Spiegel, 26, has built a budding digital empire based on some unconventional insights, upending the tech industry with his different way of seeing the world, often with a touch of ego.
LOS ANGELES — When Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were undergraduates at Stanford University, they made an unconventional observation about what makes a social network valuable.
Thanks to the rise of Facebook, most everyone believed that networks became exponentially more valuable by amassing more users. But Spiegel noticed that in real life, even people with thousands of acquaintances spent most of their time with just a few friends whose value outweighed a large number of looser ties.
So when Spiegel and Murphy created Snapchat in 2011, they inverted the social-networking dynamic.
Out of their Stanford dorm rooms, they made Snapchat as an app that would send disappearing messages and photos in a way that more closely mimicked the dynamics of a real world conversation. That would increase the appeal of Snapchat as a service that people used with a small number of good friends, they figured.
While online identity previously emphasized everything anyone has ever done, with Snapchat “my identity is who I am right now,” Spiegel said in a 2015 video to describe the app.
Spiegel, 26, Snap’s chief executive, has since built a budding digital empire based on that initial unconventional insight — and has continued upending the tech industry with his different way of seeing the world, often with a touch of ego. Rather than accept the norms of the social-networking ecosystem, he has stuck to atypical viewpoints on matters from mobile video to video-recording spectacles. And he has done all of this more than 350 miles away from Silicon Valley, in the sunny climes of Venice, Calif., where Snapchat is based.
Spiegel’s singular approach is now more publicly on display. Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, on Thursday filed its public stock offering paperwork. While the filing does not indicate a price for an initial public offering, Snap is expected to seek a market valuation of more than $20 billion from investors. According to the filing, Spiegel and Murphy hold nearly 89 percent of the company’s voting power, and will keep it even after the initial offering, since the shares being sold to the public will hold no voting power whatsoever.
“If you want to understand Snap, look at Evan Spiegel,” said Todd Chaffee, a partner at IVP, one of Snap’s three largest venture-capital investors. “He is the visionary who drives that company.”
Mary Ritti, a spokeswoman for Snap, declined to comment for this story.
Spiegel grew up in Pacific Palisades, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, and attended Crossroads, a prep school in Santa Monica, Calif., that counts Jonah Hill, Kate Hudson and Jack Black as alumni.
He lived a privileged life, with expensive cars, exclusive club memberships and fancy vacations, according to records from his parents’ divorce proceedings. His father, John Spiegel, a securities lawyer who helped overhaul the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beating in 1991, also had his children volunteer and build homes in poor areas of Mexico.
While many techies talk about how the industry is a meritocracy, Spiegel has not shied from his wealthy roots. In public comments, he has said he is “a young, white, educated male who got really, really lucky. And life isn’t fair.”
At Stanford, also his father’s alma mater, Spiegel majored in product design and started a handful of companies with Murphy, a fellow Kappa Sigma fraternity brother. (Their early startups flopped.) There, Spiegel also met some of the men who would become his mentors, including Scott Cook, then the chief executive of Intuit, and Eric Schmidt, the Google chairman, who taught an MBA class that he attended.
Spiegel “really is the next Gates or Zuckerberg,” Schmidt said in an interview, comparing the Snap chief to Microsoft’s co-founder, Bill Gates, and Facebook’s chief, Mark Zuckerberg. “He has superb manners, which he says he got from his mother. He credits his father’s long legal calls, which he overheard, to giving him perspective on business and structure as a very young man.”
When Snapchat started taking off, Spiegel did not wait to graduate from Stanford. He moved the company to Venice Beach, away from what he perceived as Silicon Valley’s too-narrow focus on technology.
Spiegel has involved himself in some political conversations. In 2015, he met with China’s president, Xi Jinping, as a member of the 21st Century Council at the Berggruen Institute. Its founder, Nicolas Berggruen, said he impressed a group that includes Mohamed El-Erian, the economist, and former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France with his “thoughtful and mature approach to people.” Last fall, Spiegel also attended a private dinner with John O. Brennan, then the director of the CIA. According to multiple attendees, Spiegel listened more than he spoke and had the ear of Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles.
Spiegel’s unconventional streak may be most evident in how he has steered Snap. He has long said that a public offering was what was best for the company and its investors, even as other tech startups chose to stay private as long as possible.
Since Snapchat’s debut, the app and the company have also undergone dozens of changes that were criticized for being too different from other consumer internet companies.
Spiegel rejected the idea of a newsfeed in Snapchat’s app, for example, because he said people prefer stories chronologically. In Facebook’s News Feed, posts are reverse chronological, meaning the newest posts are at the top.
Unlike other social networks, Snapchat also does not use algorithms to push people to see certain content. Snapchat users swipe their screens to navigate and view video vertically, rather than tap on menus or turn their phones to watch videos horizontally.
“From what I can figure out, he thinks differently about the way to monetize and develop a social network,” Schmidt said of Spiegel.
Investors who buy into Snap’s initial public offering will soon be getting a piece of that approach.
Allowing “ourselves to be pulled in another direction” is what makes us human, Spiegel said in a commencement speech at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in 2015. Quoting John F. Kennedy, he added, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”