Iterations: SnapChat’s Success Challenges Many Silicon Valley Assumptions

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Yesterday, it was confirmedSnapChat raised a big round of funding. By now, everyone also knows that SnapChat is a new communication medium, a phenomena reflecting a desire for ephemerality, and the fastest-growing consumer app out there today. As I was drafting this post last night, Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers mentioned the service during the shows “Weekend Update” news segment.

We do not know how large SnapChat will become. So, just for fun, let’s assume SnapChat continues to grow and actually turns out to be “the next big thing,” in the same manner that Instagram and Pinterest ascended over the past few years. If this happens, there are fascinating facts about SnapChat that challenge many widely-held assumptions within the tech startup community:

  1. The SnapChat founders did not drop out of college — well, sort of. [Update, I just learned that one founder did graduate from college, and the other left campus on a leave of absence right before graduation, three credits shy of getting his diploma. This bullet point turned out to be the most discussed from the post, so I wanted to correct this here.] In an age where college dropouts who leave to start companies are romanticized, when the business model of higher education is under attack, and where incentives exist for some of the brightest to forgo university altogether, SnapChat was created while its founders were in college, and they graduated.
  2. SnapChat may have started in the Valley, but it grew as a product in Los Angeles. In the past few years, the locus of consumer startup activity in the Valley has shifted north to San Francisco, and New York City has its own vibrant scene. Both cities enjoy healthy levels of tech media hype. There’s a natural rivalry now between the two coastal cities, but SnapChat gained traction as it was headquartered in an entirely different location with its own startup DNA. SnapChat probably could’ve been built anywhere, and that itself if is noteworthy.
  3. SnapChat grew on the back of SMS, Apple’s iOS, and eventually Android  — not Facebook or Twitter. For the pat few years, it seems nearly everyone assumes logging into new services through existing social graphs creates better consumer experiences. By contrast, as Steve Cheney sharply noted, SnapChat subverts these existing networks  because its user base doesn’t want the content itself to show up on the web, which in turn, as Fred Wilson pointed out, makes Facebook’s move to revive Poke as an answer quite comical..
  4. SnapChat is built around digital pictures. Yes, this is another photo-sharing startup with the added twist that its “key photo filter” is a feature that erases photos and notifies users when someone has taken a screenshot of the image. It is indeed early innings in the digital picture game. It now may be Instagram, Pinterest, and SnapChat — and I expect we’ll continue to see more new products and services in the category for years to come.
  5. SnapChat is built for consumers. “Consumer is dead!” “It’s a shift toward enterprise!” and growing during a time when most of the Valley is trending toward more traditional B2B models. Of course, founders continue to build for consumers and investors continue to make their bets, but this is a meme I’ve heard now for a good six to nine months, from everyone in the ecosystem — including VC firm LPs who cannot yet reconcile the disconnect between private consumer tech valuations and what the public markets are able to stomach.
  6. The VC firm which won the deal is one of the most quiet firms on Sand Hill. This is less central to the story of SnapChat, the company, but it is worth noting. Over the past few years, as Leslie Hitchcock wrote, it’s been fashionable for VC firms to market their offerings to the tech community as a way to reach the next SnapChat founder. And, it makes a great deal of sense for firms to do this given how nicely (and cheaply) good content scales. Despite this trend, Benchmark Capital recently moved in the opposite direction and pulled down its website a few months ago, instead simply simply its single-page website to a curated Twitter stream of its portfolio companies.

SnapChat may have been initially viewed as a “toy,” reminiscent of Chris Dixon’s famous post on this topic. What may have initially seemed like a gimmick could likely be, as Dustin Curtis artfully opined, a new communication medium all together. Again, I have no clue if SnapChat will be a runaway hit like Instagram. I have never even used the app or service. But the facts around the company’s founders, its location, and its offerings provide a provocative challenge to many widely-held assumptions about what ingredients are required for consumer technology success. SnapChat shows it can be done within the confines of college, done outside of the Valley or NYC, done without Facebook or Twitter, and done by leveraging the most important sensor (camera) on the most important devices (phones). And, if SnapChat can continue to grow and become the next Instagram-like sensation, it would have done so as many other breakouts have — by being improbable, by being initially dismissed, and by overcoming many or all of the assumptions many of us hold inside and believe to be conventional wisdom.