Here’s a heart-warming tale of why you can’t second-guess yourself. Robert Cezar Matei had the chance to work for Instagram long-before it was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion, but followed his passion for knowledge and became the growth hacker for question & answer site Quora instead.
This is his answer on Quora (fittingly) for why he declined Instagram, and why he’s still smiling. “You make a gut call, then you walk into the future with serenity.”
Answer - Robert Cezar Matei: I had an offer to be the second engineering hire, and I’m not the only one.
What most people don’t realize is that Kevin and Mike struggled to grow the team for their entire history: they’d hired only one engineer, Shayne, until just a few months prior to the acquisition. They didn’t make a lot of offers, and the ones they did make kept getting turned down.
Some people didn’t take them seriously as a business – it was just an app, and apps are made by hobbyists.
Some people didn’t take them seriously as an engineering culture, because they did such a good job scaling that they made it look easy.
Some people thought they were just a feature that Facebook or Twitter could co-opt.
Some people had cofounder-level equity expectations because of the small size of the team.
Some people couldn’t see a long-term vision.
So they unveiled an API. They wrote about the engineering challenges they’d solved. They launched on Android. Growth kept up. Hiring picked up. People’s hindsight got sharper, and they got the respect they deserved.
I knew Mike from Stanford, so a few days after they launched, I visited them at their rented desks at Dogpatch. I found them huddled over a monitor, struggling to keep up with the traffic from their first Techcrunch coverage.
We talked about scaling. Kevin made some overture. I was taking a sabbatical, and wanted to focus on other things. But I spent time with them over the following year, sometimes working late nights out of their office.
When I was deciding where to work next, they made me build a follow recommendation algorithm using their API. I guess they liked it. We talked about their vision. We had sake in the Tenderloin at 1 in the morning. Kevin crafted a lovely letter, peppered with shared experiences and pictures, as he did for every offer. I was touched.
I believed in Instagram – it’s an incredible product. It makes self-expression easy. It makes the world beautiful. I thought it had a real shot at disrupting Facebook. Apparently Facebook thought so as well.
I ended up going to Quora, because I was more passionate about both the vision and the role. I had a chance to help build what could become the platform for all human knowledge, which I thought could be a revolution on the same level as Google. Little else mattered in the end.
If you’re in the Valley for any amount of time, you’ll have missed opportunities. As a sprightly sophomore, I walked unannounced into Facebook’s first Palo Alto office, back when the company was a handful of people, and offered to help. I focused on school instead. I failed to be convinced by Keith and Jack Dorsey back when Squarewas in its infancy. Add Instagram to that list. Whatever. Opportunities were rarely as close as they seem in hindsight.
And money doesn’t make much of a difference. A friend and I* made games on the Facebook platform in its early years. There were days we made five figures. I got high on the success. I bought a Mac and had a $17 martini at the Wynn. It didn’t do much except make me a little more aloof. The money went back into our company. Most of it’s gone. I’m kind of glad it is.
The morning of the acquisition, I pulled out my offer letter and smiled. You can’t second-guess your decisions. You gather information, you think hard, you make a gut call, then you walk into the future with serenity. I made the decision I did for a hundred different reasons, most of which still hold. I still think Quora’s gonna be huge. And I’m still smiling.
If you’re not already on Quora, this the kind of knowledge you can expect if you browse or join, which you probably should.