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  • 10.20.15

What Snapchat’s High-Profile Exec Departures Really Tell Us About CEO Evan Spiegel

The fast-growing messaging and media app has seen star talent exit quickly. What’s behind those buzzy departures and what they really mean.

What Snapchat’s High-Profile Exec Departures Really Tell Us About CEO Evan Spiegel
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel [Source Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images]

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel has been able to recruit an impressive roster of top-tier talent to his Venice, California-based startup. And that’s why when some of those same high-profile hires have departed, often rather quickly, questions have been raised about the direction of the company as well as about Spiegel’s abilities as a manager. The list of notable Snapchat departures is growing fast. There’s Snapchat engineering VP Peter Magnusson, who left in 2014; COO Emily White, who decamped earlier this year; and sales head Mike Randall and HR chief Sara Sperling, who both left not long before White. Shannon Petranoff, a former Paramount VP who joined Snapchat in March, only to return to Paramount in September; The Information reported last month that Snapchat had fired its chief talent officer Simmi Singh; and original content leader Marcus Wiley, a former Fox executive, departed Snapchat just weeks ago when the company shut down its original content initiative, for now at least. And today, Jill Hazelbaker, VP of communications and policy, decamped for Uber after just over a year at the company.

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Growing pains are a common symptom of any fast-growing startup, and it’s easy to build a facile narrative around this “leadership exodus,” as it’s been called. With a young, singled-minded chief executive at the helm, Spiegel could be painted as a general who either can’t keep his troops in line or whose leadership style is driving them away. As our reporting into Snapchat reveals, the company defies that sort of easy characterization. So what exactly does explain these eyebrow-raising departures?

Sources close to the company caution against embracing a one-dimensional view of Spiegel and his company. The fact is, these things are complicated. For some employee departures, family and job relocation issues were involved; for others, it came down to being the wrong fit for the company, as was the case with Emily White (more on this in a second). And for still others, the company’s evolving strategy was the impetus for leaving, such as with Wiley, who left after Snapchat decided to scale back some of its original content ambitions.

Snapchat has been aggressive in hiring, which is a good thing. When Spiegel poached White from Facebook, where she was serving as a top executive at Instagram, a source familiar with the dynamic tells me, “Many people at Instagram were shocked. Suddenly, this very powerful and visible person goes to, of all places, our number-one competitor? The team was on edge that day.” Multiple sources say Spiegel at one point pursued former White House press secretary Jay Carney (who ultimately went to Amazon), and the company recently recruited an acting CFO, Drew Vollero, a former Mattel executive. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize [Snapchat’s hiring strategy] as slow and methodical—with any startup, you’re hiring to needs,” says Benchmark’s Mitch Lasky, a Snapchat board member. “You’re not necessarily always aware of your needs early on, and as the company evolves and holes in the existing organization start to appear, you try and fill them. You sometimes rationalize as you’re going forward, and sometimes you rationalize them looking in the rear-view mirror. I don’t think it’s been all that unusual.”

That said, the company has made some miscalculations. Spiegel and White, for example, shared a basic difference of management style, according to multiple sources. The consensus is that Spiegel, who is prone to change his mind, realized he didn’t want a COO interfering with his control of the company. There’s also the sense that the playbook White brought with her from Facebook and a previous stint at Google didn’t translate at Snapchat, which is in an earlier stage of its life cycle. Although her hiring looks like a mistake, multiple advertisers tell me they enjoyed working with her, and also that, frankly, not much changed after her departure. In addition, Spiegel may indeed deserve credit for realizing their differences and correcting the problem before it become too much of a headache. “It’s very painful, because sometimes people who were useful early don’t scale, and sometimes people are simply a right or wrong fit from a personality standpoint,” says one source familiar with Spiegel’s thinking. “Sometimes, people just don’t function in a particular culture.”

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What everyone truly wants to know is, what role did Spiegel’s own personality and leadership style play in these departures? One source who has worked closely with Spiegel and the departed breaks it down: “The stories are different for different people. Evan is really difficult, but his difficulty is not the driver [behind these departures]. I will say it is a factor in all these things. The perspective you hear now is: Look, Snapchat just needs to find key people that can work with Evan the way he is right now, and adapt to him, because you just don’t have time [considering the company’s growth]. You need to fill these executive roles with people that can get along with him, and if that means rotating through a bunch of people, so be it. This kid understands this market, he understands the vision. There are very few people like him, but honestly, there are dozens of people [like these departed executives]. We’ve seen this movie before with Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.”

As we detailed in our profile of Snapchat, Spiegel evokes strong and varied reactions. Sources tell me he’s a “contradiction” and a “contrarian, an absolute contrarian” who, as one says, “has the inner strength to disagree with everybody.” One former associate describes Spiegel as “truly arrogant, not a warm and open person. [His personality] feels almost calculated, to put you on your heels, to disarm you; it’s definitely off-putting. But I’m sure when he deals with the CEO of WPP, he’s a different person.” Martin Sorrell, CEO of advertising conglomerate WPP, tells me that Evan is “no BS. He’s to the point; if he’s not interested in something, he says so, but if you have a good idea, he’ll listen.”

Investors and confidants both acknowledge that Spiegel can be cocky. “If you told me that some people found him incredibly brash and arrogant, I wouldn’t fall out of my chair,” says one close ally. Another tells me, “Evan, like anybody who is 25, might be very abrupt in his actions; [if we are somewhere he doesn’t want to be], he’ll be like, ‘I want to leave now.’ Someone older would say, you know, that’s not the correct thing to do, we have to linger here longer, even if it doesn’t appear to be productive.” One former employee tells me, “He can be super charming when he feels like it, but when he doesn’t feel like it or he’s tired, yeah, every now and then he can be an asshole. . . . He just wants [people] to listen and do what he’s asking, and he’s really getting sick of having to explain [what Snapchat is] to one old fart after another in the media industry.”

But this source adds, “So what? My retort to all this is, Who are you comparing him to? There’s a lot of stress on this kid—he’s twenty-fucking-five!” It’s a sentiment I constantly hear throughout my reporting. The press might make much ado about big personalities and egos in the tech industry, but it’s often par for the course. (And by Hollywood standards, Spiegel is actually rather tame.) One investor tells me it’s misguided and boneheaded to buy into the reputation swirling around Spiegel and company. “It’s not a bunch of coldhearted individuals who are extremely arrogant, who are blindly doing what they think is in their best interest, and are firing people willy nilly, and not treating people well. . . . Quite the contrary: I think they are treating people extremely well, including those they’ve parted company with.” When I ask Mitch Lasky of Benchmark about leaked emails exchanged between him and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton that describe Spiegel as “super paranoid” and board meetings as “contentious,” he’s unfazed: “Board meetings aren’t all rainbows and unicorns. People have disagreements,” he shrugs. “We’re there to serve the CEO’s vision and raise questions.”

Ultimately, what most sources tell me is that Spiegel is learning a ton and still maturing as a leader. All these executive departures are perhaps what you’d expect for an organization that’s ballooning as wildly as Snapchat is, while its CEO charts the course for what he wants his company to become. “What the F were you doing at 25?” one big-name advertiser close to Spiegel asks me rhetorically. “He may not have the polish of [Twitter COO] Adam Bain, who has been doing this for 20-plus years and knows everybody by first name. But Evan is taking a risk and putting himself out there—he’s full of confidence, not experience.”

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About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.

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