The 20 Billion Dollar Toy Company

It was Christmas, early afternoon, the warm Southern California sun shining through my bedroom window. I was six, belly down on the brown carpet, smelling the brandy on Grandpa and hearing his breath move softly through the hair in his nose (he always breathed with his mouth closed when he concentrated). My twin brother was at my other side, and we were struggling together with the most ambitious project we’d ever undertaken: A huge, yellow Lego Castle.

We squinted to match the number of dots in the instructions to number of dots on the bricks. It was hard work for 6-year-old brains, even when paired and guided by a wise Grandpa.

We got a good start, finishing what, in the real world, would be called the foundation, essentially a low yellow outline on green base plates, a hint of the castle that would soon rise above it. But 6-year-old impatience and frustration proved too great to complete the project in one sitting. The foundation was left to be built up later and we went to find some other slice the Christmas Magic that seemed so endless at that age.

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I’m constantly befuddled that the word “toy” is toxic in the tech industry. Calling a new product a “toy” is the quickest way to dismiss it as lacking value.

Evan Spiegel shrugged off that negativity last Fall when he described Spectacles as a toy. That led to several media members speculating his was “managing expectations.” My guess is he was just being honest.

Another guess is that Lego, currently valued at around $14 billion, doesn’t spend much time worrying about the negative connotations of the word “toy.” Is there a reason Snap can’t create similar massive value while not denying it’s essential toy-ness?

The charm of Snapchat is undeniable: it opens to the camera and compels you to produce, its lenses and filters spark creativity, and the temporary nature of what you create eliminates inhibitions and encourages sharing.

Snapchat is a set of tools and instructions helping you create compelling visual content. Snapchat is the Lego of video production.

The kids growing up on Snapchat, the Snapchat general, will have earlier, better understanding of communication through imagery and visual storytelling. JJ Abrams was running around with his Dad’s Super 8 camera at ten-years-old; kids today are Snapping their aunts and uncles at three.

That doesn’t mean kids won’t leave the platform as it ceases to be useful for them, just like most of us left our Legos when when got to high school, just like Abrams moved on to TV and feature films.

The Snap generation will move on to spaces where they can develop more in depth ideas. They will create 10-hour narratives for Netflix, find easier ways to capture home video, and re-imagine video conferencing for enterprise.

The Snap generation will almost certainly be the ones who realize the potential of virtual reality and augmented reality, able to find applications for the new tech that the old guard can’t yet fathom.

And all of this will start where most of our ideas start: with a toy.

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The three of use, my bro and grandpa and me, returned to finish the Lego Castle the next day. We closely followed the instructions, adding bricks to what appeared to be abstract forms until suddenly a room, or archway, or turret took shape.

Thinking back to building the Castle, I can almost see my brain calibrating itself with numbers, processes and spatial arrangements. At the time I just felt just a growing sense of wonder that something this cool could manifest from abstract bits of plastic.

Eventually, after a few months of sieges and jousting battles, the castle got broken up. The yellow bricks were tossed into boxes with bricks of all colors and sizes. And some time after that, those yellow bricks found themselves being built into many other things, over and over, not guided by instruction, but by imagination.

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