When a group of Snapchat employees got locked out of their
building one Monday morning, they quickly realized their
predicament was no accident.
A top-secret Snapchat team had swooped in
overnight and taken over the office, de-activating the keycards
of the current tenants in the process. The secret newcomers
eventually allowed their colleagues back into the building and
partitioned the space, while a third group of Snapchat engineers
that was scheduled to move into the same building that
morning was left to keep working on plastic tables in a
crowded, barely renovated house.
The incident was both jarring and typical of the chaotic life at
the fast growing Los Angeles tech startup.
which recently renamed itself Snap Inc, secrecy and upheaval
come with the job. Evan Spiegel, the 26-year-old cofounder and
CEO, moves across the company's network of Venice Beach outposts
in a black Range Rover, flanked by his security detail. New
employee orientations begin with a Fight Club-like list of
forbidden topics of discussion. And internal projects blossom out
of nowhere — and vanish suddenly — without explanation.
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Business Insider spoke to more than a dozen current and former
Snap employees and people close to the company to get a picture
of the inner workings of the organization as it
prepares to lead one of the largest IPOs in years that's
expected to value the company at $25 billion.
Many describe a rocketship helmed by a confident and visionary
CEO with an intuitive knack for creating products that click with
younger users. But Snap is also an organization struggling to
create a sense of cohesion within its swelling ranks and locked
to a top-down and polarizing culture that leaves many employees
"I definitely didn't feel as if I was a valued part of the team,"
says one departee, citing the secretive culture. "When you don't
know what's going on and just read about it in the headlines, it
makes you feel like an outsider. You feel like a fool."
For Spiegel and Snap, bringing the team together without losing
the magic will be critical as it evolves from a mobile app into a
more ambitious "camera company" that will face the pressures and
the unforgiving spotlight of the public market.
Spiegel's secrecy obsession
Snap CEO Evan
Spiegel models himself on Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose
portrait hangs in Spiegel's office. And Jobs' famous obsession
with secrecy and control are traits that Snap insiders say define
Spiegel as well.
While other Snap employees and executives sit next to each other
in an open floor plan, Spiegel's office towers over the
building's old lobby at the top of a flight of stairs. The
door to the office is locked and protected by a special keypad.
"To me, the first time I saw that, it was a symbol that
he's an untouchable," a former executive said of Spiegel's
office. "He makes all the decisions. He looks down on
unveiled Spectacles video camera glasses are just the first
piece of an ambitious expansion plan that underscores the
broad changes coming to the five-year-old company. The top-secret
Snap Labs group overseeing the Spectacles is such a priority that
the group earlier this year set at goal of hiring 200 people in
just sixty days, according to the staffer who left. The hiring
plan was especially aggressive for a company whose total
headcount is just above 1,000 employees.
Snap has looked at various types of wearable cameras in addition
to the Spectacles, including small clip-on video cameras, and it
has had acquisition talks with several camera companies, the
person said. Snap also sees big opportunities in augmented
reality and virtual reality technologies, which overlay digital
elements into a user's field of view.
The flip side of that rapid growth is the cold alacrity with
which the unwanted are cut loose. When Snap decided last month
that it no longer needed
staffers to curate selections of local video stories for its
service, the members of the team were summoned for a meeting.
To the group's surprise, the meeting was in the security room,
where Snap's security guards are stationed, according to one
person familiar with the matter. Nick Bell, Snap's head of
content, walked into the room and summarily informed those
present that this was their last day at Snap. "It was very abrupt
and out of nowhere," the person said.
Snap declined to comment for this story or to make Spiegel or
other executives available to interview.
Many insiders report feeling out of touch with the company's
mission or progress. Beyond vague statements like "building the
world's best camera" and making "communication more real and
authentic," there's little-to-no communication inside Snap about
what's in the pipeline.
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Compared to the "dogfooding" tradition in many tech
companies, where employees try out their products before
releasing them to the public, most Snap employees don't know when
a new product is coming — regardless if it would affect their
team's long-term metrics or goals. When the company
launched Lenses, its famous filters that morph people's
faces, most employees learned about it for the first time on
the company blog post announcing it to the world.
This strategy has been somewhat effective at quelling leaks,
but has also alienated people from knowing the direction the
company is going in.
"Information is very anti-transparent," another former Snap
executive said. "Everyone has different information."
In one instance, the former exec recalled attempting to work
with other teams at Snap only to labeled "too
collaborative" by their supervisor.
A penchant for secrecy isn't uncommon among tech companies.
But current and former employees describe Snap as being unusually
secretive, even by the standard of its peers.
The first day of orientation for new employees is more
about what you can and can't say to the outside world than it is
about sharing a broader company vision with the new recruits.
Employees are urged not post their title or job description on
social media, or to discuss the company in bars and public
settings. "It breeds an air of secrecy," the former
staffer said of the company culture. "It felt like if you
didn't go with their secrets, there would be
Even after Business
Insider published a leaked video of Snap's new Spectacles,
the company refused to acknowledge it was working on the
product in an internal email admonishing employees not to
speculate publicly. Hours later, the
Wall Street Journal published the official unveiling of
Spectacles and the company announced the product and its name
Life in Venice
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Because Snap does not have a single central campus, as
companies like Google or Apple do, employees are dispersed
between various buildings in LA's bohemian, graffiti-specked
The company's offices are typically converted houses and
condos, many just steps from the ocean and outfitted with unisex
showers to wash sand off from the beach (Snap is also
under investigation by the City of Los Angeles Housing
Department for using these beachside homes as offices).
Employees can flash their badges to get a free meal at local
restaurants, in addition to the free breakfast, lunch, and dinner
served at Snap's cafeteria.
Spiegel rarely addresses the company in all-hands meetings,
in sharp contrast to the weekly updates delivered by
CEOs of many Silicon Valley tech companies. The most
frequent company meetings at Snap involve small groups of
employees who gather for "Council" sessions every two weeks.
Inspired by Spiegel's days at LA's Crossroads prep school
whose alums include Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate
Hudson), the Council sessions
everything from gathering in a circle
to pass a talking stick and share feelings to feeding chickens
and taking mixology classes.
The company has also held off-sites that include council
meetings in teepees where people sit together and quietly and eat
vegan foods, another former employee explained.
Yet as the company has grown, fewer employees attend
councils regularly. One former employee said that the meetings
only ostracized those from different backgrounds since the
discussions would center around problems that weren't relatable
"Everybody came from a privileged lifestyle," said the same
former employee who eventually stopped going to the meetings. "I
really felt like I was in the wrong fraternity."
And despite the idyllic oceanfront setting, the scattered offices
can also foster a sense of isolation and fiefdom between teams,
former employees told Business Insider. If people have to work
with multiple teams, like engineering and product design,
meetings often entail a 15-minute walk through Venice Beach to
get between buildings.
Many employees aren't even aware where their colleagues or
other Snap buildings are located. The only clue that a building
belongs to Snap is usually a small ghost — the company's iconic
"Ghostface Chillah" logo — etched onto the front door.
Black cars and shades of yellow
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
When Spiegel travels between buildings, he normally has a
Range Rover with a private driver transport him from building to
building. The former employee described it like the
president arriving: a black car would pull up and Spiegel would
hurriedly pop out with his security detail.
Former employees say that Spiegel, who studied product
design at Stanford, spends most of his time in the company's
product design building and runs the company more like a design
firm than a typical tech company.
"There were times when we would do PowerPoint
presentations, and you literally would spend 50% of the time
formatting it," one of the former executives Business Insider
spoke to recounted. "What shade of yellow, that sort of
Instead of drawing from Silicon Valley's deep pool of
data-obsessed engineers, many Snap employees come from Wall
Street or entertainment backgrounds. Others are friends of
Spiegel's from Stanford or Crossroads.
It's Spiegel who personally drives the company to be
constantly iterating. He continues to dictate all product
decisions from the top down, even as he's surrounded himself with
experienced, older executive team.
"Nothing happens there without Evan's stamp of approval,"
said the former exec. "Nothing."
Still, multiple former and current employees said that
Spiegel is rarely spotted around campus. Those who don't work
with him closely on product design report only meeting him once
or twice. One engineer who has worked at the company for two
years claims never to have seen him in person.
Snap cofounder Bobby Murphy, who is sometimes spotted
dining at the cafeteria, is much more approachable, some insiders
A Snap office in Venice,
It's Spiegel's show
That level of attention, and Spiegel's vision, have
transformed the original Snapchat disappearing photo app into an
incredibly popular service with 150 million loyal users and a
growing advertising business that's on track to generate more
than $350 million in revenue this year, according to
the Wall Street Journal. Rivals like Facebook have
unsuccessfully tried to buy Snapchat
and to copy it, but it hasn't slowed Snapchat's
Still, Spiegel's need to be involved in every decision
could backfire as the company grows, multiple former employees
speculated. Unlike a typical tech startup, Snap hasn't spent much
time telling its company backstory or selling its vision
publicly, which some say could leave it scrambling to craft an
image and narrative before the IPO.
Spiegel's dismissal of using data is another non-standard
approach that's a point of pride at the company. The Snapchat app
has loads of data from users about what they want, but it's
largely ignored, according to one former employee. It's Spiegel's
show and he makes all of the decisions about what comes
For now, momentum continues to swing in Snap's favor,
despite increased pressure from rivals like Facebook-owned
Instagram launched its own copy-cat version of Snapchat's
Story format, employees grumbled about how they had been copied.
But Spiegel appeared unphased by the increasing competition:
there was no rallying cry from Spiegel or executives to keep
innovating, according to one employee who was there at the
Spiegel continues to lead from his gut, but Snapchat's
position as the hottest app in tech could become precarious if it
ever hits a plateau in user growth.
"To Evan's credit, he has built an amazing product," one of
the former executives said. "The product still works. It's still
growing. And so you can't take that piece away from him. And he's
been right enough times without having to do testing that he just
But nothing lasts forever. "If you're guessing, you can guess
two, four, ten times right," the former exec cautioned. "But
there's no guarantee you're going to continue to be right."
Paul Szoldra contributed to this report. Editing by Alexei