Evan Spiegel.
Evan Spiegel.
Image: Getty Images / Michael Nagle / Bloomberg

It only takes about 30 seconds of waiting in line at Nando’s before somebody recognises Evan Spiegel. “You’re not from Snapchat, are you?” a young man asks. “You are! Oh! Good to see you.”

Spiegel has got better at dealing with these encounters. Though he described himself this year as shy, the 28-year-old stands out today with his sharp dark suit, white open-collar shirt and certain kind of LA sheen. He immediately introduces me, as if the guy would care at all who I am, and asks what he is up to.

Spiegel may not be quite as famous as Mark Zuckerberg — nobody has so far made a semi-fictionalised movie about him — or the founders of Google. But as America’s youngest billionaire and co-founder of Snapchat, the picture-messaging app used by 186m people every day, this is the kind of thing that tends to happen when you’re hanging around in a chicken-and-chips joint.

During the course of 2018, Wall Street has fallen out of love with Spiegel. Shares in Snapchat’s parent company Snap are ending the year almost 75 per cent below their peak in February. But the paradox of Snapchat has long been that even if grown-ups write it off, the kids still flock to it. The same seems to be true of its creator.

Our new friend, a DJ manager, is so star-struck that he doesn’t know what to do when called forward to the counter to order. Stay and seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pitch to the Snap chief executive? Or hurry forward for some peri-peri chicken with macho peas and unlimited drink refills?

Spiegel is polite and friendly, suggesting that the DJ manager send over some of his artists’ tracks. He isn’t fazed by calling out his email address in the middle of a Friday lunch crowd.

The DJ manager doesn’t think to ask why Spiegel, who flew in to London for a few hours on his private jet to speak at a media conference, is stopping off at a Nando’s on the south side of the Thames. There are so many people waiting for a table that I worry we will have to conduct our interview standing in the doorway, where a broken glass door has been temporarily replaced by plywood. It is a bright but chaotic space, the chatter bouncing off the high vaulted ceilings under the arches of a railway bridge.

Spiegel says he seeks out Nando’s whenever he travels. The poultry empire, which started just outside Johannesburg in the late 1980s and now encompasses hundreds of restaurants, has not yet reached California. However, he is unfamiliar with the grand British tradition that is the “cheeky Nando’s”. I try to explain that somehow Nando’s tastes better when sneaked in on the way home from the pub or in the middle of the workday.

Even so, I am a Nando’s novice and as we reach the front of the line, I am overwhelmed by the lengthy menu. I opt for the chicken thighs (medium hot), sweet potato wedges and some grilled veg on the side. Spiegel orders a chicken burger (also medium) with peri-peri fries. “I try to keep it simple,” he says.

Simplicity was always at the heart of Snapchat’s appeal — the app opens straight to a camera window and its design is far more minimal than feature-packed rivals such as Facebook or WeChat. But that simplicity has often worked against Spiegel, especially among people — like most adults or Wall Street analysts — who have never used his product. Snapchat has been repeatedly dismissed as a sexting app or a mere novelty for appending digital dog-ears to your selfies.

If there is one thing that comes through time and again during our lunch, it is that Spiegel positively revels in being underestimated. His vision for Snap is perhaps summed up in a quote from the mid-century designers Charles and Ray Eames, which the tech company still uses in its recruitment ads: “Toys are preludes to serious ideas.”

Spiegel sees his toy as a precursor to a time when photos and videos supersede text-based communication and when computing is “overlaid on the world”, through augmented-reality goggles.

“It’s probably going to be more than a decade but computing will stop being confined by a little screen,” he says as we sit down at a beaten wooden table at the back of the restaurant. That is why Snap continues to invest in Spectacles, sunglasses that have a camera embedded in the frame. The product has won plaudits for its design but sales are slender. “What is super-cool about it is, like, we have validated the idea that people are willing to wear a computer — a camera — on their face,” he says. “That’s huge.”

Has he really? People may not recoil from Spectacles in the way they did from Google Glass, which provoked a backlash over privacy, but the idea of face-computers still disturbs many.

“Most people don’t care what we are doing with Spectacles. Maybe at best they are, like, laughing at it,” he says, smiling. Most people were just as dismissive of ephemeral messages — Snapchat-style “Stories” are now a standard feature of social apps — and Bitmoji, Snap’s curious cartoon avatar creator, which ended this year as Apple’s sixth- most popular iPhone app in the US. (Snapchat itself was number three, behind YouTube and Instagram.)

I think you can end up in a place that you don’t even understand because you A/B-tested your way there. We put humans in the middle, rather than focusing on the technology

Our food arrives and Spiegel jumps up to grab us some napkins and cutlery. He urges me to try his fries, which are sprinkled with a tangy orange powder, then continues to defend his record. “What we’ve seen in seven years, in the transformation of technology and the adoption of ideas that seemed very radical at the time, makes us even more convinced that we can invest in things over a really long time horizon that seem pretty wild,” he says.

That is, of course, if Snap is able to survive a really long time. Some analysts predict its losses will run down its cash reserves before the end of next year, forcing it to turn back to an increasingly sceptical Wall Street for more funds. Competition from Facebook — whose Instagram app brazenly copied many of Snapchat’s features after Spiegel spurned a $3bn takeover offer in 2013 — is intensifying. “Obviously from the very, very beginning of our company, everyone was like, Facebook’s going to kill you, right?” he admits. “That’s just been the common narrative.”

To some, that still seems like the most likely outcome. But Facebook’s disastrous past year, as it was walloped by crisis after self-inflicted crisis, presented Snapchat with an opportunity to reverse the narrative. Late last year, Spiegel unveiled a radical redesign of Snapchat that promised to “separate social from media”. It was a rallying cry against everything Facebook’s news feed has been blamed for — electoral manipulation, filter bubbles, clickbait, screen addiction.

For Spiegel, fixing many of the internet’s problems is just a software update away. “This is why I’m broadly extremely optimistic about the future of technology — because you can change things very quickly,” he says. “So I think a lot of the concerns we’re seeing today can be avoided by just changing products.”

Snapchat’s update, however, fell flat. Its quarterly daily active user count has declined since the start of the year in the wake of the redesign, which prompted protests from celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, as well as from regular users who found it harder to message their closest friends. The damage was not just to user growth but to his own reputation as a product genius with a gift for giving people what they didn’t know they wanted.

I suggest to Spiegel that just at the moment when Snapchat should have been seizing the advantage from a weakened Facebook, he shot himself in the foot. “Over the coming years, I think people will see the value in that change,” he argues. “If you’re going to make a transformation like that, it’s going to take time. We tried to warn people.”

Surely, I say, it has been more disruptive than you expected? Spiegel’s response, though not in so many words, is: trust me. “I think the other side of that would probably be the argument that single-digit declines in [daily users] are a decent trade-off for a massive content opportunity,” he replies. “I agree with you that there’s a lot of public pressure on the business but . . . we have a history now of seeing opportunities sometimes before other people do. And so I think if we were slow or we missed this opportunity, we’d really regret it later.”

Spiegel has only eaten half his burger. I prod him to explain the Nando’s phenomenon, hoping to better appreciate it myself. “It’s amazing,” he offers, somewhat awkwardly. “Delicious.”

I am little more convinced by his answer than by my chicken thighs and mushy veg. I wish I’d been braver and ordered a spicier option.

Spiegel’s enthusiasm for Nando’s comes seasoned with a sprinkling of nostalgia for his college years. While studying at Stanford — where he later founded Snapchat with fellow students Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown — Spiegel twice went to Nyanga, a township outside Cape Town, to work helping young people find jobs. “It’s where the addiction began,” he says of the chain.

Spiegel now comes across as much more understated than the brash frat boy whose leaked emails from 2009 urged his buddies to “fuckbitchesgetleid” (sic). He apologised several years ago for his “idiotic emails”, insisting that they “in no way reflect who I am today or my views towards women”. The teenager who grew up the son of two lawyers in LA’s affluent Pacific Palisades neighbourhood has now become America’s highest-paid chief executive, thanks in part to a chunky bonus last year for taking Snap public.

But while he has not always managed to prevent his past from coming back to haunt him, Spiegel has striven to keep his private life private — as befits someone who pioneered a tech company that deletes rather than hoards data.

When I ask if he was affected by November’s huge fires in southern California, he starts to tell me a “crazy story” about his wife Miranda Kerr’s house in Malibu, but then stops himself. “I don’t want to tell her story out of school,” he says. “It ended up being OK but it was a very close call.”

This summer, Spiegel and Kerr, a model and entrepreneur, had their first child together. “It’s totally wild to create a child with someone else,” he says. “Best thing in the world.” They also have a seven-year-old from Kerr’s previous marriage. I ask how much technology his kids will be allowed to use.

Spiegel says his own parents did not let him watch any TV until he was “almost a teenager”, which made life at school a “little tricky”. “I actually thought that was valuable because I spent a lot of time just building stuff and reading or whatever,” he says. So the seven-year-old is allowed only an hour and a half of screen time a week.

“I think the more interesting conversation to have is really around the quality of that screen time,” he says. Snapchat is trying to promote more “positive” content, such as making female engineers the heroes of its latest original show The Dead Girls Detective Agency. Wholesome content “doesn’t necessarily have to be granola”. He acknowledges, though, that these will appear alongside “junk food” stories — guilty pleasures such as this week’s items on “bad tattoos”, the Starbucks secret menu and Rihanna’s beauty secrets.

Parents need to set an example too, Spiegel adds, by reducing their own phone usage or explaining what they are doing so that their children are not just “looking at the black back of the phone . . . [with] no idea what’s going on”.

Taming the impact of the internet on the wider world is proving even tougher to enforce. Spiegel does believe that if Silicon Valley developed its products in a different way, it could remedy many of its technology’s unwanted side-effects. That means turning away from techniques such as “A/B testing”, where separate sets of users are given differing versions to see which wins the most clicks, and from chasing growth at all costs, he says. “I think you can end up in a place that you don’t even understand because you A/B-tested your way there,” he says. “We put humans in the middle, rather than focusing on the technology.”

But as he picks at the last of his peri-peri chips and I drain my rooibos lemonade, Spiegel also recognises that tech companies cannot be trusted to change entirely of their own accord. He praises the European Commission’s “philosophical approach” to rulemaking, in contrast to the “technology-specific” regulations in the US. The Europeans consider the “impact you want to have on society”, he says, rather than designing regulations that govern a particular device, app or feature.

Spiegel does not believe that regulating the internet requires inventing a whole new rule book. “What I see today is this temptation to treat the internet like it’s a separate thing,” he says. “There was an argument in the 1990s that the internet was a separate place to go and experiment. Well, now the internet’s become completely intertwined with our lives, so the real world and the internet are one and the same.”

As such, many of the ways in which traditional media are governed can apply online just as well. “If you’re broadcasting to millions of people, you need to serve the public interest.”

That concept could apply to people with large Twitter followings as much as to TV, he continues, tentatively suggesting quite a radical idea. “Everyone basically has their own TV channel,” he says. “So as a society I think we have to think: is that what we want? ... I think at some point, you’re talking about huge numbers of people receiving content that is not necessarily, I think, consistent with the values that at least some democratic countries have had for a really, really long time.”

These are big topics to tackle over grilled chicken. Neither of us has quite cleaned their plate but we head out anyway: me back to the office, Spiegel back to California. Flying to London for a few hours on your private jet to speak at a conference, then sneaking in a burger on the way home — Spiegel’s might just be the cheekiest Nando’s ever.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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