Sitting behind a table at Café Vida enjoying his Mexican-fusion lunch, 23-year-old Evan Spiegel seems like any other college-aged Palisadian—except he is also co-founder and CEO of Snapchat, a controversial app company recently valued at more than $800 million.
“I was a pretty nerdy kid and shy through most of school,” said Spiegel, who graduated from Crossroads School and then Stanford, where he majored in product design. “I was best friends with my computer teacher and built my own PC by the time I was in sixth grade.”
Spiegel, who lives with his father on Toyopa Drive because the “rent is cheap,” started Snapchat in 2011, with a friend and frat brother from Stanford named Bobby Murphy.
For those still catching up to the technological ark of social media, Snapchat is a photo-sharing phone application that allows users to send pictures, videos and text messages that self-destruct in ten seconds unless saved by the receiver. The app notifies the sender whenever a photo or video is saved. This self-destructive function has not only stirred controversy but is also the reason behind the app’s success.
However, Spiegel’s entrepreneurial drive did not begin at Stanford, but rather in high school while he worked at Red Bull. “I loved the brand and was obsessed with the beverage,” he told the Palisadian-Post.
Spiegel, who was extremely guarded during his interview and accompanied by his public relations representative, said he was inspired by Red Bull’s marketing brand.
He also credits much of his success to Stanford’s Silicon Valley-inspired atmosphere, which allowed him to pitch his ideas and designs to campus mentors, such as Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, and Chad Hurley of YouTube. The Stanford mentors gave him ideas on how to raise venture capital for his startup, and inspired him to go forward with his dream.
The photo-sharing app was not Spiegel’s first attempt to launch his own enterprise on campus, he admits. “We would experiment and fail. We must have attempted nearly 34 projects.”
Before Snapchat, Spiegel and Murphy collaborated in the creation of Future Freshman, “a website designed to make it easier for students to get into college,” Spiegel said.
Upon graduating Stanford, Spiegel, who has two sisters, moved into his father’s house in the Palisades and set up shop in the family living room. Murphy, who had graduated two years earlier, joined him. Spiegel’s parents are divorced, but his mother also lives in the Palisades.
The Stanford grads would spend countless hours working on the Snapchat app, which originally started as a project in one of Spiegel’s classes, and maxed out several credit cards in the process. While Murphy worked on coding, Spiegel worked on branding and design, ultimately creating Snapchat’s Ghostface Killah logo.
Before long, his father’s home was filled with four other friends (now Snapchat employees).
“My father believed in what I was doing,” Spiegel said. “I think my passion to make it a success gave him faith.”
By November 2012, billions of images had been sent by the free app, which has yet to be monetized. In June this year, Forbes reported, “Snapchat raised a $60 million Series B round led by Institutional Venture Partners, with participation from General Catalyst, Benchmark, Lightspeed Ventures [the original seed money investor who gave the startup more than $400,000] and SV Angel.”
Analysts, who have valued the company at more than $800 million, predict Snapchat’s future success will come from the fun of the app itself. Bill Gurley, a vice chairman at Benchmark, told Business Insider that he believes the company is “growing like crazy because it provides a private forum for people to goof off.”
“Facebook used to be that platform, but it’s matured,” Gurley said.
Spiegel said Snapchat reflects a generation being raised in a culture dominated by social media, which until now has not given users the ability to goof off without keeping a permanent record of all their individual mistakes. The company’s target demographic is 13 to 25 year olds.
“Making mistakes and learning from them is part of the human process,” Spiegel said. “We’ve learned a lot in the past few years about people and how the technology changes self-expression. Sharing moments of honesty and being comfortable—this is Snapchat.”
Spiegel would not specify how the app will be monetized, whether it would be through extra features or advertising, but said that people “can look forward to being surprised. We have very good relationships with Apple and Google.”
The company currently has 18 employees and is headquartered in Venice. Spiegel said he is planning to hire a sociologist to join the company and study people’s behavior with social media technologies.
Despite Snapchat’s fast track to success, the venture has not come free of controversy or problems. The FBI recently stated that the app could make young people vulnerable to predators, and this week an Oregon teacher pleaded guilty to using the app to exchange inappropriate messages with a 16-year-old student.
Also, one of Spiegel’s former Stanford schoolmates, Frank Reginald Brown, is suing the company, claiming he was the one who originally came up with the concept of a self-deleting photo app and the company’s logo. The lawsuit claims that Brown was disenfranchised from his stake in the company, which was originally launched as Picaboo in July 2011.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Brown’s lawsuit alleges that when he approached Spiegel with the evanescent photo application concept, Spiegel called it a “million-dollar idea.”
Full disclosure: Spiegel agreed to be the interviewed by the Palisadian-Post under the guideline that no controversial questions would be asked. He also would not let this reporter audiotape the interview.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.