Snapchat CEO Relies On Intuition


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Evan Spiegel, Snap’s 27-year-old CEO, isn’t in the habit of explaining himself to the public. Until recently, he rarely had to: Snapchat’s wild popularity, especially with teens, spoke for him. The eight months since Snap went public, however, have seen the company’s best ideas widely copied, its stock tumble, and influential users defect to rival platforms. All of which has forced Spiegel’s hand. On earnings calls and in media interviews, the former enfant terrible has begun trying to tell his company’s story and articulate its vision to an audience that has always struggled to understand it: adults.

That story and vision are interesting not only for what they say about social media, but for what they tell us about the relationship between data, intuition, and creativity in a 21st-century technology company. They tell us that you don’t have to obsessively optimize and crunch numbers like Facebook or Google to build an app that people love. But you just might have to do it if you want to compete with them effectively as a public company.

On the surface, Snap might look like your stereotypical Silicon Valley get-rich-quick story. Three brash dudes in a dorm room hacked together a seemingly frivolous app; it caught fire with the kids; six years later, it’s a $20 billion company rewriting the rules of media, publishing, privacy, and online interaction.
But listening to Spiegel talk about Snap suggests another way of looking at it—one that sets it apart from its Silicon Valley rivals and holds it in opposition to prevailing winds in technology and industry. He justifies the company’s decision-making by appealing to theory, intuition, and anecdotal observation rather than empirical data. He portrays its sometimes confounding interface as the product of conscious design decisions that prioritize creativity and self-expression. And he explicitly rejects the notion that machine-learning algorithms can replace human editorial judgment.

In a time of ubiquitous rankings, ratings, and likes—when Google ranks search results; Facebook ranks your friends’ posts; Uber and Airbnb rate drivers, riders, hosts, and guests; Yelp rates businesses; and Amazon rates products—Snap’s success speaks to a backlash against the quantification of everything. In the most generous interpretation, it represents a triumph of human intuition, creativity, and whimsy over spreadsheets and algorithms. Less charitably, it might be seen as a victory for flying by the seat of one’s pants.

The good news for Snapchat is that teens love it more than ever. A Piper Jaffray survey released Saturday found that 47 percent of teens named Snapchat as their favorite app. That’s more than Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter combined. Yet one of Facebook’s Snapchat clones, Instagram Stories, needed less than a year to surpass Snapchat in active users. And a recent marketing study of 12 top “influencers” active on both platforms found that they were posting more to Instagram and less to Snapchat.

The question now, with Facebook’s social media empire targeting Snap for destruction, is whether that approach will prove sustainable—or whether Snapchat’s embrace of intuition will disappear as quickly as one of its messages.


That doesn’t mean Snapchat eschews data altogether. But it seems to employ a different process than many of its Silicon Valley peers. Facebook’s news feed ranking team spends most of its time analyzing the data its users generate, looking for trends that suggest a need to tweak the algorithm. But Snapchat seems more often to start from a hypothesis, then seek data that could help to confirm or modify it.

For instance, Spiegel told Isaacson that when he started the company, 1 out of every 10 messages that people were sending on their smartphones was an image. That supported his theory that people might like a messaging service that was built around the camera, rather than around text. It also suggested that people were increasingly using smartphone pictures as a form of ephemeral, interpersonal communication, rather than to document their lives. But it’s not the sort of data point you’d even know to look for unless you first set out to rethink mobile image sharing.

Likewise, the company famously pioneered the vertical video format for ads in 2015, bucking the industry wisdom that videos had to be horizontal. Since almost no one was doing vertical videos, Snapchat couldn’t draw on extensive empirical data to prove that they would work. Instead, Spiegel told Adweek, the decision was based on the company’s own observations of how users interacted with its app. “People just don’t rotate their phones,” he said. Only after Snapchat began using vertical videos did the data exist to vindicate the move. (Other companies have since followed.)


The New Wave of Wearable Tech


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First, fitness wearables simply counted steps. Then, they incorporated metrics like heart rate and pace to track run performance and how hard you work during boot camp. Now, a new generation is emerging—and these devices want to whip your mind into shape, too, to help you manage the stress of modern life.

In August, Caeden introduced the Sona, a stylish bracelet that tracks how you deal with stress (based on a high-tech sensor and metric) and then provides research-backed meditations. In September, Bellabeat’s Leaf Urban debuted a stress prediction feature it says calculates “stress sensitivity.” Apple Watch revealed the Breathe app as part of its latest round of updates, and Fitbit’s new Charge 2 comes with Relax Mode, both of which offer guided breathing exercises. In the off-wrist category, devices like SpirePip, and Muse promise to improve your breathing, track your stress levels, and make meditation easier. So yeah, it’s definitely become a thing.

“They were all focused on steps and doing more physical activity, and the biggest thing we were combating at work was stress and trying to find balance.”

Caeden co-founders Nora Levinson and David Watkins were working on wearables for big tech companies when they realized there was another health issue that wasn’t being addressed by the devices. “They were all focused on steps and doing more physical activity, and the biggest thing we were combating at work was stress and trying to find balance. We wanted to really build something that took into account the mind-body component,” Levinson says. “There’s a lot of scientific research about ways to measure stress and quantifiable methods to improve levels, and we wanted to bring that to people.”

The Sona’s sensor does that by using a metric called heart rate variability (HRV), which essentially measures heart-rate patterns in a way that demonstrates how your nervous system is recovering from stress. “You’re actually seeing the tug-of-war between your stress response and your relaxation response,” she explains. “If you’re super well-rested, you adapt and respond to every change in the environment. If you’re experiencing chronic stress or not getting enough rest, your body is sluggish to respond.”


To change that, Sona gives you daily goals that default to 30 minutes of physical activity, and, more importantly, 10 minutes of Resonance breathing, a research-backed meditative technique developed in the Russian cosmonaut program in the 60s (yes, really).  “What they ended up finding is that if you train someone to breathe at this frequency over a long period of time, you can get them into this cool, calm, focused state, and it also has lasting benefits in that they’re strengthening their relaxation response,” Levinson says. “You’re essentially strengthening your ability to recover from stressful situations.” (Pro tip: One potentially stressful situation you’re going to need to recover from right away is figuring out how to put the Sona on—there’s a hidden clasp!)

“My clients are consistently concerned with whether they are meditating ‘correctly.’ These products are able to deliver some tangible feedback that makes people feel like they are on track.”

In the Sona app, every time you do a Resonance meditation (there are choices like “Rise,” “Relax,” and “Boost,” and you can choose the length), the sensor tracks how well you’re breathing along with the instructions using the same metric, so you get stats when you’re done and can see how you get better at relaxing over time.

Julia Samton, MD, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and meditation expert who’s the co-founder of ReMind Meditation, believes that’s one reason these kinds of trackers could be effective. “My clients are consistently concerned with whether they are meditating ‘correctly.’ These products are able to deliver some tangible feedback that makes people feel like they are on track,” she says.


That’s even more true with Muse, which is a different kind of “wearable” entirely. You certainly can’t wear the brain wave-sensing headband throughout the day as a stylish accessory, but you can put it on if you feel like you’re “bad at meditating”—the device’s soothing sounds change when your mind starts to wander. For example, one minute you’re totally focused on your breath and listening to soft rain fall; the next, you start thinking about how you forgot to put peanut butter on your grocery list and suddenly you’re hearing a monsoon. The change alerts you to refocus, and when birds chirp that means you’re killing it. Again, you can see how you did at the end and track your improvements in the app.

But even if you don’t want to go that deep, simply having the Breathe app on your Apple Watch home screen or a Pip ready on your desk could help you start to appreciate the importance of managing stress. “One of the biggest obstacles in practicing meditation and mindfulness is to remember to do it,” Dr. Samton says. “A device like this is a constant reminder that you are committed to making this kind of change in your life.”