In his new book, ‘How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story,’ Billy Gallagher delves into the secretive culture of Snapchat.
Evan Spiegel has long been hesitant to speak with reporters, especially about the company’s long-term goals and mission.
That secrecy characterizes the company internally, as well — there are no all-hands meetings, and employees sometimes find out about new Snapchat features from the press.
Evan Spiegel has been incredibly secretive since the early days of Snapchat, often refusing to share his vision for Snapchat with investors, reporters, and even employees. But as Snap approaches its first anniversary as a public company, Spiegel has admitted that he must improve on his communication skills, both internally and externally. The headstrong CEO’s ability to communicate a clarion strategy for his embattled company may determine whether Snap can fulfill its growth expectations or continue its stock plunge.
Evan’s relationships with many reporters mirror his other relationships in life. He tends to treat people in a binary fashion: smart or dumb, useful or useless, yes or no. He’s an emotional person and hates putting on a face and smiling and faking his way through anything, whether it’s an interview with a reporter or a cocktail event with potential advertisers. There are very few—if any—journalists who match Evan, who is still just twenty-seven years old, both in age and career stature.
Older, more established journalists have struggled to understand Snapchat, frustrating Evan. Because Snapchat’s user base skewed so young, very few reporters covering the company were close in age to its core users. As a result, media coverage of Snapchat has been fairly harsh. At first, there was the sexting narrative. Then journalists decided that it was just a silly toy. All the while, very few journalists did the work to understand Snapchat, its users, and its impact. Evan has been unwilling to show journalists a significant peek behind the scenes at Snapchat, so the media continues to portray Snapchat as this silly, inconsequential company.
Evan is extremely reluctant to answer very basic questions most CEOs get asked. When a Bloomberg Business reporter writing a cover story on Snapchat asked Evan what his long-term vision for the company is, Evan replied, “These are the kinds of questions I hate, dude.” Snapchat investors and advisors, afraid of irritating Evan, have often been unwilling to speak publicly about even basic things like how the company differentiates itself and what its mission is.
Evan is hardly the first tech founder to be secretive. Some of the industry’s most revered leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are known for their intense corporate secrecy. As much as Evan has had a rivalry with Mark Zuckerberg, he has also been empowered by Zuckerberg, who blazed the trail for him. Steve Jobs was not the CEO of Apple until his second stint with the company; Google’s investors demanded they bring in Eric Schmidt as a more professional CEO than cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
But Zuckerberg’s overwhelming success and maturation from immature genius into visionary CEO caused a shift in Silicon Valley to strongly favor founders as CEOs. This profound, rapid shift has given founders of high-growth, breakout-success startups the upper hand with the media and investors alike. Zuckerberg’s “I’m CEO, Bitch” paved the way for Evan to be anointed Snapchat’s sole, unchallengeable leader.
Like Steve Jobs at Apple, Evan keeps all Snapchat acquisitions secret. Jobs believed that every consumer encounter with a brand added either credits or debits to the brand’s account with the consumer. And part of the benefit of adding credits is the delight of surprise followed by gratification. Evan wants to announce new features and immediately roll them out to everyone so that users are both surprised and then instantly able to enjoy the new feature or product.
The company’s Twitter account retweets a wide range of positive and negative reactions to its product updates. They have slapped their eponymous logo — with no mention of Snapchat or any words at all — on the luggage bins at security at LAX and on massive billboards in Times Square.
Many of the billboard panels in Times Square simply were covered in Snapchat yellow. People who know what the logo means are in on the cool secret; those who don’t either ask or simply remain ignorant and uncool.
Evan doesn’t have a public Snapchat, something that would be unthinkable for Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, or Kevin Systrom, all of whom make their profiles on their social networks public. Zuckerberg has a team of eight people curate his Facebook page, posting almost daily to craft a perfectly curated public persona.
This is the exact opposite of what Evan wants for Snapchat users—and himself. Evan deleted his Facebook account long ago, and he used to tweet occasionally before he decided to delete all those as well.
Evan’s speeches at smaller events, where he is less guarded, are often better than those he gives at bigger venues. At high-profile events, like Recode’s conferences, he talks about how Snapchat is entertainment. But in private speeches we see Evan’s core philosophy for Snapchat is a vision on how he thinks the world should be. For example, this excerpt from his April 2014 keynote at LA Hacks reveals his philosophy on the distinction between privacy and secrecy:
Unfortunately, privacy is too often articulated as secrecy, when, as Nissenbaum points out, privacy is actually focused on an understanding of context. Not what is said—but where it is said and to whom. Privacy allows us to enjoy and learn from the intimacy that is created when we share different things with different people in different contexts.
Kundera writes, “In private we bad-mouth our friends and use coarse language; that we act different in private than in public is everyone’s most conspicuous experience, it is the very ground of the life of the individual; curiously, this obvious fact remains unconscious, unacknowledged, forever obscured by lyrical dreams of the transparent glass house, it is rarely understood to be the value one must defend above all others.”
In America, before the internet, the division between our public and private lives was usually tied to our physical location— our work and our home. The context in which we were communicating with our friends and family was clear. At work, we were professionals, and at home we were husbands, wives, sons, or daughters.
On the internet, we organize information by its popularity in an attempt to determine its validity. If a website has been referenced by many other websites, then it is generally determined to be more valuable or accurate. Feelings expressed on social media are quantified, validated, and distributed in a similar fashion. Popular expression becomes the most valuable expression. Social media businesses represent an aggressive expansion of capitalism into our personal relationships. We are asked to perform for our friends, to create things they like, to work on a “personal brand”—and brands teach us that authenticity is the result of consistency. We must honor our “true self” and represent the same self to all of our friends or risk being discredited.
But humanity cannot be true or false. We are full of contra- dictions and we change. That is the joy of human life. We are not brands; it is simply not in our nature.
Evan closely cherishes privacy to allow Snapchat to become what he wants it to become away from prying eyes so that the company has room to tinker and grow. Board member Mitch Lasky once noted that Evan is “already super paranoid and I don’t want him to go deeper into the bunker.” New hires are indoctrinated from day one to not talk about what they work on, even down to telling them not to put a specific role on their LinkedIn pages. They are indoctrinated into the cult that places a huge value on secrecy. Information is shared on a need-to-know basis as employees are separated into their teams. Early employees set the example as they take pride in maintaining the secrecy to the external world.
Spiegel’s preferred meetings with employees and investors consist of walking along the two-mile beachfront cement path from Snapchat’s Venice office to the Santa Monica pier. He feels these meetings have a hidden-in-plain-sight privacy, as it’s difficult to overhear someone’s conversation when they’re walking in a crowd.
Evan deeply dislikes giving presentations, so he scrapped Snapchat’s all-hands meetings, which he used to hold as often as once a week. Before they were discontinued, all-hands meetings, called company gatherings, were used for lighthearted announcements like birthdays and work anniversaries instead of hard-hitting presentations or Q&As on strategy and product. Employees often found out about new Snapchat features via an all-company email on launch day—or by reading about them in the press.
At one all-hands meeting an employee asked Evan, “What is the vision for Snapchat as a company?” Evan replied that the goal is just to build fun things. He continued that he doesn’t want to have a generic mission statement like Google or Facebook, because he thinks it restricts what the company can do. Evan doesn’t want employees to feel like they can’t build cool things just because they fall outside the bounds of the company mission statement. Evan has a strong vision of the future and five- and ten-year plans for the company. But he is only willing to share those plans with close confidants and a select few Snapchat employees, notably designers and long-time team members.
This culture can make the transition to Snapchat difficult for employees coming from other tech companies. Many Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are more open and have regular all-hands meetings, Q&As with executives, and generally more of a shared sense of trust in what the company is working on and striving toward. Orientation at Snapchat has a secrecy policy similar to Fight Club.
Every Wednesday night, Snapchat employees have Council, where they sit in a circle with nine colleagues and talk about their feelings. Council ranges from deep, introspective talks to community service, like serving meals or furnishing a home for homeless families, to typical team-bonding activities like boxing classes, volleyball, karaoke, painting, and happy hours.
When employees join Snapchat, they become part of three core teams: their starting class, their actual work team, and their Council group, which is randomly assigned. Council has three rules (Evan likes the number three). One, speak from the heart. Two, you are obligated to listen. Three, everything that happens in Council stays in Council. Evan believes this privacy creates a space for employees to make themselves vulnerable and share their deepest thoughts and feelings.
Council originated for Evan at Crossroads. The school’s founder, Paul Cummins, took the idea from the Ojai Foundation, a nonprofit about 90 miles north of Los Angeles between Oxnard and Santa Barbara that aims to bring connection and wholeness to the world through Council and retreats at its Land Sanctuary. Cummins introduced Council as the core part of a new program he created in the mid-1980s at Crossroads called Mysteries.
Students sat in a circle, and only the student with the talking stick could speak. The other students sat in silence or encouraged the speaker with a Native American response, “A-Ho,” meaning they agreed with or were moved by something the speaker said. Crossroads seniors took a multiday trip to the Ojai Foundation, where they lived in a yurt, ate vegetarian meals, and bonded with each other. Council had a major impact on Evan at Crossroads, and he took it with him when he started forming Snapchat’s culture.