Before Evan Spiegel was Evan Spiegel, there were times he wanted to fit in.
Like in June 2012, when Spiegel walked across a makeshift stage erected inside Stanford University’s football stadium to collect a diploma he hadn’t actually earned.
Spiegel, then 22, was still a few credits short of graduating with his degree in product design. Stanford let him walk at its graduation ceremony with the assumption that he’d eventually finish his schoolwork.
His friends were all graduating, and his family was in town for the ceremony. Missing that moment would have been embarrassing.
Spiegel never ended up graduating. Now, he says, he wishes he hadn’t pretended that he did.
"It reminded me that oftentimes we do all sorts of silly things to avoid appearing different," Spiegel told USC’s business school graduates last May. "Conforming happens so naturally that we can forget how powerful it is. But the thing that makes us human are those times we listen to the whispers of our soul and allow ourselves to be pulled in another direction."
Evan Spiegel no longer conforms, and he doesn’t have to: He runs — and controls — Snapchat.
And Snapchat sets the agenda for many people: Investors, media companies, advertisers and, most importantly, its 130 million or so daily users. They’re the ones who follow Spiegel’s lead and play by his rules.
All of this stems from Snapchat’s product, which works differently from everything that came before it. Private messages self-destruct after they’re read. Users film and watch videos vertically, not horizontally, because it’s the same way they actually hold their phones. Publishers and brands are lined up around the block to give Snapchat their content, which won’t even drive traffic back to their own website — there’s no way for them to link back out of the app.
Unlike, say, Facebook, which knows as much about you as some of your closest friends, Snapchat doesn't ask you to tell it everything about yourself, and it doesn't follow you around the internet to collect your data. As a result, it’s not targeting you with the very personal ads that Facebook is known for and Spiegel thinks are "creepy." (More on that soon.)
Everyone plays along because Snapchat is where everyone wants to be. It’s where presidential hopefuls exchange barbs and where you can find behind-the-scenes videos from the NFL and the Academy Awards. Four years ago, teens used Snapchat for sexting. Last week, Barack Obama used it to plug health care reform.
This cultural grip is a direct result of Spiegel, a 25-year-old unlike any 25-year-old you’ve likely ever met. Some of that is strikingly obvious: He owns a Ferrari; he’s a licensed helicopter pilot; his girlfriend is a former Victoria’s Secret model.
Some of it you can’t see, unless you’ve watched him work. Admirers say Spiegel is as good at building products as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. And if you think that’s hyperbole, you should talk to several of the sources we spoke to for this story, who casually likened him to Picasso.
That doesn’t mean you’d like to hang out with Spiegel. He’s headstrong and controlling, and he implements a quick-to-fire style foreign to the Silicon Valley tech scene.
And while his fellow millennials are imprinting their lives on the internet through social networks like Instagram or Facebook and Snapchat, Spiegel tries to stay off the grid. He’s obsessed — with reason, it turns out — with the idea of privacy. He shares very little with very few, a practice that has come to define his role at Snapchat and the company’s underlying culture.
All of this seems to be working — for now.
Building something with feelings
Evan Spiegel isn’t building the next Facebook or Twitter. To some that may be obvious, but it’s important to understand. That’s because Spiegel is driven by the idea that people are looking for alternatives to their curated Facebook and Instagram personas. It’s not a social site, it’s a communication app with a large dose of entertainment on the side.
"We no longer have to capture the ‘real world’ and recreate it online," Spiegel explained during a speech he gave at a conference in early 2014. "We simply live and communicate at the same time."
It’s not just that Spiegel has these novel ideas. He can execute them, too.
Facebook tried and failed twice to replicate Snapchat’s disappearing photos product. (It also famously tried to buy Spiegel’s startup for $3 billion back in late 2012.) Both Twitter and Instagram replicated the Snapchat Stories format but to little effect.
But unlike Zuckerberg, Spiegel knows little code. He leaves his impact through vision and design. And that speaks again to what makes Spiegel different. Many of his ideas — most of which are raw and unorthodox — probably wouldn’t pass the smell test at larger companies like Facebook or Google.
When you open the Snapchat app, for example, you land directly in the app’s camera without anything to read or watch. It’s a nudge to create content, not simply consume it. Snapchat was the first to hone in on vertical video, because that’s how people naturally hold their phones. It was counter to the horizontal way video was supposed to be filmed.
Admirers say Spiegel is as good at building products as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. And if you think that’s hyperbole, several sources casually likened him to Picasso.
"It’s about building something with feelings," Spiegel told Recode back in 2014. "Desktop computers were about work. This thing in your hand or in your pocket, you want it to feel fun and friendly and comfortable."
That doesn’t mean he’ll always get it right. "One of the company’s great attributes is their willingness to put out a lot of product," said Benchmark partner Mitch Lasky, who sits on Snapchat’s board. "Evan’s got a lot of interesting ideas and he’s absolutely fearless about putting them out there. If they don’t work, so be it."
Fellow board member and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton heaped similar praise on Spiegel from the Code Media stage this February. "I just don’t think people recognize how difficult it is to pull off what they’ve pulled off," he said.
Even when things don’t work out, they still seem to work out for Snapchat. After visiting anonymous messaging app Secret at the company’s Vegas retreat in the fall of 2014, Spiegel considered buying the company. But he wasn’t willing to pay more than half of Secret’s $120 million valuation, and the deal never materialized. Secret shut down less than a year later.
Spiegel is on a very, very hot streak. Here’s what that looks like in numbers: Snapchat has about 130 million daily active users, according to multiple sources, a number that was just under 100 million a year ago. It’s also creeping up on Twitter’s 310 million monthly active users total, these sources say. Close to 65 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. use the app, up from 24 percent three years ago, according to comScore. It’s the age group that’s most important to advertisers, whether desktop, mobile, TV or even print.
And the company’s still growing: Snapchat ranked higher in the U.S. iOS App Store than every one of Facebook’s apps throughout the entire month of April, according to App Annie. On April 24, Snapchat was the top downloaded app in 28 different countries, almost double the number of top spots claimed by Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and Instagram. Combined.
Becoming a ‘great Evan’
To understand Evan Spiegel’s obsession with privacy, you can look at the parts of his private life that ended up on the internet. It’s a lot, especially for a 25-year-old.
When Spiegel was at Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica, Calif., his parents, both lawyers, had a messy divorce that left large chunks of his personal life sitting unprotected in court files.
As he started to enter celebrity status in 2013, reporters mined those documents and surfaced with details that laid out a privileged life: As a teenager, Spiegel had a $250 weekly allowance. When his father wouldn’t buy him the new BMW he requested, he moved in with his mother out of protest. She leased him the $75,000 car. He’s not used to being told "no."
As his company’s notoriety grew, so did Spiegel’s. People started to care whom he dated — first was a model who later appeared on "The Bachelor," then there were rumors that he was seeing Taylor Swift.
Shortly after an LA Weekly profile highlighted most of the divorce records, Gawker published a series of embarrassing and sexist emails Spiegel sent as a frat boy at Stanford. Later that same year, Sony Pictures was hacked, exposing even more emails from Lynton, who was in regular communication with Spiegel. The emails showed that Spiegel kept his board in the dark on many important business matters, even fundraising efforts.
Spiegel has always been private, sources say, and the combination of leaks and exposures have only reinforced his reservations. "It’s not fair that the people who try to build us up and break us down get a glimpse of who we really are," he wrote in a memo he shared to Twitter following the Sony hack. "It’s not fair that people steal our secrets and make public that which we desire to remain private." That tweet, and all of Spiegel's tweets, have since been deleted.
Spiegel declined to be interviewed for this story. Snapchat didn’t make any other executives available, either.
What we do know from more than a dozen conversations with colleagues and acquaintances who would talk to us — almost all of whom would only talk off the record — is that Spiegel can be tough to work for, especially for those coming from Silicon Valley where companies preach openness and debate.
Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter and Google host regular all-hands meetings, often talking about important business initiatives or product road maps. Employees have access to new apps before they launch, and company executives take the stage to answer questions from employees.
Snapchat’s all-hands meetings are rare and are mostly used to announce things like birthdays and work anniversaries. Execs rarely field questions, and future products aren’t discussed. The first time many employees learn about a new Snapchat product is by reading about it in the press.
Spiegel’s obsession with privacy is heightened by the company’s physical layout — a string of independent office buildings along the Venice Beach boardwalk that keeps teams separated and projects siloed.
Employees, both current and former, say information of all kinds is typically shared on a need-to-know basis. One of the reasons Spiegel likes walking meetings along the boardwalk is that they’re more private, even though they’re in public — it’s hard to snoop on someone’s conversation when they’re walking amid throngs of people.
That environment doesn’t work for many people. Several of Spiegel’s top execs have quit or been pushed out over the past two years, and many of them lasted less than 18 months. Most notable was COO Emily White, who joined from Instagram and left after little more than a year. Sales boss Mike Randall left after seven months; HR director Sara Sperling was gone after six.
A handful of important positions, including head of sales and head of communications, have been vacant for more than six months.
Everything goes through Spiegel, and his opinions are final. Former employees recall stories of Spiegel killing all-but-finalized ad deals at the very last minute. Arguing with Spiegel brings on a very real fear that you might get fired. One of the quickest ways to get on his bad side is to recommend an idea or project simply because it worked somewhere else. Spiegel wants to do things differently.
"When you go to work at Snapchat you go to work for Evan," said one source who has known Spiegel for years. "You don’t go to teach Evan. You don’t go to show him the ropes."
Spiegel is aware that he is a work in progress.
If it worked for Jobs, why can’t it work for Spiegel?
"I’m not a great manager," he said at Recode’s annual Code Conference last year. "I try to be a great leader. And for me that’s been going through a process of, not how to be a great CEO but how to be a great Evan."
Becoming a "great Evan" involves near-constant curiosity, sources say. Spiegel likes to take crash courses in other people’s brains, meeting with them to mine for information on his topics of interest before graduating onto someone else. Among his previous tutors: SoftBank’s Nikesh Arora, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Eric Schmidt.
Those who have succeeded at Snapchat — there are about half a dozen executives with degrees of influence, depending on who’s recounting the list — seem to gain their power primarily through their access to Spiegel. With the exception of strategy boss Imran Khan, none of them carry any type of public profile outside the company, a plan that’s very much by design.
When asked about Spiegel’s controlling tendencies, his supporters like to point to Steve Jobs, who was not known for running Apple as a democracy.
If it worked for Jobs, why can’t it work for Spiegel?
Not a coincidence: Spiegel has a painting of Jobs hanging in his office.
The Hollywood dream
Evan Spiegel went to school in Silicon Valley. But he is at home in Los Angeles.
He likes to fly helicopters up and down the coast. He loves design and has shown interest in high-end fashion. Spiegel met his girlfriend Miranda Kerr, a model who is no stranger to Snapchat's office, at a dinner for Louis Vuitton. Not long after, he did a photoshoot with Italian Vogue.
He's also savvy enough to understand the statement of an anti-statement, like the deliberately dull sweaters and shirts he'll sometimes wear for public appearances. When he appeared at last year's Code Conference, he wore a plain, oversize white V-neck T-shirt from James Perse, pulled fresh out of the package just minutes before walking onstage. "A staple since high school," he told GQ of the $50 tees.
Spiegel also gets Los Angeles as a company town. While Silicon Valley companies build platforms, he is intent on building a media and entertainment company.
A year and a half ago, he dedicated an entire section of his app to publisher content from brands like ESPN and Cosmopolitan. It’s also why he wanted to buy a music label, and why he has inked deals with sports rights holders like the NFL and NBC. (Spiegel doesn't care about most pro sports himself, although he does snowboard and grew up playing tennis.)
The point is not just to create a messaging service, but one that will be fun and entertaining as well.
"It means we can show people content that they might enjoy while they’re waiting for their friend to respond," Spiegel explained at Code.
The good news for Snapchat is that the thing it does best — video — aligns with this strategy. Snapchat users consume 10 billion videos per day, up from seven billion in January. Its core money-making products, Live Stories around events and publisher content from its Discover section, both rely heavily on video content.
That focus is one of the many reasons Snapchat is drawing comparisons to Facebook, which is also laser focused on video and, specifically, high-quality video from publishers and brands.
Outspoken venture capitalist and early Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya offers up another Snapchat comparison: "At worst, they are the next-generation MTV," he told Bloomberg last May. "At best, they are the next-generation Viacom."
What’s unknown is how (or perhaps just how quickly) Snapchat can turn that video focus into a consistent business. The company is targeting $300 million in revenue in 2016, an impressive jump over its $50 million target last year, but it still lacks a lot of the necessary performance metrics advertisers like to have in hand before setting aside serious ad dollars on a regular basis.
Then there’s this little hurdle: Conventional digital advertising is all about targeting — and, at times, retargeting — with info collected about you from your browsing history. It’s how Facebook and Google make a killing selling ads intended specifically for you. Spiegel, not surprisingly, has rejected that approach.
"We're going to stay away from building really extensive profiles on people," Spiegel told AdWeek last summer. "We have a really big business here that also respects the privacy of people who use Snapchat."
But Snapchat won’t be the shiniest toy on Madison Avenue forever. Common sense tells us that eventually, perhaps sometime soon, Spiegel will need to make a decision about how "creepy" his company will be. And, yes, it will be Spiegel’s decision to make, you can count on that.
All of this matters, sources say, because Spiegel is dead set on bringing Snapchat public someday. Some say he wanted to IPO in 2017. Others think it has been bumped to 2018 or later. Still others believe Snapchat could IPO tomorrow and it wouldn’t give them a shock.
Regardless of when that happens, Snapchat’s relationships with the entertainment and publishing industries will undoubtedly be key. And L.A. — not Silicon Valley — is where entertainment is king.
"I often talk with people about the conflicts between technology companies and content companies," Spiegel said during a conference keynote two years ago. "One of the biggest issues is that technology companies view movies, music and television as information. Directors, producers, musicians and actors view them as feelings, as expression.
"Not to be searched, sorted and viewed — but experienced."
Spiegel is building Snapchat into the new communication experience — and for now, the world seems more than happy to conform.
Recode Video: Evan Spiegel's full session at Code Conference 2015
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.