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Forbes Inside Story Of Snapchat: The World's Hottest App Or A $3 Billion Disappearing Act?

Stashed in: Zuck!, Pants on fire!, Sociopaths, Snapchat, Art of War

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There's some debate over whether the story in Forbes is true:

THIRTEEN MONTHS AGO Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the richest twentysomething in history, reached out to Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, who oversees a revenue-less app that makes photos disappear, with an invitation, delivered to his personal e-mail account: Come to Menlo Park and let’s get to know each other. Spiegel, now 23 and the brashest tech wunderkind since, well, Zuckerberg, complete with his own legal battle against a college buddy who helped him start his company, responded to his role model thusly: I’m happy to meet you… if you come to me.

And so, armed with the premise of meeting with architect Frank Gehry about designs for Facebook’s headquarters, Zuckerberg flew to Spiegel’s hometown, Los Angeles, arranging for a private apartment to host the secret sit-down. When Spiegel showed up with his cofounder Bobby Murphy, who serves as Snapchat’s chief technology officer, Zuckerberg had a specific agenda ready. He tried to draw out the partners’ vision for Snapchat–and he described Facebook’s new product, Poke, a mobile app for sharing photos and making them disappear. It would debut in a matter of days. And in case there was any nuance missed, Zuckerberg would soon change the large sign outside its Silicon Valley campus from its iconic thumbs-up “like” symbol to the Poke icon. Remembers Spiegel: “It was basically like, ‘We’re going to crush you.’”

Spiegel and Murphy immediately returned to their office and ordered a book for each of their six employees: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Apparently Zuck's response was different:

Valleywag calls the Snapchat founder a sociopath:

According to the Forbes article, Snapchat was not popular out of the gate:

The original roles were fairly defined: Murphy as CTO, Brown as chief marketing officer, Spiegel as CEO, honing the idea as part of a design class he was taking. The first iteration was a clunky website that required users to upload a photo and set a timer before sending. The eureka moment only came when the idea migrated to mobile. “At some point it was like, ‘Hey, there’s a camera on your phone,’” Spiegel says. “‘Wouldn’t that be easier?’”

The class culminated in a presentation to a panel of venture capitalists. Brown came up with a name for the app, Picaboo, and Murphy put in 18-hour days to get a working prototype. The response was tepid. “The feedback was basically, ‘Hmmmm. Well, thank you for showing us your project,’” recalls Spiegel. One investor suggested he partner with Best Buy. Many wondered why anyone would want to send a disappearing photo.

The first version debuted in the iOS App Store on July 13, 2011… to yawns. “The Instagram fairy tale”–the app had 25,000 downloads on the first day–”that was not us unfortunately,” Murphy laments. The team had worked around a potentially fatal flaw–the fact that recipients can take a screenshot, rendering a disappearing image permanent–by building in a notification if your picture has been captured, a potent social deterrent. Still, by the end of the summer Picaboo had only 127 users. Pathetic. Brown toyed with positioning the app as a sexting tool. (“Picaboo lets you and your boyfriend send photos for peeks and not keeps!” reads a draft of a press release he wrote.) Murphy’s parents implored him to get a real job. And Spiegel apparently began pushing to shake up the team. According to Brown’s deposition, he overheard Spiegel and Murphy plotting to replace him.

It turns out the killerapp for Snapchat isn't sexting. It's cheating:

But that fall Snapchat began to exhibit a pulse. As user numbers approached 1,000, an odd pattern emerged: App usage peaked between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.–school hours. Spiegel’s mother had told her niece about the app, and the niece’s Orange County high school had quickly embraced Snapchat on their school-distributed iPads, since Facebook was banned. It gave them all the ability to pass visual notes during class–except, even better, the evidence vanished. Usage doubled over the holidays as those students received new, faster iPhones, and users surged that December to 2,241. By January it was at 20,000; by April, 100,000.

It took a long, long time to grow Snapchat's user base, which Forbes now estimates at 50 million.

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