2.5 minute read
22 year old Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s co-founder and CEO, walked into a privately arranged apartment in his hometown of Los Angeles at the invitation of Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg had invited Spiegel to sit with him after Snapchat, the disappearing photo-messaging app, had gained noticeable and significant traction since its launch in early 2011.
For the most part of the meeting, Mark tried to get Evan to talk about the vision and long term future of Snapchat. He wanted to listen, not talk. He wanted to feel out his potential competitor, perhaps to measure how hard the punch he was about to deliver had to be. Evan talked, but was cautious, revealing very few details and keeping his cards close to his chest. When the meeting seemed over, Mark told Evan about a new app Facebook was launching: Facebook Poke, a clone and direct competitor of Snapchat. It was an intimidation strategy meant to pressure Evan into accepting an early offer from Mark before the Facebook CEO had even made it. But Evan didn’t fold; he refused to engage in any buyout talks, and left the meeting.*
18 months later, Facebook Poke was dead. Facebook offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion (cash), and Snapchat subsequently rejected.
So how did Snapchat win the war? And what made Evan Spiegel so confident in his product that he was willing to turn down Facebook, twice?
Here’s the answer:
Up until its last major update in May, Snapchat had a singular, narrow, and focused core feature: send disappearing images to select friends. When I asked Snapchat users what the app did, their answer was consistent and to the point: “you send an image to a friend and it disappears in a few seconds”. There was no “and you can do this” or “and you can do that”. Focusing on a single feature that drives a value proposition is a great way to grab and grow a loyal customer base. In business terms, it is an effective strategy for securing significant market share.
Snapchat’s technology is not proprietary. It is easily clone-able and can even be done better. In fact, Facebook Poke had superior real time engagement speed and smoother UX. But once a product has attracted a loyal user base around a single core feature, any clone, no matter how technologically superior, will find it hard to grab market share.
It must have been tempting for Snapchat’s founders in the beginning to think “That’s it? That’s all our app does? Why not add a chat feature? Or video? Or a feed?” And those features did eventually come, but only after the app had dominated the space of ephemeral messaging. A well-built core feature acts as a foundation on which to build other innovative features at a later stage.
Evan Spiegel understood that he had a cohesive product with loyal users increasing in number by the second. So when he walked into that apartment to meet Zuckerberg, Evan knew he had already won the war with Facebook before it had even started.
Slice of Advice
Most startups get obsessed with the idea of building an app that “does it all”. They end up building a bundle of “adequate” features instead of a coherent and cohesive product that does one or two things extremely well. A focused feature set is a magnet for a loyal customer base, and that customer base will become your biggest defense barrier against clones and new comers.