The History of Snapchat: From Disappearing Photos to a $25 Billion Public Company

In just a decade, Snapchat has gone from a tiny startup built around ephemeral messaging to one of the world‘s most influential social media platforms. The company‘s journey from a Stanford dorm room to a $25 billion public company is a fascinating story of innovation, perseverance, and a little bit of controversy. In this post, we‘ll take a deep dive into the history of Snapchat, from its humble beginnings as Picaboo to its current status as a major player in the social media landscape.

The Birth of Picaboo

The story of Snapchat begins in 2011 when three Stanford students – Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown – came up with the idea for a mobile app that would allow users to send photos that disappeared after a set period of time. The concept was born out of Spiegel‘s frustration with the permanence of photos posted on social media sites like Facebook. He wanted a way to share candid, in-the-moment photos without worrying about them coming back to haunt him later.

Spiegel recruited Murphy, a fellow Stanford student with coding experience, to help build the app. Brown also came on board and is credited with coming up with the app‘s original name, Picaboo (a reference to the phrase "peek-a-boo"). The three worked on the app as a side project while still in school.

Picaboo officially launched in the App Store in July 2011. The initial version was buggy and failed to gain much traction. But Spiegel and Murphy believed in their vision and continued to iterate on the app.

Snapchat Takes Off

After a falling out, Brown left the company in August 2011. Spiegel and Murphy decided to relaunch the app under a new name – Snapchat.

The basic functionality remained the same – users could take a photo, set a time limit for how long the recipient could view it (up to 10 seconds), and send it to a friend. The app also notified senders if the recipient took a screenshot of their photo, a key feature that addressed Spiegel‘s original concern about photos living online forever.

Despite the name change and relaunch, growth was still slow at first. But Snapchat soon caught on with high school and college students who appreciated its raw, unfiltered vibe compared to the curated perfection of Instagram.

To spur growth, Spiegel and Murphy focused on making the app as fun and engaging as possible. In December 2012, they rolled out the ability to add captions to photos, allowing users to include snippets of text to go along with their snaps. This kicked off a creative renaissance on the platform, with users adding inside jokes, doodles, and commentary to their photos.

Video snaps were another key addition, launched in December 2012. Snapchat was one of the first apps to make capturing video as easy as taking a photo (users simply had to hold down the camera button to record). The lo-fi, vertical format was perfectly suited for capturing casual, slice-of-life content. Video snaps quickly became a core part of the Snapchat experience.

Introducing Stories and Chat

In October 2013, Snapchat launched Stories, which stitched together snaps into a 24-hour narrative that friends could view. At first, many were puzzled by Stories – why would you want posts to disappear after a day? But it soon clicked and Stories became one of Snapchat‘s most popular and influential features. It allowed users, brands, and events to craft engaging chronological stories and opened up a whole new creative medium. Today, over 500 million people across Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp view or create Stories every day.

In May 2014, Snapchat took a big step towards becoming a full-fledged messaging app with the launch of Chat. Building on top of disappearing photo and video messages, Chat introduced ephemeral text messaging as well as live video chatting. It was a natural expansion for Snapchat into one of the core use cases for mobile.

Rapid Growth and Monetization

By mid-2014, Snapchat was really starting to hit its stride. The app had over 60 million monthly active users in the U.S. and Canada, with 50% of its users logging in daily (by comparison, Instagram had 200 million MAUs at the time with a 60% DAU/MAU ratio). Snapchat was especially popular with teens and young adults – over 50% of 13-34 year old smartphone users were on the app.

This loyal, fast-growing user base began to attract serious attention from brands and advertisers eager to reach young audiences. In October 2014, Snapchat began showing its first ads in the Recent Updates section next to Stories. The ads were opt-in, with users having to press and hold to view them like any other story.

That same month, Snapchat launched Our Story, a collection of snaps submitted by users at a specific event or location. Our Stories were an early example of location-based user-generated content and proved extremely popular, especially for big cultural moments like music festivals and sporting events. It was also an attractive new ad unit – sponsor logos could be inserted into Our Story collections.

Becoming a Media Powerhouse

In January 2015, Snapchat made its biggest push yet into media content with the launch of Discover. Discover was essentially a network of multimedia channels run by major publishers like ESPN, Vice, CNN, and Cosmopolitan producing exclusive content for Snapchat in vertical video format.

It was a massive bet – Snapchat was paying licensing fees for Discover content to the tune of $100 million per year. But Spiegel saw it as a key pillar in his vision of Snapchat as a "camera company" whose purpose was to entertain and educate, not just facilitate messaging.

Discover became an important part of Snapchat‘s revenue model. Ads were inserted into the Discover channels, typically unskippable 6-second pre-roll videos accompanied by text overlays or animated GIF-like "cinemagraphs".

Snapchat‘s original content ambitions expanded over time to include a wider array of partner-produced Shows spanning news, sports, and entertainment. The company even began producing Shows in-house, like Good Luck America, a political docuseries hosted by Peter Hamby.

New Creative Tools and an IPO

On the product side, Snapchat continued to focus on innovating its creative and editing tools, particularly via fun, playful features that encouraged sharing and experimentation.

Geofilters, launched in July 2014, allowed users to add stylized overlay graphics to their photos and videos based on their location. On-Demand Geofilters, introduced in 2016, let anyone create and purchase a geofilter for a custom event or location.

The biggest hit was Lenses, rolled out in September 2015. Using facial recognition technology, Lenses added real-time special effects and animations triggered by certain expressions or gestures. From puppy ears to barfing rainbows, Lenses were a viral, meme-worthy hit – over 200 million snaps with Lenses were viewed per day shortly after launch.

As buzz around the company reached a fever pitch, Snapchat filed confidentially for an IPO in 2016. The company also rebranded as Snap Inc. and announced its first hardware product, Spectacles – sunglasses with built-in cameras for recording circular video from a first-person perspective.

Snap held its public market debut in March 2017, going public at a valuation of $24 billion. It was the largest U.S. tech IPO since Facebook in 2012. But the stock tumbled 30% over the next year as the company faced concerns around slowing user growth in the face of rising competition, especially from Instagram which had copied the Stories format to great success.

Challenges and Reinvention

While 2017 marked a financial milestone with Snap‘s IPO, it also marked the start of a challenging new chapter for the company. Instagram‘s Stories clone, launched in August 2016, rapidly surpassed Snapchat‘s entire DAU count. Snap ended 2017 with 187 million DAUs, up just 18% from the prior year – a worrying slowdown for a company whose core value proposition was its cool factor with young users.

Snap spent 2018 in reinvention mode, redesigning the app, investing in new ad formats and measurement tools, and striking a variety of content deals to boost engagement. The redesign sparked backlash but Snap stuck with it, arguing it was key to improving user growth and ad monetization over the long-run.

Since then, Snap has continued innovating on both the consumer and business sides of the platform. Snap Games, launched in 2019, marked the company‘s foray into social gaming. Bitmoji, which Snap acquired in 2016, has evolved from personalized stickers into 3D avatars that users can feature in snaps and Stories. Snap Map shows your friends‘ real-time location on an interactive map, driving meetups IRL. And the company continues to strike deals for original Shows, moving further into HBO-style prestige TV with series like Will Smith‘s Will From Home.

On the ad side, Snap has greatly expanded its offerings with a self-serve platform, new formats like shoppable AR Lenses, and improved targeting and measurement capabilities. The platform now offers reach to over 75% of 13-34 year olds in over 20 countries and is used by hundreds of thousands of advertisers.

Looking Ahead

A decade after Snapchat‘s launch, Spiegel‘s original insight – that there is real value in ephemeral communication – has been thoroughly validated. Snaps and Stories are now fundamental formats alongside traditional posts, proving that some moments are more meaningful when they don‘t live forever.

But Snap‘s ability to remain relevant with the next generation of internet users is an open question. Snapchat is facing more competition than ever from TikTok, Instagram, and upstart apps like BeReal in capturing teen attention and setting trends.

To stay ahead, Snap will need to keep innovating at the intersection of mobile cameras, AI, AR, and premium content. Snap‘s Lenses are the most used AR product in the world, and the company sees AR as a major growth pillar as the technology becomes more widely adopted. AI presents tantalizing opportunities to personalize content feeds and ad targeting. And as 5G and edge computing improve, Snap believes it can transform the way people use their cameras to overlay computing on the world in realtime.

After a decade of invention, reinvention, and a few stumbles along the way, Snap‘s story is still being written. But if the company can execute against its long-term vision while staying true to its creative, youthful spirit, expect many more chapters to come in Snapchat‘s colorful history.