Snapchat Went From Frat Boy Dream to Tech World Darling. But Will it Last? | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Snapchat Went From Frat Boy Dream to Tech World Darling. But Will it Last? 

Thursday, Oct 17 2013
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L.A. does tech the way it does everything else: with red carpets and velvet ropes.

Consider the Social 25 party, held this year at the exclusive 41 Ocean Club in Santa Monica. The VIP event, which kicks off L.A.'s Social Media Week, honors 25 celebrities and brands who — in the words of organizer Drew Baldwin — are crushing it on social. Sam Pepper is there, muttering something and posing with his hangers-on for the paparazzi. Never heard of him? He has 1.3 million subscribers on YouTube. After him comes sprightly Olga Kay, another YouTube star, a Russian juggler whose catchphrase is "I have the Internet by the balls."

Past the bouncers, the crowd is full of attractive people in expensive clothes. From the snippets of conversation, it could be any Hollywood party: "Did I ever get back to you? Ben said he'll take the meeting." Jason Bentley, the KCRW deejay, is deep inside his headphones, spinning.

click to flip through (3) PHOTO COURTESY OF SNAPCHAT - Evan Spiegel, left, and Bobby Murphy worked to create Snapchat in a Stanford dorm room.
  • Evan Spiegel, left, and Bobby Murphy worked to create Snapchat in a Stanford dorm room.

A skinny young man approaches the bar in a T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers. Even though he tipped the bartender $20 on the last round, it still takes a while to get his two tequila-and-sodas, possibly because he looks like a teenager.

But he's actually 23, and he's one of the honorees — maybe the most important one here. Once he gets his drinks, a security guard uses a pocket flashlight to guide him and his pals back to a VIP room within the VIP party, where he can hang out without being bothered.

He is Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snapchat, the insanely popular smartphone app that lets you send disappearing pictures to your friends. With just 20 employees, and no revenue, the company is valued at a staggering $800 million. Before the night is over, Spiegel will have his photo taken with Mayor Eric Garcetti, who exults, "We love having you in Los Angeles!"

Also in the VIP room are Spiegel's co-founder, Bobby Murphy, his chief operating officer, and Nick Tran, the head of social media for Taco Bell, who led his company into the realm of ephemeral advertising by launching its Beefy Crunch Burrito on Snapchat. They all lean in for a group selfie.

One of the great things about Snapchat's success, Spiegel says, is the free tacos.

L.A. has long had an inferiority complex toward New York. But lately, the locus of the city's envy has shifted west, to Silicon Valley. As more of the nation's cultural landscape is dominated by tech, L.A. has sought to stake its own claim, touting its creative workforce and rebranding itself as Silicon Beach.

Snapchat is one of L.A.'s proudest successes. Mike Bonin, the Westside councilman, brags that the company is in his district. "It's a company where you can look at them and credibly ask, 'Is this the next Facebook?' " Bonin enthuses.

"Snapchat is clearly on track to do some things that no one has seen before in L.A." says Greg Bettinelli, a partner at L.A.-based Upfront Ventures. In the world of technology, he says, "What L.A. has never had before is this tentpole company that is famous throughout the world."

Snapchat grew out of L.A.'s carefree, beach-brah culture. Spiegel was raised in Pacific Palisades; his company is headquartered in a bungalow on the Venice boardwalk. Its YouTube videos depict teenagers racing turtles and joy-riding in the Los Angeles River over an indie soundtrack.

Granted, in some respects Spiegel resembles any other successful tech entrepreneur. He launched Snapchat from a dorm room in Palo Alto, and dropped out a few credits shy of graduation to work on it full-time. He also has the Silicon Valley habit of mentioning that he is leading a revolution.

But in many other ways, Spiegel is the product of his L.A. surroundings. For starters, he's not a cloistered geek. Yes, he was into computers as a kid, but he was just as proficient at snowboarding. And though he was shy as a youngster, in high school he willed himself into becoming an expert party thrower, and eventually was made social chair of his Stanford fraternity.

Spiegel also has eschewed Silicon Valley. He prefers L.A., he told an interviewer earlier this year, because you can meet people who are not obsessed with tech. In Silicon Valley, he says, everyone is trying to pitch an app.

But where he is a real outlier is in his attitude toward his own success. One of the cherished ideas of the tech world is that success is based on talent and hard work, and that everyone has an equal chance. But Spiegel, who grew up in a wealthy family, has little use for what he calls "the myth of meritocracy." Where others see success as a function of effort, he sees it as luck.

Spiegel declined through a company spokeswoman to be interviewed for this story. In chronicling his background and the rise of Snapchat, the L.A. Weekly consulted court records, interviewed experts and examined Spiegel's published remarks.

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