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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For a mentor and patron, Spiegel found Scott Cook, the CEO of Intuit. As Spiegel would later tell an audience at a Stanford Women in Business conference, the top executives at great companies are reaching retirement age.

"They want to pay it forward. They know how lucky they are," he said at the conference. "After class one day, I begged Scott Cook for a job."

Cook took an interest in Spiegel, giving the undergrad an opportunity to work on a text-based platform that Intuit was developing for use in India. After gaining valuable experience there, Spiegel decided to try to launch his own project.

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.

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Though what followed fits neatly into Silicon Valley's mythology of self-made success, Spiegel is up front in acknowledging how many breaks he got along the way.

"I am a young, white, educated male," he said at the conference. "I got really, really lucky. And life isn't fair."

As a result, his advice for young people runs contrary to the typical nose-to-the-grindstone tech ethos: "It's not about working harder; it's about working the system."

In 2010, tech blogger Chris Dixon wrote a widely circulated post, titled "The next big thing will start out looking like a toy." Citing examples like the telephone and the personal computer, Dixon argued that disruptive technologies tend to be dismissed at first because they are so simple that they seem to be almost useless. Snapchat, which launched the following year, fit that description perfectly.

The idea for the app came out of a conversation about sexting among Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers. One of them was Frank Reginald Brown IV, known as Reggie — a friend of Spiegel's since freshman year. The South Carolina native had attended the McCallie School, a private boys' boarding school in Tennessee. Like Spiegel, he was the son of a Stanford grad — his father is a pediatrician.

Spiegel and Brown had rushed Kappa Sigma together in 2009. Spiegel eventually became Kappa Sigma's social chair. However, the fraternity got into trouble in the fall of 2010 when it held a drunken party during a "dry" weekend. The administration judged the incident to be part of a pattern, and kicked the frat off campus. Brown and Spiegel were living in the Kimball Hall dormitory in spring 2011 when the idea for Snapchat was hatched.

The Kappa Sigma motto is "Brothers in Heart Throughout Life." But anyone who has seen The Social Network's depiction of the acrimonious founding of Facebook could guess how long that brotherhood would last. Brown, now a student at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, has filed a lawsuit alleging that he first proposed an app that would allow users to send self-deleting photo messages. Spiegel, he claims, repeatedly said it was a "million-dollar idea."

"This," Brown's lawsuit begins, "is a case of partners betraying a fellow partner."

By the time Brown and Spiegel first discussed the disappearing-photo idea, Spiegel had already been working with an older fraternity brother, Bobby Murphy, on several failed startup ideas. Spiegel was the designer, while Murphy — a computer science major from the Bay Area — wrote the code. One idea would help high school seniors applying for college. It was a flop.

According to Brown's lawsuit, Spiegel and Brown agreed to bring Murphy in to write code for the disappearing-picture app, initially called Picaboo. According to documents that have come out in the lawsuit, the app was conceived of as "a timed picture messaging game," with images set to expire after 10 seconds or less.

Sexting was part of the idea from the start. An early-draft press release suggested that Snapchat would be a good way for a "betch" — Stanford frat slang for a bitch — to send "incriminating photos." Without Snapchat, "A betch would be at the mercy of her captor if anyone ever got ahold of her phone," the press release said.

But the app was by no means intended to be limited to sexy photos. Other draft press releases suggest taking photos of shoes, crazy faces, a new haircut or food stuck in your teeth.

"These are photos of moments, so capture them how you live out your daily life," the release says. "Most importantly, don't worry about what comes next."

That summer, the three fraternity brothers worked on the project together at Spiegel's father's house. While Spiegel designed the user interface and Murphy did the coding, Brown — the English major — was left in a subordinate role. Among his contributions, according to his lawsuit, was "Ghostface Chillah," the app's ghost logo. As chief marketing officer, Brown also wrote press releases and the terms of service.

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