Snapchat CEO: We’re a “camera company”

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel spoke on Friday, April 28, 2016, at Columbia University’s StartupColumbia event. When asked by interviewers if Snapchat is becoming a media company, Spiegel said, “We think of Snapchat as more of a camera company, so you open the app and it goes to the camera… The relationship of the frequency of use of the communication product and the time spent on the media product are what make our business strategically interesting.”

Positioning Snapchat as a camera company is fascinating because this emphasizes the key point of differentiation for Snapchat as being camera first and being a place where there are many people sharing photos/videos both in chat and in Stories. Being a camera company also may help welcome partners in media to create and distribute content on Snapchat, and the possibilities for people to make content to post on Stories is remarkable.

Asked about the most surprising uses of Snapchat, Spiegel said Stories. “Stories blew us away. What was envisioned at the time as an ephemeral profile — this is who I am right now — has become a lot more.”

The range of sharing in Stories includes friends and Spiegel mentioned an account that he learned about on his travels where the person gives a weather report every day. “To watch the evolution of Stories into more of a broadcasting platform away from just a profile based concept where it started is very exciting.”

When opening Snapchat to the camera, Chat is available to the left of the camera, and Stories is available to the right of the camera. An interviewer asked about how Snapchat differentiates compared to communication or social networking products. “The beautiful thing is it sort of sits in the middle, but more importantly it opens to the camera. The thing that feeds a social network is content… Similarly with communication… So in our view, when you take a snap and you choose this path between talking to your friends or adding it to your Story we end up with this harmony where both of these businesses feed themselves. I don’t think it’s one or the other.”

Spiegel said he tries to not use the term “augmented reality” when referring to 3D stickers and Lenses including face swap, and said Snapchat would do more to help people express themselves. Spiegel said he viewed lenses as a natural extension from the early focus on photos as communication. “…so now you can put the way you feel… in the moment you’re experiencing. For us that’s just the beginning of some fun creative tools.”

Spiegel said he spends 40% of his time on product, 40% of his time on recruiting, and another 20% is what’s left. Spiegel managed the design team until a few weeks ago with the hire of a product lead. Spiegel said he used to spend even more time on recruiting until the building of the recruiting organization.

Deciding on LA as the headquarters was a decision that Spiegel says helped self-select people who believed in the business, and are thinking long-term. “We created this backloaded vesting schedule: 10–20–30–40,” Spiegel said. “If you think 4 years is long-term, then we’re not really interested in working with you.”

When asked about what makes a great entrepreneur, Spiegel said what really matters is caring sincerely about the people you work with. “You have to really be curious about and love people because building a team is the most important thing you do, and if you don’t genuinely just love the people you work with and take care of them… and (care) about their families and their lives, then it’s a non-starter because you’re not going to be able to build a great team.”

Spiegel cited a Stanford GSB course on entrepreneurship that “changed my life” thanks to class visitor Intuit CEO Scott Cook which led to an internship. Spiegel also would chat with guests sitting next to him. Guests included Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and a YouTube founder.

A number of the questions focused on Snapchat’s early days, including about the first financing round. Spiegel advised to never accept if someone says terms are “standard,” and described a term in the Snapchat seed round of requiring access to 50% or the majority of the Series A round that came the following year. Spiegel said this kind of term can discourage possible investors who seek to own a larger stake and so may not bid at all. This and other terms were unwound over time, he said. “The big, simple takeaway is anytime you hear ‘standard terms,’ keep asking why, and why, and why, and why,” he said.

Asked about the difference between entrepreneurship in college compared to after college, Spiegel cited the need to balance but ultimately needing to make a choice to go for building a meaningful company. “I think some point as early as sophomore year my classes started taking a hit because I was working on projects all the time, but if you’re ok with getting bad grades, then it doesn’t really matter,” Spiegel said.

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Context quote about Snapchat as a camera company:

“We think of Snapchat as more of a camera company, so you open the app and it goes to the camera. But media is definitely a part of our service. It’s a really great and fun feature. And it’s definitely the way we organize all the content being created every day through our camera. But the thing for us that’s really interesting is the relationship between the communication business which is to the left of the camera and to the right the media business. So you have this communication business where people are communicating visually and they come back to the app all day long. If waiting for their friend to reply, then they can swipe over to read Cosmo or catch up with their friends on their Stories. So that relationship of the frequency of use of the communication product and the time spent on the media product are what make our business strategically interesting.”