From an inauspicious app named Picaboo to a global phenomenon.
Snap Incorporated, the parent company of the wildly popular messaging app Snapchat, on Thursday filed to go public.
“Our products empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together,” the company’s S-1 filing reads. It also stated, plainly: “Snap Inc. is a camera company”—a reference to its popular Spectacles eyewear.
But it wasn’t always that way. An IPO on the New York Stock Exchange—in which 26-year-old CEO Evan Spiegel will likely hope to raise money near Snap’s eye-popping $25 billion valuation—is only the latest milestone for a company that first appeared in 2011. Here’s a brief look at how it got here.
Three Classmates Meet at Stanford University
Evan Spiegel, Robert “Bobby” Murphy, and Frank Reginald “Reggie” Brown IV meet at Stanford University around 2010. Spiegel (who didn’t graduate) studied product design, Murphy studied mathematical and computational science, and Brown studied English. All were members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, for which Spiegel served as social chair. Spiegel and Murphy begin work on “Future Freshman,” a tool to aid students, parents, and counselors in the college admissions process. It launches with little fanfare that summer.
New idea, new product. The trio—Spiegel and Brown are juniors; Murphy has graduated—begin work on an ephemeral messaging app they soon dub “Picaboo.” (A 2013 lawsuit Brown files against Spiegel and Murphy claims he thought of the idea; the parties later settle for $157.5 million.) The co-founders build a prototype at the Los Angeles home of Spiegel’s father, obtain titles (Spiegel, CEO; Murphy, CTO; Brown, CMO) and issue a press release in July 2011. “Toss out those old, last-season photo messaging apps because now Picaboo let’s [sic] you and your girlfriends send photos for peeks and not keeps!” proclaims the release. “Show off your sexy new hairstyle or let him choose that hot new outfit, without the hassle and stress of knowing that these images will be saved into your camera gallery forever.” Though the app is solely targeting female users, its value proposition is already clear. “Who actually wants every photo of themselves to last forever in the record books?” the release asks. “Umm, not us?” Exactly.
So Long, Picaboo. Hello, 'Snapchat'
The name “Picaboo,” it turns out, is a name already in use by an older New Hampshire-based company that published and printed images. To avoid market confusion, the co-founders rechristen their invention “Snapchat.” It retains its familiar black-and-yellow colors and “Ghostface Chillah” logo.
Snapchat Launches on Google Android
By now Snapchat—still exclusively on Apple’s iOS mobile operating system—is beginning to show growth. The app counts 1,000 daily active users by late 2011, then 100,000 by early 2012. It expands to Google’s Android mobile operating system in October 2012 and finishes the year with…
Milestone: 1 Million Daily Active Users
Snapchat Raises Money and Meets Its Match
Snapchat keeps growing despite ongoing privacy concerns. Thanks to improving smartphone hardware and an April 2012 cash infusion ($485,000) by Lightspeed Venture Partners, Snapchat adds video support, allowing its users to exchange video messages in addition to still photos. As the company continues to attract attention, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly meets with Spiegel and Murphy in December 2012—then launches Poke, a near-clone of Snapchat. In early 2013, less than a year after the LVP investment, Snapchat closes a $13.5 million funding round led by Benchmark Capital, reportedly valuing the startup upwards of $70 million.
Stories, Smart Filters, and Spurning Facebook
In 2013 Snapchat launches the feature “My Story”—later just “Stories”—allowing users to broadcast a linear collection of photos or videos. It also adds Smart Filters (allowing users to layer on their images the actual time, outside temperature, or speed) and the ability to replay ephemeral messages. Later that year, the Wall Street Journal reports that Spiegel and Murphy rejected a $3 billion cash offer from Facebook to acquire the startup, which had yet to generate a single penny of revenue.
Putting the 'Chat' in Snapchat
If you can believe it, it took Snapchat three years from its 2011 founding to actually launch a feature called “Chat.” Instead of transmitting single images or videos from one person to another (or one person to many), Chat allows two users to exchange ephemeral media, including simple text, in a threaded conversation. A few months later, the company celebrates reaching 50 million daily active users.
Now Showing: Geofilters, Paid Advertisements
The features just keep coming. In 2014 Snapchat introduces location-specific Geofilters (e.g. a photo filter saying “Brooklyn”) as well as its first-ever paid advertisement, a Brand Story for the film Ouija. Investors rejoice. (Indeed, Snapchat ends the year by closing a whopping $485.6 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, valuing the startup north of $10 billion.) Elsewhere, Facebook quietly shutters Poke.
Snapchat Debuts Discover, Lenses
By 2015 it’s clear that Snapchat is one of the hottest social media platforms around. But how do established brands—e.g. People, Cosmopolitan, and even the Wall Street Journal—get involved? Behold Discover, an exclusive new area for Stories from select publishers and what Fortune’s own Erin Griffith calls “the hottest club around.” As if that’s not enough, Snapchat also debuts Lenses, which use image-recognition technology to give users new virtual abilities (like vomiting rainbows or gaining cartoon dog ears).
Milestone: 100 Million Daily Active Users
In three years’ time, Snapchat manages to go from its first million daily active users to 100 million. In other words, the equivalent of one-third of the United States—or the entire population of Vietnam and then some—open Snapchat in the span of 24 hours.
Chat 2.0, Geofilters 2.0, Memories, Bitmoji
Snapchat splashes into 2016 with several new features waiting in the wings. Chat gets an upgrade, adding stickers, voice and video calling, and notes. Geofilters now have the ability to be designed or bought. Memories, a fancy name for the ability to save Snaps and Stories, appears. And Bitmoji—the cartoon avatar service—is integrated into the app. (Elsewhere, Facebook-owned Instagram rolls out Stories, a carbon copy of Snapchat’s feature.) Soon Snapchat counts 150 million daily active users and closes a monster $1.8 billion funding round that values the company around $20 billion. To celebrate his great fortune, CEO Spiegel proposes to his supermodel girlfriend—via Snapchat, of course.
New Name, New Product
If Snapchat introduces a product beyond its eponymous mobile app, is it still Snapchat? According to CEO Spiegel, not quite. The company renames itself Snap Inc., repositions itself as a “camera company,” and introduces Spectacles, sunglasses with an integrated video camera that allow the wearer to create Memories. It’s the first time the company breaks free from the smartphone, and buzz is at a fever pitch.
Snap Inc. Files For IPO
The technology industry’s worst-kept secret finally comes true as Snap Inc. files for an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. The move could make Spiegel worth more than many Fortune 500 CEOs. In the words of Spiegel in July 2011: “Nothing wrong with doing what you love and making $$$. Swag. It. Out.”