Snapchat's Evan Spiegel: Saying no to $3B, and feeling lucky

The son of successful lawyers, Spiegel grew up in a world of wealth, power, and privilege. Now the 23-year-old entrepreneur will be remembered for saying no to Mark Zuckerberg.

Jennifer Van Grove Former Senior Writer / News
Jennifer Van Grove covered the social beat for CNET. She loves Boo the dog, CrossFit, and eating vegan. Her jokes are often in poor taste, but her articles are not.
Jennifer Van Grove
9 min read
Snapchat CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in September 2013. Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

LOS ANGELES -- Like many a young man, Evan Thomas Spiegel is enamored of expensive cars. Unlike many young men, he can afford them.

A little more than two years after leaving Stanford University three classes shy of graduation, Snapchat's co-founder sits atop a hastily established empire that is already worth billions in the eyes of would-be acquirers -- including Facebook, which reportedly offered to buy Snapshot for $3 billion in cash.

Snapchat, which was valued at $800 million just a few months ago, makes an app for sending pictures and videos, called "snaps," that disappear after a few seconds. The service now processes more than 400 million snaps per day, and is a big hit with tweens and teens, although the company has yet to say how many people use it. Either way, it's attracted the attention of sober-minded VCs eager to write big checks in hopes of getting in early on the next Facebook. So for the moment, Spiegel is under no pressure to make a choice, whether the future involves a sale or raising more cash to build a company that he believes has an even bigger future.

Whatever else he does in life, the 23-year-old entrepreneur will forever be remembered for saying no to Mark Zuckerberg. Whether that decision turns out inspired or insane -- it was a bold statement of confidence from someone so young. Surprising? Not to those who know him.

"He really believed in his ideas," said Leo Rofe, a classmate who was a grade below Spiegel at the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif. "He was adamant about them."

Later in life, Spiegel would prove to be so unshakeable in his convictions that he would make the gamble of a lifetime.

Born lucky
Born June 4, 1990, to a couple of successful lawyers, Spiegel grew up in a world of wealth, power, and privilege. His mother, Melissa, the youngest woman ever to graduate from Harvard Law School, resigned as a partner from Pillsbury, Madison, & Sutro to work as a stay-at-home mom when he was a baby. Spiegel's father, John, was (and still is) a partner at the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, a job that afforded the family a very comfortable lifestyle in a $4.6 million home in Huntington Palisades, an upper class neighborhood in Pacific Palisades on the western fringes of Los Angeles.

Along with his two sisters, Lauren and Caroline, Spiegel was treated to the finer things in life, including spring breaks in Maui, summers at La Jolla's Beach and Tennis Club, and vacations to Europe, along with frequent shopping sprees and a personal chef. But there was also plenty of extracurricular activity, and volunteer work. By most accounts, Spiegel turned out to be a well-adjusted, ambitious, and agreeable young man.

But that idyllic-sounding upbringing also had its less than picture-perfect moments. As an older teenager, Spiegel frequently overspent, a reality that led to many heated, money-related arguments with his father.

"You may condemn my love of material objects (like cars), but think about how you enjoy your Bose headphones," Spiegel wrote in a February 12, 2008, letter to his father. He was 17.

The note, accompanied by a plea for a new BMW 535i, came at the most tumultuous point in Spiegel's life, as his parents divorced after nearly 20 years of marriage.

John Spiegel's home on Toyopa Drive in Pacific Palisades. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET
Spiegel initially chose to live with his father, who bought a $4.25 million estate on Toyopa Drive, just four blocks away from his childhood home where his mother still lives. The senior Spiegel gave his son carte blanche to decorate the new home, a privilege that came with the professional decorating services of Greg Grande, the set designer on "Friends." Spiegel outfitted his new room with a white leather custom king-size bed, Venetian plaster, floating bookshelves, a state-of-the-art computer, two designer desk chairs, and custom closets. He also installed a movie theater with an 8-foot screen in the basement of the house, and was able to control the setup from his bedroom.

His father's exceptional generosity was put to the test after 17-year-old Spiegel repeatedly overdrafted his bank account and begged for the BMW 535i, a $75,000 car. Spiegel, who was already driving a 2006 Cadillac Escalade, which his father bought new for $56,000, wanted the smaller car because he was "doing a lot more driving in the city," according to court documents filed by his parents during their lengthy and litigious divorce.

From 17-year-old Evan Spiegel, a suggested budget for monthly expenses (click to enlarge). Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

At the time, Spiegel Sr. was giving Spiegel Jr. an allowance of $250 a week. Along with the new car, the younger Spiegel made a strong case for why he should get $1,992 a month for car, food, entertainment, and clothing expenses. He also wanted a $2,000 "emergency fund" because his "life is full of unforeseen expenses," as he wrote in the note to his father.

Spiegel declined repeated requests from CNET for an interview for this article.

As it turned out, Spiegel would not get what he wanted and moved back to his mother's house full-time after one particular money discussion escalated into a heated argument, which climaxed when Spiegel cut himself out of family photos. A few days after the move, his mother leased him the BMW he wanted.

But Spiegel didn't let the squabbles affect his stellar performance when away from the volatile home environment -- though he did get a speeding ticket for driving 62 miles per hour in a 35-mph zone a few weeks after getting the BMW. Mitch Kohn, Spiegel's 10th grade English teacher and his journalism adviser sophomore through senior years at Crossroads, remembers Spiegel as a prized student, one who decided to write a feature about the school's unconventional approach to teaching mathematics and interviewed the department heads.

"He decided he wasn't sure he liked the way Crossroads taught math from K through 12th grade," Kohn said. "I love the fact that...His opinions changed as he wrote the article. He came to understand the philosophy of it. He looked into whether kids were successful learning math that way. It just became this unbelievably good article...It was one of the best articles we had that year, by far."

His hard work paid off: He was admitted to Stanford. Spiegel got the news while vacationing in Prague.

The man and the myth
"The rhetoric of the entrepreneur is deeply embedded in Stanford's history. We've all heard the story -- young, white male drops out of college to follow a dream. His commitment to this dream helps him through highs and lows. He refuses to be another cog in the 'machine.' This romantic business fairytale pervades Stanford culture -- it is uniquely Silicon Valley."

"It" is Evan Spiegel, and these are his own words, as spoken to the audience at a Stanford Women in Business "Design Yourself" Conference on April 7, 2013.

"This brings me back to our fascination with the mythology of the entrepreneur," Spiegel told the audience. "An individual who is able to combine -- gracefully and authentically -- their life and their work. An individual who has identified a dream far greater than accumulation of wealth, but a dream that is achieved through participation in consumer society and the creation of a company."

The mythology of Evan Spiegel, the entrepreneur, started long before he met his frat brothers Reggie Brown and Bobby Murphy, and years before he attended Stanford.

It started with a fascination with design during his teenage years, possibly even earlier. In the summer of 2005, when Spiegel was just 15, he took two continuing-education courses at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. One, on graphic design, made a strong impression on him.

"Her graphic design class took a hands-on approach to design thinking and was transformational for me as a student," Spiegel later wrote in a LinkedIn recommendation for his professor Milka Broukhim. "I will never forget the typography experiments we completed during the course as well as the time spent in the letterpress lab."

Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, an "elite, anti-prep mecca for entertainment-industry offspring," as described by Vanity Fair. The high-priced progressive institution, where students call teachers by their first names, cost the Spiegels around $75,000 every year in tuition fees for the three kids. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET
When working for the Crossfire, the Crossroads newspaper, Spiegel would walk around the neighborhood and ask local businesses to buy ads. Though part of the grade for the journalism class was to sell a certain amount of advertising, Kohn remembers Spiegel as a top earner who not only exceeded his sales goals, but helped coach the other kids on how to ask adults for money.

And then, during his senior year, Spiegel decided he wanted to work for Red Bull. "I loved the brand, I loved the lifestyle, and I was obsessed with the beverage. I had to be a part of it," he said during the April 2013 keynote. "So I found a friend who knew a guy that worked there, and I begged him for a job. I called him repeatedly, we met for coffee, and I agreed to do anything at all for Red Bull."

The friend turned out to be Spiegel's priest, according to his mother, who also said during the divorce proceedings that Spiegel spent the unpaid internship "learning about marketing and assisting with various computer and graphic design projects."

Spiegel's version of his time at Red Bull is a tad different: "I learned how to throw great parties, and I had a blast."

The summer before college, he also took a class at the Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena. But once he got to Stanford, Spiegel had conflicting interests. He took a paid internship with a biomedical company. Later, convinced he wanted to be a teacher, he went to Cape Town in South Africa to teach students on how to get jobs.

Spiegel's first real taste of tech and entrepreneurship came when he crossed paths with Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, at a Stanford business school class he was sitting in on, thanks to the reference of a family friend. The story goes that Spiegel begged Cook for a job. The plea worked. Spiegel got to work with Cook and an engineer on a project called TxtWeb, which took information available online and made it accessible via SMS to people in India who didn't have broadband Internet access.

After the Intuit gig, Spiegel and his Kappa Sigma fraternity brother Bobby Murphy started FutureFreshman.com, a site with a guide for students, parents, and counselors on how to manage the college application process. No one, save for their parents, used it, Spiegel said.

Then, in the spring of 2011, Spiegel made the call that changed his life. The call was to Murphy to discuss switching from FutureFreshman to a new idea: disappearing picture messages.

Well, that's the myth anyhow.

Now you see him ...
The real creation story behind Snapchat is more complicated and involves Reggie Brown, a Kappa Sigma fraternity brother who came up with the idea of deleting picture messages.

Reggie Brown (left), Bobby Murphy, and Evan Spiegel (right) pictured celebrating Snapchat's launch in July 2011. Screenshot by Jennifer van Grove/CNET

Brown brought the idea to Spiegel, and Spiegel recruited his FutureFreshman cohort Murphy to code the app. The threesome then worked together, spending the summer of 2011 at the Toyopa Drive residence in Pacific Palisades. Initially called Picaboo, the first version of Snapchat launched in July 2011. Brown, an English major with no coding skills, was assigned relatively menial marketing tasks and applied for a patent.

A month later, Brown was forced out of the company he helped bring to life, according to his version of events. Now he's suing Spiegel, Murphy, and Snapchat's investors for a substantial stake in the company. Brown claims to have designed the Snapchat logo and to have named the mascot "Ghostface Chillah." [The ghost recently lost its smiley face in a design tweak and currently goes by the moniker "NoFace Chillah."]

But life, as Spiegel has said, isn't fair.

Two years after the app's launch, Spiegel and Murphy have moved Snapchat, now a 28-person team, into a new office in Venice, Calif., and have turned the maker of the disappearing-picture app into one of the most talked-about Internet companies, one said to be valued in the billions. Though the company does not disclose the size of its user base, Pew Research Center's Internet Project recently estimated that 9 percent of adult cell phone users in the US use Snapchat. It's an impressive figure for a 2-year-old app, and one that doesn't account for Snapshot's popularity with teenagers.

Long ago having mended the strained relationship with his father, and obviously no longer burdened by overdraft fees, Spiegel is also back residing at the Toyopa Drive estate where just six years earlier he was pulling in $250 in weekly allowances. Despite living with his father, Spiegel may be the most envied guy around, if not for the billions he purportedly refused from Facebook, then for the fact that his girlfriend, Lucinda Aragon, is a 24-year-old model who socializes with the likes of Chrissy Teigen and Kate Upton.

Snapchat may prove to be as fleeting as the attention span of the teens who pass around disappearing picture and video messages, but if Spiegel's first 23 years of existence are any indication, the rich-kid-turned-celebrity-CEO has fortune on his side.

Evan Spiegel and his model girlfriend, Lucinda Aragon. Screenshot/Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

If not, odds are he'll be just fine.

"I am a young, white, educated male. I got really, really lucky," Spiegel said in April. "And life isn't fair. So if life isn't fair -- it's not about working harder, it's about working the system."