayfair, Nashville, Rise, Sierra, Sutro, Toaster, Valencia, Willow, X-Pro II.
Systrom hired former Yahoo Vice-President James Everingham, as well as Kevin Weil, who formerly headed product development at Twitter, as high-ranking executives at Instagram.
As of October 2015, 40 billion pictures had been shared on Instagram.
As of June 2016, Instagram has over 500 million active users.
Also in 2016, CNN quoted a study according to which Snapchat was regarded as the most important social network among teenagers aged 14 to 19, the first time in two years that Instagram did not feature at the top.
Instagram currently employs around 450 people. The app is used by 600 million people per month and 300 million per day. Its competitors Snapchat and Twitter employ more people for a smaller user base, with Twitter having 3,500 employees for 317 million monthly users, and Snapchat employing 1,500 people for half of Instagram’s daily user base.
In the future, Systrom seeks to develop Instagram further to better integrate the use of videos into the app. He also stated that in a few years, the company might be getting involved in Virtual Reality products.
According to Quartz and the New York Times, Systrom and Krieger implemented a system to overcome bottlenecks and slow decision-making in the company by scheduling meetings in which only decisions are taken. This approach was informed by Systrom's interest in academic business theories, in particular Clayton M. Christensen's concept of The Innovator's Dilemma.
Instagram has been called out in multiple occasions for copying various new functions from its closest competitor Snapchat. Regarding the issue, Systrom argued that all new services launched by tech companies nowadays are "remixes" of existing products, and that "all of these ideas are original when you remix them and bring your own flavour". Systrom also argued that 'you can trace the roots of every feature anyone has in their app, somewhere in the history of technology' and that this was simply 'just the way Silicon Valley works.'
In 2014, Systrom was listed in the Forbes 30 under 30 list under the Social/Mobile category.
In 2016, the magazine ranked Systrom as a billionaire with an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion. The fortune came about as a result of Facebook stocks rising more than 500%.
According to The Guardian, Systrom enjoys "fine food, golf, skiing and holidays at California’s Lake Tahoe."
In February 2016, Systrom met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where they discussed the power of images in uniting people "across borders, cultures and generations."