Snap Inc. is a camera company. It’s very important to Snap Inc. that you understand it’s not a social networking app or a messaging service. It’s something else. It’s a camera company. “We believe that reinventing the camera represents our greatest opportunity to improve the way that people live and communicate,” it says in an S1 filing made public today, ahead of its $3 billion public offering.
What Snapchat is doing here, at least in part, is trying to head off the many comparisons it will inevitably face now that it has laid bare its financial standing. 158 million people use Snapchat daily, which sounds like a big number until you consider that’s also how many people use Instagram Stories every day. The number also pales in comparison to Instagram as a whole—and forget about a behemoth like Facebook. Does 2.5 billion Snaps a day impress you? Not next to the 60 billion daily messages on WhatsApp, it doesn’t. Snap’s growth has flattened recently, and while it brought in more than $400 million in advertising revenue last year, it lost $514.6 million overall. “We face significant competition in almost every aspect of our business both domestically and internationally,” the filing says, before listing basically every other company in Silicon Valley as a competitor.
But Snap Inc. is not like those companies. As the Stories format becomes utterly commoditized and every app becomes a place for you to share videos with silly faces drawn on top, Snap has to prove it wasn’t just the first out the gate with a good idea. It has to prove it’s onto something bigger than that. No matter what happens, CEO Evan Spiegel, his top lieutenants, and a few investors are going to make out like bandits—Spiegel reportedly got a cool $750 million for taking the company public. But for Snap to be more than just a flash in the public pan, eventually swallowed whole by one of those many competitors, it has to prove it’s always been on a bigger, longer quest.
Here One Day, Gone the Next
At first, Snapchat’s thing was its ephemerality, the fact that you could post anything you wanted because it would be gone in a few seconds anyway. It inspired a joyful recklessness bereft of filters or hashtags. That faded over time, as the app shifted to Stories and Discover—which still disappear, but not as quickly—and started to add stickers and lenses and other ways to play with your snaps.
But ephemerality was never really Snapchat’s most important innovation. What Snapchat did, above all else, was put the camera first. When you open the app, you don’t see your feed or the latest from Cosmo. You see… yourself, probably, in the front-facing camera. One of the biggest complaints about the app is that the stuff other than the camera—the lenses, the filters—are difficult to find. That’s on purpose. There’s nothing between you and the record button. Snapchat made sharing effortless, even after it got big enough that there could be consequences for what you post. (You just know Kim Kardashian posted that Taylor Swift story knowing it’d end up on YouTube.)
In that sense, Snapchat’s re-branding as “a camera company” in 2016 wasn’t really a shift at all, but a recognition of what Snap already was. Spectacles, its first hardware product, was precisely in line with that vision of frictionless sharing. What if you could share without even having to take out your phone, unlock it, and open an app? What if you could just look at something, and let the world see through your eyes? The round, explorable video shot from exactly eye level made the viewing experience even more visceral and real. Snapchat believed before almost anyone else that photos and video are what come after typing. The world is still at the beginning of that transition, and there’s a lot of room left to grow.
Just because Snapchat was the first company to get all this right doesn’t mean it’s going to win. Instagram even admitted to straight-up stealing the Stories idea from Snap. But that doesn’t matter next to the fact that Snapchat’s growth dropped more than 80 percent after Instagram Stories launched. Big fish like Facebook, Google, and Apple have proven repeatedly that they can claim a good idea as their own, and immediately suck the life out of the smaller platform that did it first. Facebook, in particular, is evidently both deeply committed to and very good at copying Snapchat. When you have nearly 2 billion users, that works out OK.
The camera-first world is coming. From AR and VR to computer vision and machine-intelligence, it’s clear that cameras are going to be crucial to the future of technology. But thanks to the massive manufacturing infrastructure created by the smartphone boom, “suddenly everyone on earth will have imaging all the time” venture capitalist Benedict Evans told me last year. “It’s not just about taking pictures, it’s an input.” Cameras will change how computers can operate in the world. There are many billions of dollars up for grabs in this space. That’s not controversial, nor is it news. Everyone is working on this.
Spectacles made Snapchat more fun, but what happens when Instagram announces Instagram Aviators?
Give the company credit for being first to a series of good ideas, but Snapchat’s features are being ruthlessly copied and rolled into apps already bigger than Snapchat is likely to ever be. Spectacles made Snapchat more fun, but what happens when Instagram announces Instagram Aviators? The only way for Snap to win is to play a different game.
Snap’s IPO may well be nothing more than a payday, a way for investors and founders to turn paper money into real money. Spiegel might just want to buy six more mansions and live happily ever after. But if Snap wants to be as big as the companies that steal its features, and if Spiegel wants to be a titan of industry on the level of Gates and Zuckerberg, the challenge for Snap is to be bigger than Snapchat. It has to convince the world that it’s a camera company, and then convince them that a camera company can take over the world.