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Flashback: New Snap chair Michael Lynton on Evan Spiegel and his ambitions

From February 2016: “I just don’t think people recognize how difficult it is to pull off what they’ve pulled off. “

Asa Mathat for Vox Media
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

A little less than a year ago, when I talked to Michael Lynton onstage at Recode’s Code Media conference, he was the guy who ran Sony’s giant entertainment unit — movies, music and TV — who also had an inside line on Snapchat, where he was a board member and a very early investor.

Now, Lynton is leaving Sony and will concentrate full time on Snapchat — now Snap — as the chairman of the company’s board.

Given that Snap is prepping for an IPO, it’s worth revisiting our portion of the conversation about that company, Lynton’s relationship with CEO Evan Spiegel and Snap’s ambitions in the media world.

So here you go, but first a plug: If you want to see more of these conversations, we’re happy to oblige at next month’s edition of Code Media, where we’ll be hearing from the likes of Apple’s Eddy Cue and Washington Post editor Marty Baron. Sign up here and we’ll see you there.

Peter Kafka: So you’ve been on the board for a while. You’ve watched the company mature. You’ve watched Evan Spiegel mature. First of all, what change have you seen in him over the last couple of years you’ve been on the board?

Michael Lynton: I think he has become what you would imagine him to become: A much more mature executive. He really has studied it hard, running a company. And I think he’s gotten better and better at it. The one thing that’s remained a constant, which I think is reflected in the product, is [that] he is a terrific product designer and innovator. And the company has continued, in my opinion, to deliver great new applications of Snapchat on a very, very regular basis.

When he had that $3 billion offer, were you counseling him to take it? ’Cause it was a lot of money for someone who was 24 or 25 at the time.

It was really his decision. It was really his and Bobby Murphy’s decision.

What kind of counsel do you offer? What kind of counsel do they want from you? What are the things of value that you —

They really want to talk about their part of it as they look out at the media landscape: Where should they fit in — the music business, the movie business, the television business — both in terms of a platform to promote, but as well as how they themselves should be delivering content. A lot of it, though, is around management. The organization has grown really quickly, and they need to try and understand how to organize all the conventional departments you have within a company, and that’s one of the areas where I can be helpful.

Back to the media part of it. Right now, Snapchat’s the place where I go to create my own content, or my kids would go to create their own content. And then you’ve got a bunch of publishers who are interested in [things like] Discover. That’s free content. Do you imagine there’s a place for paid content? Am I going to pay Snapchat to consume content at some point?

I’ve not seen that yet. So I wouldn’t know. But I haven’t seen plans of that.

And, again — we’re just talking about Snapchat a lot at this conference — but what is the thing, internally, that you’re seeing at Snapchat that people out in this audience and in the wider world don’t get about that company? It remains a confounding company. Evan is a difficult person for people to understand.

First of all, one of the things that confounds people — or they sometimes don’t fully recognize — is how often that company innovates on product. I mean, it’s available if you use the service, I just don’t think people recognize how difficult it is to pull off what they’ve pulled off. The other thing I think they don’t understand all the time is, I once heard Evan, in a conference like this, talk about the fact that for 150 years the camera was used to document, and that for one of the first times, Snapchat uses the camera to communicate. And I think the whole relationship between Snapchat users, of the mobile phone, and that camera, and how they interact, is the aspect of the service that I think people don’t always understand.

And that’s why it’s that first thing you see when you turn it on. You don’t go to the content page, you go to the camera.

Correct. And you’re using your phone as the lens through which you communicate with the world. And that is something I think doesn’t — the penny doesn’t always drop for people. It didn’t even drop for me, quite honestly, until I heard Evan communicate it that way.

So even though you’ve been on the board, you didn’t realize —

Even though I’ve been on the board —

— and as an investor —

— and I’ve used the service since there were like 25,000 people on it. To really hear it articulated in that way, that allowed me to better understand it.

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