This is the third story in a Re/code Special Series about the Los Angeles tech scene. In these LA Stories, we’ll take you behind the scenes of a playful, powerful and potentially game-changing tech boom taking place across the Southland.
Evan Spiegel, co-founder and CEO of Snapchat; Sean Rad, co-founder and CEO of Tinder; and Michael Heyward, co-founder and CEO of Whisper have become, in many ways, the young princes of Los Angeles tech.
Native sons of a city they decided not to leave, ambitious young men who knew each other as teenagers, they’re building multimillion- and billion-dollar tech companies that are shaping how a new generation of Internet users communicate, date and gossip.
When I met with serial entrepreneur Brad Brooks, he said he had often thought about the three boys.
“It’s kind of like how the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came up at the same time. It’s not necessarily connected, but sometimes the time is right,” said Brooks, the founder of TigerText, where Heyward incubated Whisper. “Sean Rad lived two blocks from Heyward. Evan also went to Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica. It’s not, ‘Hey, let’s hang out every night,’ but they knew each other.”
The three future entrepreneurs started companies that mirror their personalities almost perfectly. Handsome and charming, Rad co-founded the hot-or-not-style dating app Tinder. Soft-spoken, self-effacing Heyward started a secret-sharing site called Whisper. And Spiegel, sharp and unfiltered, founded the disappearing-message service Snapchat.
I wanted to know who these three young men were, why they had stayed in LA, and what their plans for our phones were.
So I went to Spiegel and Heyward’s old school, Crossroads, which Spiegel has spoken of as the place he learned the importance of private conversation. Communications director Jeryldine Saville, who walked me around the urban grounds, said that she wasn’t sure why the school was producing so many young entrepreneurs, but she could not be prouder.
“It’s not our campus,” she said, eyeing the overcrowded buildings and makeshift classrooms, the picnic tables in the parking lot. “But then again, maybe it is. We’ve had to be scrappy, and so do our entrepreneurs. Anywhere there’s a crevice, we’ve made a classroom.”
The head of the school, Bob Riddle, is now overseeing a massive campus expansion — they’re adding a science and tech building, thanks to anonymous (at least for now) donations. Set to open in 2015, the new building is 29,000 square feet and includes a monarch butterfly habitat and a “hyperbolic paraboloid with flaps that move in the wind,” Riddle said.
“We’ve been looking at the d.school at Stanford to really create a curriculum,” Riddle said, referring to the famous design program at the Northern California university so integral to the success of Silicon Valley.
Evan Spiegel eats his lunch
Evan Spiegel, 23, settled into a booth at the organic, mostly vegetarian Axe restaurant in Santa Monica, and ordered spaghetti bolognese.
His shirt said NO IMAGE. Spiegel, who is extremely thin — almost angular — was angry about how Snapchat had been covered in the media, and he was venting. He held his face and mouth tightly, pursing his lips.
This interview was before a recent brush with notoriety, after recently leaked misogynistic emails from college by him, all from four years ago, focused the intense media glare on him more than ever.
But even before that debacle, Spiegel and Snapchat still battled a perception issue, with some characterizing it as a sexting service rather than as what it has become — an enormously popular, influential new way for people to share online without etching each word or image into perpetuity.
That is what Spiegel wanted to talk about, especially about emotion and building something with feelings and context. I was interested in that – Facebook’s Poke app, which closed last month, always felt cold to me, while Snapchat’s comparable service felt immediately sexy.
“In LA, we use cameras to tell stories, to share things, rather than record or capture.”
Evan Spiegel, CEO and co-founder of Snapchat
“The one and only way to fight back is with feelings. If we were a data play, we’d have no shot in hell. It’s about building something with feelings,” Spiegel said. “Desktop computers were about work. This thing in your hand or in your pocket, you want it to feel fun and friendly and comfortable. These are more about feeling. And so we try to establish context, to make people feel comfortable.”
To Spiegel, the way people used technology up north seems different. Take cameras, for example. In Silicon Valley, people use cameras to take and save pictures (Google Glass being the epitome of this). Down in LA, historically, they’ve used cameras to create narratives.
“In LA, we use cameras to tell stories, to share things, rather than record or capture,” he said.
And Spiegel said his company’s isolation from the northern tech hub had been mostly helpful. At least in the beginning, reporters and venture capitalists would just leave Snapchat alone, which he preferred. His employees could chat openly about work at a bar , he said, because no one else there cared that much about app updates.
“There is something special about having a small group of folks in tech,” he said. “An underdog mentality.”
Sean Rad can’t help himself
Buff, charming and enthusiastic, Sean Rad could have sold me anything.
We met at his office in West Hollywood. The 27-year-old CEO was cautious about showing me the space, which Tinder – a Barry Diller investment and IAC product – shares with Match.com. My guess: He probably doesn’t want Tinder, a sexed-up GPS and Facebook game-like dating app, to seem too linked with Match.com, which everyone’s uncle uses. Fair enough. (They’ve since moved.)
At first, he didn’t want me to take any photos of the office. Then he saw a cool decorated wall and had two guys move a bookshelf so I could take a picture of it. When we had met earlier for a drink at the Polo Lounge, he wasn’t going to show me the latest version of Tinder. I didn’t press it. But he couldn’t quite help himself, and showed me anyway.
His own last name notwithstanding, Rad didn’t think there was anything particularly LA about Tinder.
“You could build a good company anywhere in the world. There’s not necessarily an advantage to LA except …” he said, pausing to add Splenda to his coffee. “Here, you’re surrounded by a diverse group of people. I can walk out of the office on Sunset Boulevard, and no one here does tech.”
“You’re not in the bubble, you’re not just interacting with engineers. I can take the team out for lunch, and we can ask people about Tinder, about how they use it and why, and what bugs they’ve noticed, and you hear real answers.”
Sean Rad, CEO and founder of Tinder
He gestured around a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf that was across the street from Tinder’s office, where we were talking.
“You’re not in the bubble, you’re not just interacting with engineers,” he said. “I can take the team out for lunch, and we can ask people about Tinder, about how they use it and why, and what bugs they’ve noticed, and you hear real answers.”
He pointed to an enormous “Captain America” billboard that loomed over us. (These days, most billboards in San Francisco are for data services and engineering job boards.)
“In San Francisco, you’re out of touch with reality,” Rad said. “This gives you a different perspective.”
Michael Heyward wants to know what makes you anxious
Whisper’s chef was making grilled chicken at the pool-house office that day, and Michael Heyward, 26, grabbed a plate and went outside to eat in the shade.
I asked if he chose the locale because he swam a lot. He laughed and said he couldn’t remember the last time he had gone in the pool.
“I haven’t been into the ocean in eight or nine years,” he said. “I think I got traumatized by jellyfish. I’m one of those introverted types.”
When Brad Brooks was an investment banker, he started working for his Beverly Hills neighbor, “Inspector Gadget” creator Andy Heyward, father to Michael. As the young Heyward grew up, he opted not to go to college, and instead joined Brooks on his next venture, a secure-texting service called TigerText, and started playing around with an anonymous secret-sharing service they called Whisper. It took off.
“I remember being like, ‘Andy, this is going to be big,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, Brad, thank you for giving him a job,’” Brooks said. “No one really expected this to happen.”
Heyward doesn’t go to LA tech meet-ups, but does feel protective about his hometown.
“I always get self-conscious when people from NorCal come down here,” he said. “They think, ‘Oh my god, LA, no one works here.’”
He said he never wanted to move his company to Silicon Valley.
“I don’t like to travel. I don’t like to schlep. I like being here. I get anxious when I’m gone so long.”
“We have this excess inventory of loneliness. Whisper’s about connecting you with people so you can see a common emotion.”
Michael Heyward, co-founder and CEO of Whisper
He snacked on Hello Panda Meiji cookies and grabbed a Capri Sun.
Heyward led me into his workspace, a couch in a dimly lit old garage. He wanted to show me the search feature on Whisper. As a prompt, he said, “Tell me something you’re anxious about.”
I asked him what he was anxious about. He said I had to go first. We settled on looking up stories about falling in love with friends. And there they were — anxious post after anxious post about people all over the country who are secretly in love with their best friends.
He showed me self-mutilation Whispers, “we-met-on-Whisper” love Whispers, political-commentary Putin Whispers.
“We have this excess inventory of loneliness,” he said. “Whisper’s about connecting you with people, so you can see a common emotion.”
“LA tends to be incestuous. Everybody’s connected to everyone,” he said. “And we all already know each other. There are no transplants in LA doing tech. There’s transplants in LA for Hollywood. If you’re in LA doing tech, you probably grew up here.”