Snapchat Releases First Hardware Product, Spectacles – Wall Street Journal
IN AN UNMARKED BUILDING on a quiet side street just off the beach in Venice, California, 26-year-old Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel stands in a small conference room. He’s draped a towel over a mysterious object sitting on a table. He is eager to the point of jitters.
“You wanna see it?” he asks, grinning widely. There’s drama in this reveal: I’m about to join an exceedingly small circle of people whom Spiegel has shown the object to. As he lifts the towel, he breaks into a delighted laugh. “Boom!”
What initially appears to be a normal pair of sunglasses turns out to be Spectacles, the first hardware product from Snap Inc., as the firm has been newly christened (Spiegel is refreshing the company name because its offerings now go beyond the Snapchat app). When you slip Spectacles on and tap a button near the hinge, it records up to 10 seconds of video from your first-person vantage. Each new tap records another clip.
Why use a pair of video sunglasses—available this fall, by the way, one-size-fits-all in black, teal or coral—instead of holding up your smartphone like everyone else? Because, Spiegel says, the images that result are fundamentally different. Spectacles’ camera uses a 115-degree-angle lens, wider than a typical smartphone’s and much closer to the eyes’ natural field of view. The video it records is circular, more like human vision. (Spiegel argues that rectangles are an unnecessary vestige of printing photos on sheets of paper.) As you record, your hands are free to pet dogs, hug babies or flail around at a concert. You can reach your arms out to people you’re filming, instead of holding your phone up, as Spiegel describes it, “like a wall in front of your face.”
He remembers testing a prototype in early 2015 while hiking with his fiancée, supermodel Miranda Kerr. “It was our first vacation, and we went to Big Sur for a day or two. We were walking through the woods, stepping over logs, looking up at the beautiful trees. And when I got the footage back and watched it, I could see my own memory, through my own eyes—it was unbelievable. It’s one thing to see images of an experience you had, but it’s another thing to have an experience of the experience. It was the closest I’d ever come to feeling like I was there again.”
WHEN YOU ASK PEOPLE in the tech industry about Spiegel, and how it is that by age 26 he’s built a company with more than 1,000 employees and offices on three continents, one thing they often cite is Spiegel’s aptitude for product design. It’s what he studied at Stanford, before dropping out just shy of graduation to focus on Snapchat. It’s what makes his app so addictive that it now reaches more than 150 million daily users—nearly 15 million more than Twitter.
It’s what attracts star talent like Imran Khan, whom Spiegel lured from Credit Suisse
in 2014. “The reason I joined here was Evan,” says Khan, now chief strategy officer of Snap Inc., “because it was evident that he was the best product visionary I’d met in my entire life. And with technology companies, if you don’t have good product, you die.”
The glasses are the culmination of a years-long development process described by Spiegel as “Measure a thousand times, cut once.” They have thrust his company, suddenly, into the teeming retail gadget marketplace. And they risk provoking, as anyone who recalls the saga of Google Glass knows, a fair amount of ridicule the moment they begin to appear on the pimpled faces of America’s teens.
For the moment, Spectacles appears to be a bit of a lark. At a price of $129.99 and with limited distribution, it won’t be relied upon for significant immediate revenue. Spiegel refers to it as a toy, to be worn for kicks at a barbecue or an outdoor concert—Spectacles video syncs wirelessly to a smartphone, making it easily shareable. “We’re going to take a slow approach to rolling them out,” says Spiegel. “It’s about us figuring out if it fits into people’s lives and seeing how they like it.”
Why make this product, with its attendant risks, and why now? “Because it’s fun,” he says with another laugh. This looseness, this sense of confident experimentation, seems to encapsulate one aspect of Snapchat’s startling success.
Then there’s another side: Spiegel’s eye on what’s coming down the pike. Spectacles will allow Snap Inc. to at last control a physical camera, instead of making the app a slave to your smartphone’s built-in lens. He hints that there could be far-reaching implications if Snapchat can seize the means of image production. It’s not mere fun, it turns out. There are commerce gears clicking beneath the frivolous exterior of these glasses.
MICHAEL LYNTON, the 56-year-old CEO of Sony
Entertainment, remembers the first time he saw Snapchat. It was a few years ago, before Spiegel had done any serious fundraising. Lynton’s two older daughters were already using the app, and his youngest was trying to download it, so Lynton’s wife, Jamie, became curious. “When she realized what it was, she said, ‘This is fantastic,’ ” Lynton remembers. “Because there’d been a number of kids at my children’s school whose reputations were harmed by something they’d put on the internet.”
That was the initial selling point of Snapchat: the means to send messages—especially photos—that would self-delete after just a few seconds in the recipient’s hands. No more ill-advised keg-stand shots coming back to haunt you at a job interview. No drunk, half-nude selfies making your life hell when you later decide to run for district attorney. Teenage, young adult or even Wall Street shenanigans would evaporate before they could incriminate.
Jamie Lynton was so enamored with the notion of vanishing content that she tracked Spiegel down and asked if she could meet him. Spiegel had co-founded Snapchat in 2011 while still at Stanford. By now he had dropped out and was working on the app full time with a tiny team based in his father’s house in Los Angeles. He made it over to the Lyntons’ home in Brentwood within the hour. “I was stunned at how impressive he was in the room as he talked to Jamie,” says Michael Lynton. “You got the sense he had a commercial instinct. But he was also so articulate about the philosophy of what he was trying to do.”
The Lyntons, among his initial investors, gave Spiegel bridge financing. Shortly thereafter he received major venture capital valuing the company at tens of millions of dollars, and as he assembled a corporate board, he put Michael Lynton on it. By late 2013, with Lynton’s advisement, Spiegel was spurning an offer from Facebook
to buy Snapchat for $3 billion in cash (possibly more, depending on whom you ask). The infamous November 2014 Sony hack uncovered a slew of Snapchat information embedded in Lynton’s email. (“The benefit of having online stuff disappear is something I can probably speak to,” says Lynton, laughing, “with the greatest conviction of anybody.”) Among the juiciest tidbits was a private comment Lynton emailed to a friend regarding the Facebook offer. “If you knew the real number,” Lynton wrote, “you would book us all a suite at Bellevue.”
‘‘Internet-connected photography is really a reinvention of the camera.’’
For Spiegel, then 23 years old, deflecting Facebook’s avalanche of money was an astonishing gamble. The hunt for revenue was, and remains, uncertain. A huge number of daily users does not guarantee success—just ask Twitter. And there are risks inherent in any service dependent on the goodwill of fickle young internet users. “Look at the fate Vine has suffered,” says Richard Greenfield, a media and tech analyst at the trading firm BTIG. The video-looping service “was all the rage, but it now appears to be in real pain. I think they were out-innovated. In the mobile world, you’re only as good as the next competitor coming along.”
So far, though, time and subsequent investors have proven Spiegel wise. Recent reports peg Snap Inc.’s value anywhere from $16 billion to $22 billion.
WHAT FACEBOOK ENVIED in 2013, and what tech observers still marvel at, is the extent to which young Americans are entranced by Snapchat. As it turned out, users weren’t focused solely on sending risqué content without consequences. (That feature had always been a tad overhyped. Anyone with quick screenshot reflexes, or a second camera, can grab a friend’s embarrassing image before it disappears into the ether.) Instead, what young people came to adore about Snapchat’s disappearing photos is how they make social media a far more casual experience.
This wasn’t like Facebook, where you can build a lasting monument to yourself with curated photo albums from spring break and graduation. Nor was it Instagram, where you post flattering selfies and then wait to see how many “likes” they accrue. On Snapchat, photos and videos quickly expire. With no way for users to “fave” or “share” them, Snaps never go viral. There’s less pressure to be perfect.
Celebrities have jumped onto Snapchat in part because they face no rude feedback there, the way they might on other platforms. “On Snapchat you can be so open and share whatever you want,” says Kim Kardashian via email. “There’s something so freeing about not feeling judged, shamed or bullied by not having any comments or likes. You’re free to be you!”
Most Snaps between pals are tossed-off, jaunty communiqués. This is the dumb outfit I’m wearing right now. Here’s a funny dog I’m looking at. Check out the goofy thing I’m up to this very second. Snaps aren’t meant to stand the test of time, or even be viewed again tomorrow. Your Snapchat Story is a reel of photos and videos taken in the past 24 hours, melting away to be replaced by whatever happens next. (When Snapchat recently introduced Memories, a feature that lets you add older, saved photos to today’s Story, there was mild uproar that the feature had upended one of the app’s central covenants. Spiegel sees it as simply giving users more creative tools to express how they’re feeling.)
Even the interface is relaxed. There’s no instruction manual on the app, and finding people isn’t always intuitive—users are expected to fumble around and figure things out. “We make it easy to play with,” says Spiegel. “You can’t break anything on Snapchat.”
For some older users not as adept at navigating new software, the lack of guidance can be confusing. “I used to think Snapchat was like those high-pitched whistle sounds that only teenagers can hear,” says Stewart Butterfield, 43-year-old CEO of the corporate messaging platform Slack. “It was a pretty hard thing for me to grasp at the very beginning. I come from a generation where a one-megabyte hard drive was incredibly expensive, and digital information seemed so precious because you had to make tough choices about what to keep or delete. So the idea that this photo is not going to be saved somewhere forever took a while to wrap my head around. But then I realized, it’s just like a conversation. You have the memory of it, but you don’t have a perfect recording. And that makes it much more spontaneous and free.”
That concept—ephemeral conversations conducted through images—is the prime mover driving Snapchat’s popularity. “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day,” says Spiegel. “What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”
Snapchat makes it easy to annotate photos and videos by adding text, a quick finger drawing or a variety of predesigned embellishments, all of which encourage creativity. I send you a pic of me frowning next to my car with the words “parking ticket” scrawled above my head and a Snapchat-provided “Manhattan” chyron at the bottom of the screen. You send me a video of you fake crying with “sorry” typed beneath and a sad-face emoji hovering over your shoulder.
“It’s not about an accumulation of photos defining who you are,” says Spiegel. “It’s about instant expression and who you are right now. Internet-connected photography is really a reinvention of the camera. And what it does is allow you to share your experience of the world while also seeing everyone else’s experience of the world, everywhere, all the time.”
SNAPCHAT’S NUMBERS keep growing. More than 60 percent of 13-to-34-year-old smartphone users are now on the app. Snapchatters send more than one billion Snaps a day and watch more than 10 billion videos. Among the younger generation, Snapchat has essentially become what television was for baby boomers. Consider a stat that Snapchat employs to woo advertisers: On any given day, the app reaches 41 percent of all 18-to-34-year-olds in the United States, while an average TV network in the top-15 for the same demographic reaches six percent.
Wherever eyeballs (and particularly young eyeballs) go, ad dollars follow. This is the crux of a brutal battle in the tech sphere right now. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all fighting for their slice of the time people spend looking at video on phones. Why? Because marketers will pay good money to insert mobile video ads inside that content.
Facebook remains the behemoth, powered in large part by the fact that it warehouses so many people’s digital identities. Its core pitch is that its wealth of user information allows advertisers to micro-target. If you want to sell diapers to a suburban, Spanish-speaking woman who holds a college degree and recently gave birth, Facebook can help you find her—and serve her customized ads (though Procter & Gamble,
the largest advertiser in the world, recently moved away from targeting consumers quite so precisely, with a spokesperson confessing that some P&G ads “went too narrow”).
Snapchat can’t offer those micro-targeting capabilities. It tends to know more general things about you—such as your age, your gender, your location and whether your phone is iOS or Android. It counteracts this by functioning, from an advertiser’s perspective, more like television.
An advertiser who buys on Snapchat can be assured it will reach a very wide swath of American youth, just as it once did by running ads on MTV. “You’re reaching a certain demographic, broadly, at a place where they spend a lot of time and come back to throughout the day,” says Ben Thompson, who writes about the technology industry at Stratechery.com. “I see Snapchat as a natural recipient of TV ad dollars as those dollars move online.”
When you watch videos on Snapchat—whether Stories from a friend or a celebrity such as Kardashian, or professional content on Snapchat’s Discover channels from media outlets like BuzzFeed or The Wall Street Journal—the app will autoplay clips one after another and slip ads in between. These ads can be full-screen video with sound, creating an effect very much like a TV commercial interrupting a sitcom. The Snapchat Stories feature has been so attractive to both users and marketers that Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) was driven to imitate it this summer with Instagram Stories—not even bothering to change the name.
Neither Spiegel nor Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom would comment on Stories for this article. But it’s not the first time Snapchat has faced replication efforts from Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. In 2012, Facebook created an app called Poke that essentially attempted to clone Snapchat. Facebook’s failure with Poke no doubt helped spur the 2013 buyout offer that Spiegel rebuffed. Facebook then tried and failed again to imitate Snapchat with a 2014 app called Slingshot. At this point, Thompson views Instagram’s copycatting as a “defensive move” by Facebook.
“Facebook is trying to put Snapchat in a box of dominating U.S. teens and young adults,” says Thompson. “They’re trying to limit Snapchat from expanding. But they have admitted they won’t get those users back. They’re not trying to take Snapchat’s users away; they’re just trying to prevent new people from trying Snapchat in the first place.” (Facebook declined to comment for this article.)
Thompson feels Snapchat has passed a threshold of user adoption that makes it unlikely to be abandoned en masse. BTIG’s Greenfield even envisions it finding growth in older users. After all, Facebook started on college campuses but now grandmothers check it daily.
Snapchat won’t comment on its revenue figures. An internal document reported on by TechCrunch suggests that the company took in a paltry $59 million in 2015. But Snapchat has begun to ramp up its overtures to advertisers, attempting to offer better feedback metrics and slightly more advanced targeting options (like knowing whether a user tended to watch news-based content on Snapchat’s Discover channels or preferred lifestyle content), and the document in the TechCrunch report held that Snapchat estimates 2016 revenues between $250 million and $350 million. In 2017, it aims to bring in $500 million to $1 billion.
Ambitions like that will depend in part on Snapchat’s continuing ability to generate new ad formats that marketers love. For instance, Lenses are special effects you can add to your Snapchat selfie, turning your face into a dog with a wagging tongue or making it peek through a hole in a piece of toast. Sponsored versions of Lenses allow you to transform yourself into a taco (with a Taco Bell logo in the corner of the screen) or animate a bucket of Gatorade being dumped over your head. Even luxury retailers like Burberry,
Michael Kors and Tiffany
& Co. have gotten into the sponsored Lenses game. What makes the format especially attractive is that users are choosing to include these ads in their Snaps. And on average, they’ll spend 20 seconds playing around with a sponsored Lens before sending the Snap—similar to the length of a TV commercial, yet radically different in terms of how the consumer is engaging with the brand. Facebook, in another acknowledgement of Snapchat envy, has recently experimented with its own version of this feature.
SPIEGEL MADE a deliberate choice to base Snapchat in Venice instead of the bland suburbs of Silicon Valley. A far more vibrant culture surrounds him here. “I figured out what I want to do with you today,” he says, leading me from the conference room out to the sidewalk. “There’s something I want to show you.”
As we stroll the sun-splashed streets, I barrage him with personal questions. Spiegel grew up in Pacific Palisades with two younger sisters and two attorney parents (his mother chose to stay home after Spiegel was born). He attended the private Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences—known for attracting the children of Southern California’s rich and famous—before he left for Stanford. He tells me he’s still tight with his high school friends. He says his favorite book is Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and that he once wrote a school paper in which he linked the novel with the Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka’s series of snapshots from 1968 Prague. He frequently asks for informational meetings with people from non-tech industries, ranging from fashion designers to risk analysts to politicians, and gets them. He says it’s his favorite perk of being a famous CEO.
But it’s clear that Spiegel is intensely uncomfortable when it comes to talking about himself. When I express sympathy, he confesses, with a wan smile, “This is like talking to a therapist with the ability to humiliate you.”
Public perceptions of Spiegel have been shaped by a few unsavory incidents from his college years. There were leaks of vulgar emails he sent to frat buddies back at Stanford, which he now calls “absolutely mortifying.” He also waged a nasty legal battle with a Stanford fraternity brother over early Snapchat ownership claims—which he is now legally constrained from discussing. Spiegel’s general reluctance to do much press has resulted in a lack of rosy counternarratives.
He’s especially private when it comes to discussing Kerr, the 33-year-old Australian supermodel he’s been dating since 2015. Kerr was previously married to the actor Orlando Bloom, with whom she has a 5-year-old son. “I love her, and she’s an inspiration,” Spiegel tells me. “I feel very lucky and grateful to have a great partner.” After that, he ends the line of inquiry, declining to comment on tabloid rumors that he’s been ring shopping. A few days later, reports emerged that he and Kerr had become engaged. Kerr broke the news on Snapchat, posting a Snap in which a cartoon avatar of Spiegel is down on one knee, proposing to her. (The cartoon was created by Snapchat’s Friendmoji service, introduced after the company acquired Bitmoji earlier this year.)
“OK, we’re here,” Spiegel says, ducking into a tent set up at the edge of a busy street. Inside, it’s dim, and there are several photography umbrellas and a Hasselblad camera on a tripod. A few days before, Spiegel had met the documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for “Superman.” Guggenheim lives a short walk from Snapchat’s Venice office, and he’d invited Spiegel to check out this temporary photo booth he’d thrown up on a whim. Anyone could walk in and, for a small payment, get a studio-quality portrait. Spiegel loved the concept.
In Spiegel’s thinking, Snapchat isn’t a social-media company. It’s a camera company. He’s studied the histories of firms like Kodak
and Polaroid and how they pitched themselves to the public. “First it was make a photo,” Spiegel says, characterizing the way people would visit a studio akin to the one we’re in now for a formal sitting. “Then it was take a photo,” as portable cameras let people capture casual snapshots. “And finally it became give a photo,” starting with instant Polaroids handed to friends at a party and evolving into smartphone cameras that let you zip your selfie to anyone on the planet.
As Guggenheim snaps photos of Spiegel and me, Spiegel demonstrates Spectacles to him, careful to hide the still-top-secret product from pedestrians wandering by outside. Though he calls it a toy, Spectacles also seems like a Trojan horse for Spiegel’s vision of the future: a way of taking photographs that is more natural, as the wearer turns reflexively to look at items of interest. The resulting scenes, he hopes, will feel less like bland camera-phone snippets than like an archive of memories. Or dreams.
Beyond the images it produces, a wearable camera also knows a lot about what you’re doing in any given moment: which person you’re looking at, which product you’re browsing in a store window, whether the sky is blue or gray. It might guess what you need before you ask for it. In a tech scrum where fighting for a share of people’s daily video consumption is a zero-sum game, using the camera like this opens up fresh commercial possibilities.
When Spiegel warms to a subject that excites him, as Spectacles does, he often breaks into a giggle. “When you played that song the other day,” Spiegel says to Guggenheim, still jazzed but shifting topics, “everything hit me, and it blew my mind. I listened to it again yesterday, and everything came together.”
Guggenheim walks to his computer and starts to play the song again, “Little Room,” by the White Stripes:
‘Well you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in the bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think
of how you got started
sitting in your little room’
“It’s everything I’ve been thinking about,” says Spiegel, in wonderment. “Literally, I was thinking about when we started Snapchat, all of us sitting at the dining room table. And I was thinking, How do you access that little room inside the big room? How do you build the little room inside the big room?”
As Snapchat opens doors to ever bigger rooms, it will face stiffer competition. Implacable gargantuans like Facebook will continue to war with it. Both professionally and personally, this is a moment of transition for Spiegel—launching a new product, proposing to his girlfriend and battling rival companies while fast becoming a CEO celebrity. If Snapchat’s core concepts are privacy, connection, creativity and ephemerality, it occurs to me that those are precisely the themes that must be weighing on Spiegel right now.
“Are you having fun?” asks Guggenheim.
“I am having the best time,” Spiegel says, and the laughter starts again.