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Is Snapchat poised to be L.A.'s tech start-up star?

Fleeting image app Snapchat — a Venice Beach start-up that has garnered enormous popularity and publicity — may have staying power.

May 31, 2013|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy, 24, left, and Evan Spiegel, 22, above at the start-up's offices in Venice, made a deliberate choice to take Snapchat to Los Angeles shortly after coming up with the idea for the app while students at Stanford University.
Snapchat co-founders Bobby Murphy, 24, left, and Evan Spiegel, 22, above… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

There's never a shortage of things to gawk at in Venice Beach: oiled-up bodybuilders, a two-headed turtle, over-the-top street performers.

Lately, passersby on the main stretch of the boardwalk have also been ogling an eggshell blue house, steps from the sand, unremarkable except for a giant yellow sign out front featuring a cheery cartoon ghost.

The ghost is the logo of Snapchat, which has burst onto the tech scene with its mobile app that enables users to send their friends photos that self-destruct seconds after they're viewed.

With more than 150 million photos shared through the app every day, Snapchat has garnered enormous popularity and publicity: Mark Zuckerberg has used the app. Al Gore name-dropped it at the South by Southwest festival. Stephen Colbert had co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy on "The Colbert Report."

What has gotten less attention, though, is where the 2-year-old company is located. Spiegel, 22, and Murphy, 24, made a deliberate choice to take Snapchat to Los Angeles shortly after coming up with the idea for the app while students at Stanford University. The move away from Silicon Valley was bold, given that region's reputation for growing promising young tech start-ups and its ties to crucial venture capital funding.

L.A., on the other hand, has gained traction as a tech community but has yet to produce a blockbuster start-up on the level of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Despite the debut of hundreds of start-ups in the region in recent years, tech entrepreneurs and investors have stressed the need for Los Angeles to have a breakout hit.

Some are saying Snapchat could finally be it, and are hoping that the company built on ephemerality won't itself disappear like so many other start-ups.

Snapchat has an "addictive quality," said Mitch Lasky, general partner at Benchmark Capital, which led a $13.5-million round of funding for Snapchat announced in February.

Lasky, a member of Snapchat's board, said the app's user engagement is "something the likes of which I haven't seen outside of email or SMS or that kind of stuff. It's extraordinary."

Case in point: Users post about 40 million pictures every day on Instagram. Snapchat sees about four times that number move through its app daily — explosive growth considering only 50 million images were shared daily just six months ago.

Snapchat's premise is simple. Users take a photo or video and set an expiration time of one to 10 seconds. Recipients are notified when they've received a "snap" and must maintain physical contact with their smartphone screen as they're viewing it. A countdown timer shows how much time remains before the image self-destructs.

The company's founders say the app has caught on because it celebrates spontaneous, fleeting moments — a refreshing break from the perfectly poised shots that are carefully selected for Facebook and other social media networks. Indeed, many users said they turned to the app to send photos of themselves making funny or ugly faces or otherwise looking less than picture-perfect.

Snaps have also introduced the concept of photo chatting, a way to communicate quickly without words. For instance, users will send a snap of a shopping center instead of texting, "I'm at the mall."

"It's changing the definition of what a photo is," said Murphy, the company's chief technology officer. "People get trapped in this notion of what a photo should be."

The allure of vanishing photos has caught on quickly among Snapchat's users, most of them in the coveted 13-to-25-year-old range.

A few months ago, "everyone at school starting talking about Snapchat," said Tyler Bowman, 15, who was hanging out on the Venice boardwalk near Snapchat's headquarters on a recent Thursday.

Now, his friend Jonathon Marquez says, "everyone who has a smartphone uses it."

The high school sophomores said Snapchat has become one of their top three apps. They each send 100 snaps a day, mostly of what they described as "dumb stuff."

"It's just fun to mess around. Texting gets old after awhile," Bowman said.

Snapchat hasn't been without its share of controversy. Its must-have status among teens and its now-you-see-it-now-you-don't underpinning have made some suspicious that the photo-messaging app is being used for sexting (when people text racy images of themselves).

Spiegel, who is chief executive, grew visibly upset and became agitated at the mention of sexting and refused to answer questions about it. Investors, however, say the worries are overblown.

"We don't worry about it because it isn't true," said Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners, which led a seed round of funding last year.

"The only people who think that Snapchat is primarily for sexting are people who don't use the app," Liew said. "I'm sure that some sexting occurs on Snapchat, just as it does over SMS, email, Facebook messaging, snail mail and carrier pigeon. But it isn't the core driver."

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