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Is Snapchat going public too soon?

Evan Spiegel doesn’t think so. Your mileage may vary.

American Magazine Media Conference - Day 1 Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Time Inc
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.

Every IPO sells a story: We went from here to here, and now we’re going ... there.

The trick is convincing investors that you’re going somewhere lucrative, and you’re moving fast. Sure, it’s risky — can’t have reward without risk! — but you know how you’re getting there.

But Snap does lots of things differently, and Snap’s IPO is different, too: Even by internet company standards, Snap isn’t sure, exactly, how it’s going to make money — it’s just sure that it will, and that it will make a lot of it.

In the meantime, Snap says, things will be “lumpy,” a word it uses repeatedly in its prospectus and roadshow presentations, to describe user growth, product development and revenue sources. Everything’s going to change, because lots of things haven’t been invented yet. It’s the financial equivalent of the shruggy emoticon: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Contrast that with Google, Facebook and Twitter, all of which had more concrete stories to tell about their business plans when they went public: Google was selling AdWords. Facebook was selling “social ads” in its News Feed. Twitter sold promoted tweets.

Some of those stories changed a lot after their IPOs, of course. Facebook spent a year in purgatory while it scrambled to create a mobile ad business from scratch. Twitter learned, eventually, that its ad ambitions didn’t fit the size of its audience. Now it’s in perpetual turnaround mode.

Snap’s story is fuzzier. Instead of a single ad product at the center of its pitch, it has two: “Creative tools” like sponsored filters, and TV-style “snap ads.” Wall Street would be very happy if Snap focused on the latter, but Snap won’t even identify itself as an ad company — it’s a camera company, CEO Evan Spiegel insists.

And while most big digital platforms sell advertisers on the notion that they have reams of personal information about their users so they can deliver personalized ads with precision, Snap has shied away from most targeting technology. Last fall, in the run-up to its IPO, instead of focusing on ad tech, Snap pushed Spectacles, a $130 pair of novelty glasses. Now it may be playing with drones.

If Snap does have a core selling point, it’s Spiegel himself, and the notion that he’s a product savant who can figure out how to attract and retain young users. The money part will come later.

It’s a good story. Here’s a chapter, relayed by Snap employees: Last fall, Spiegel showed up at Snap’s Venice, California headquarters and announced that he wanted to change the look of his app’s main “stories” page.

Spiegel said the page had too much stuff from Discover, the content supplied by professional publishers*. It was crowding out all the stuff posted by users’ friends. Push all the Discover stuff to the bottom of the page, he told his product people.

Cue a quiet freakout from Spiegel’s revenue team. While Discover isn’t the most popular feature on the app, it had been Snap’s most significant source of ad revenue. Pushing that stuff away from users, they worried, would push ad revenue down, and that would cause real problems for a company that planned on going public.

But Spiegel hadn’t asked anyone on his business team — including Imran Khan, his chief strategy officer — for their opinion. He thought it would make for a better product.

Days later, Spiegel got what he asked for. And, it turns out, Discover ad revenue didn’t decline.

If you’re buying Snap shares tomorrow, you’re hoping for more stories like this. It looked lumpy! But Evan was right and it all worked out.

I do wonder, though, why Snap is selling shares tomorrow. Why not wait a year, or longer, smooth out some of those lumps, and then go public, once you’ve worked out exactly what Snap is going to be?

If you are a Snap skeptic, you will point to Snapchat’s decelerating user growth and the $750 million incentive clause Snap’s investors gave Spiegel to go public, and make a simple argument: Snap is going public now because this is as good as it’s going to get. Sell the story when there’s still a chance of a hopeful ending.

On the other hand: Spiegel is smart. And with co-founder Bobby Murphy, he has full control of his company. If he was worried about exposing Snap’s flaws in public, he wouldn’t go public. Which means he believes Snap’s story, too.

* Vox Media, which owns this site, has a Discover partnership with Snap.

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