We hate to admit this. We really hate to admit this. But it’s starting to look like Snapchat saying no to an almost incomprehensible $3 billion acquisition offer may have actually been a great idea. The company just continues to impress as many of the other hot messaging apps sell off to giants. With its entreaties rebuffed and multiple shameless copycat attempts going nowhere, Facebook has to be more worried about Snapchat than any other challenger.
The product is continually tweaked and developed in delightful ways that mimic the best of Instagram (sly filters and fonts that remind you of ordering fries Animal Style at In-N-Out) and the best of Twitter (with last weekend’s EDC Our Story-off.)
And of course the company itself — its pacing, its deliberate product road map, its young, occasionally off-putting CEO, its sheer arrogance — mimics the best of an early Facebook.
This LA-based company that so many bloggers love to hate or discount is displaying not only the torrid growth but the kind of product leadership and unwillingness to sell for any price that has largely been missing in Silicon Valley of late.
Take for example Snapchat’s new Our Story feature, which debuted during last week’s EDC (Electronic Daisy Carnival) music festival in Las Vegas. Attendees were invited to share live snaps of the over the top event which were then curated by Snapchat and stitched together into a several-minutes-long reel. Most importantly, this reel was public and thus accessible to all Snapchat users, no matter how sober and how far from the Nevada desert they may be. As a result it offered the kind of personalized and engaging glimpse into the festivities that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere on any other social platform.
Today, celebrity viral filmmaker Casey Neistat, who has been loudly campaigning for fans to follow him on Snapchat in recent weeks, released his first “My Story” offering his hundreds of thousands of social followers a 220 second guided tour through his day, from his morning stop at Starbucks through a Manhattan photo shoot, and ultimately ending at a movie screening at MOMA. It was vulnerable, relatable, and entertaining, with an endearingly unpolished quality that Neistat’s professionally edited films lack by definition.
In Neistat’s usage, perhaps more than anything I’ve seen before on Snapchat, I saw a glimpse into the power of the platform as a storytelling medium. It’s fitting, as Neistat is nothing if not a prolific storyteller. (He once took $25,000 meant to pay for a video promoting Fox’s Walter Mitty movie and spent it instead delivering and documenting Philippines disaster relief.) It also offers a glimpse into why Zuckerberg was so motivated to buy the young company: It has the real potential to replace Facebook and Instagram as the way we visually share our lives, or at the very least limit the time we spend on those more established networks.
Hell, it could even threaten Twitter. If Twitter is all about public, real time conversations and experiencing an event together, Snapchat’s EDC event had to catch Twitter’s senior executive’s attention and make them sweat… even a bit. It’s more mobile, more visual, more evocative than 140 characters.
Never before would I have considered adding my parents to my Snapchat friends list. Nor celebrities, for that matter. Up until this point, the app has been the home of a few, select, and intimate (not that kind of intimate) relationships. Frankly, it’s been rare that I’ve felt compelled to use it (maybe I’m old) save for a few irreverent moments or when replying to incoming Snaps from friends. But with interesting people like Neistat and events like EDC now broadcasting through Snapchat, I have an entirely different appreciation for the value it offers.
CEO Evan Spiegel may be emblematic of the worrying brogrammer movement in tech, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t executed Snapchat’s rapid ascent and calculated product evolution with tactical precision. Starting small and continually expanding and enlarging the parameters while not alienating that core base is what Zuckerberg did so expertly at Facebook. Snapchat — like Facebook — was started as an extension of a college kid’s life. And just as Facebook broadened as Mark Zuckerberg aged and left college and entered new phases of life, so too does Snapchat seem to be evolving along with Spiegel.
The most important similarity to Zuckerberg? The mixture of arrogance, naivety, and stones to say no to an almost unreasonably high acquisition offer. And Zuckerberg was only resisting the likes of Terry Semel. Spiegel said no to the dinners and private walks with Mark Zuckerberg– which is apparently like resisting the tractor beam on the Millenium Falcon.
It’s a skill that Kevin Systrom and Jan Koum both ultimately lacked.
It’s still early in the Snapchat story, and critics will point out that the company has not shown that it can monetize all that engagement. But it also hasn’t tried yet. And it’s certainly moving in the right product direction to make monetization possible — closer to a commercial, shared experience people seek out versus very private 1:1 messages that would be almost impossible to advertise against.
It’s only been 72 hours since we got our first glimpse of Our Story in action so it remains to be seen just how its embraced. To that end, the company hasn’t released any stats on impact of the early EDC experiment, though anecdotal chatter suggests it was a hit. But if recent history is any guide, it seems foolish to bet against Spiegel figuring it out. Like him or not, he’s the best (left) in the game today.