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Excerpt: How To Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story

Intro | How To Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story Excerpt

Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy are tech's youngest new billionaires. Photo via Shutterstock

Sam leaned against the shopping cart, forearms bulging as he pushed with all his strength, picking up his pace from a trot to an all-out sprint. On most days, he used his athleticism to play wide receiver for Stanford's football team. Tonight, he was using that same athleticism to push his friend Stuart in a shopping cart because they were freshman boys trying to get the older guys' attention at fraternity rush. Pushing Stuart off a makeshift ramp designed for frat bros to tricycle over seemed like a good way to make an impression. It was working. As they rounded the corner of Kappa Sigma's parking lot, several fraternity brothers standing on the concrete steps and sidewalk realized that these freshmen weren't using the normal Target-bought tricycles.

Where the hell did they get a shopping cart? one of the guys thought as he joined his brothers and started cheering as Sam steered the cart around the turn. Stuart, a thin, goofy kid with his dark brown hair in a bowl cut, sat in the cart, looking diminutive next to his friend Sam and wondering why he'd thought this was a good idea. The Jack Daniel's had initially calmed his nerves, but Sam was pushing him pretty damn fast. He didn't have time to rethink things.

Sam whipped the cart around the corner of the parking lot, its wheels rattling over bits of broken beer bottles. The cart went up on two wheels as it turned; Stuart almost fell out, but Sam grabbed it and slammed it back down.

Steadying the cart, Sam sprinted toward the hastily constructed ramp and threw the cart forward into the warm California night. The plywood ramp sagged atop its cinder block supports. Rather than soaring gloriously into the air as the boys had intended, the cart slid right off the end, its old wheels digging straight into the asphalt with a harsh screech. The cart violently ejected its cargo—Stuart flew through the air and tumbled end over end against the hard asphalt.

The onlookers paused.

Rolling over, Stuart rose gingerly. He turned and looked back at the group watching him and triumphantly raised his fists in the air over his head, like a snowboarder who had just won Olympic gold.

The older brothers exploded into hollering and cheering. This kid was getting a bid.

Evan Spiegel smiled and sipped his beer, watching the chaos from the crowd. Tall and lanky, Evan had brown hair that he kept short and styled up across his sharp, angular face. He was often seen partying on campus in a tank top and shorts. As a sophomore rush chairman, Evan held the keys to the kingdom for these potential newcomers.

The Kappa Sigma brothers had a work-hard/play-hard ethos; they prided themselves on being able to excel on campus while drinking and throwing ridiculous theme parties. The leaders of the house typically did very well academically and balanced sports and other extracurricular commitments with heavy drinking binges. The Stanford Flipside, the school's beloved Onion wannabe, summed up the culture best with an article titled, "Kid Vomiting in Stall Next to You to Run Fortune 500 Company Someday."

Evan had a private text group with a bunch of the girls to which he'd regularly send mass texts like, "Raging tonight at Kappa Sig, be there." Almost inevitably, Evan's Thursday-night parties would explode into all-campus events. Sorority girls, overeager freshmen and jaded-but-drunk seniors alike would wander over to slam back Natty Lights, take pulls from plastic handles of bottom-shelf vodka and forget that they had class the next morning. During these parties, Evan was in his element. He could often be found sitting on top of a speaker DJing in a tank top, gauging the mood of the crowd and making sure everyone was having a blast.

After turning down a $3 billion-dollar offer from Facebook, Snapchat went public in 2017 at a $28 billion valuation.

Evan was elected a social chair and quickly went way over budget. As Stanford's football team embarked on its first winning campaign in nine years and the busy student body started to pay attention to the games, Evan pushed to make tailgates into bigger spectacles. He would cart his own enormous speakers down to the dirt parking lot next to Stanford Stadium. The Kappa Sig brothers invited every girl they knew and threw a full-on frat party in the parking lot. Evan worked the crowd with ease, greeting people left and right with a thin, wide smile on his face. When his head wasn't thrown back laughing, he was typically drinking from his red Solo cup or gesticulating with his long, gangly arms. The tailgates kept growing, riding the unstoppable waves of the football team's success and Evan's party-throwing acumen.

Reggie carefully ran his Žngers over the blunt, admiring its tightly rolled perfection. It was almost a shame to smoke such a work of art. He leaned back on the couch in his Kimball Hall dorm room. A dreamy expression appeared on Reggie's face.

"I wish I could send disappearing photos," he mused.

Suddenly, he jumped up and rushed down the hall to see if Evan was around.

Bursting into Evan's room, Reggie exclaimed, "Dude, I have an awesome idea!" Even before Reggie finished explaining his idea, Evan lit up.

"That's a million-dollar idea!" Evan finally exclaimed.

Evan animatedly explained to Reggie how he could see people sending disappearing pictures back and forth. Most of us had barely moved past flip phones and BlackBerrys to iPhones at this point.

They would split the company 50/50. Evan would be CEO. Reggie would be chief marketing officer. But neither knew how to code well enough to make the app. They would need to recruit one of their friends to join them.

Evan had the perfect person in mind: Bobby Murphy. He was two years older than Evan and had grown up in El Cerrito, near Berkeley. Like Evan and Reggie, he had also been placed on the third floor of Donner when he was a freshman in 2006Š07. When Evan was first learning computer science, he would frequently bound into Bobby's room at 2 in the morning, interrupting Bobby's Starcraft sessions to ask for coding help.

He called Bobby and explained Reggie's idea. Bobby wasn't convinced. Would people really want to use this? Bobby, at last, agreed to write the code.

Evan, Reggie and Bobby's first crack at the idea was dreadful: they created a clunky website where users uploaded a photo then set a timer for when the picture would disappear. They quickly realized it would be much easier and more private for users, and thus more widely used, if they built a mobile app instead of a website; to this day, Snapchat still does not offer a web product.

Bobby put in 18-hour coding days for the next week to get them to a working prototype. Reggie came up with a name for the app. Evan designed the app's interface, digitally mocking up what it would look like.

When users opened the app, which was only available for iPhones, it showed a camera screen so they could immediately take a picture. Once they took a picture, they could set a timer from one to 10 seconds, tap to the right and select which of their friends they wanted to send it to. Then when their friend opened their picture, it would display for the set number of seconds before disappearing. If users tapped left they could see what photos their friends had sent them.

They finished a working prototype just days before final exams. They needed people to download the app, test it out and hopefully tell their friends about it. Evan decided to approach his former fraternity brothers; despite having been kicked out, he was still friendly with most of the guys from his year, and they were still some of the most social people on campus. Evan needed the popular crowd to use this if it was going to catch on.

Evan quickly typed out a few lines about the app. He had told a lot of the guys about the idea before but not in such a broad, public way. He imagined people forwarding the email, downloading the app and being instantly addicted. Facebook had launched a mere seven years earlier and ripped through Harvard like wildfire before spreading to other campuses, and then the world.

Reggie and Evan sat together and created the logo over the course of a few hours, going back and forth on ways to symbolize the disappearing nature of the app. They settled on a friendly ghost who was smiling and sticking out its tongue. Evan drew the ghost in Adobe InDesign while Reggie tossed in ideas. Reggie named the ghost Ghostface Chillah, after the Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah.

Evan studied the hundred most popular apps in the app store and noticed that none had yellow logos. To make it stand out, he put the Ghostface Chillah logo on a bright yellow background.

How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars: The Snapchat Story
Billy Gallagher
St. Martin's Press
Feb 2018
304 Pages