Snapchat, Miranda Kerr, and investment in innovation

By Michael Beach

The Sunday Times

Perth, Australia


You could be forgiven for missing the crucial part of Miranda Kerr’s recent interview about her Snapchat fiancée Evan Spiegel. To get to the digital revelation you first had to traverse Kerr’s off-piste musings about her sex life with Spiegel.

What? You missed this interview?


Okay ... I’ll fill you in ... if you insist.

(Actually, you can skip down to the digital part below if you want. Or keep reading if you’re also interested in pop culture, which is at the heart of today’s blog post anyway.)

Kerr made her name wearing big wings and not much else for Victoria’s Secret. By the time she married actor Orlando Bloom, Kerr’s day job as a model usually had the prefix “super” attached to it. They had a young son, Flynn, before divorcing, leaving Orlando to take up nude stand-up paddle boarding with Katy Perry.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Kerr revealed she was a member of the mile-high club — both with a partner and alone.

Still with me?

A year ago, Kerr went to a different level of global recognition when she and Snapchat’s 26-year-old guru, the savvy son of two Pacific Palisades lawyers, took a Santa Monica yoga class together for their first date after meeting at a Louis Vuitton fashion dinner.

Which brings us to her chat with UK Sunday Times journalist Richard Godwin.

He wasn’t expecting much from their sit-down during a jeans launch in Hollywood. Godwin, who has a wonderful way with words, described Kerr as speaking in a “cheerful bricolage of product placement and cosmic wisdom.”

Rather than paraphrase their discussion about sex, it’s probably easier to run it verbatim — then we’ll move onto the good bit.

“So, what are you using for protection? Are you pulling out or what?” Kerr asks Godwin.

“That’s a very personal question Miranda!”

She creases up. “I’m interested!”

“Erm, we use birth control?”

“I don’t!” she yelps and begins to laugh.

“So are you going to have another baby?”

“Not yet. Not until after we get married. My partner is very traditional.”

I am clearly so out of the loop when it comes to Millennial sex trends that it takes me a while to grasp her meaning; she appears to be telling me that she and the man she is marrying have never had sex.

“Hang on, that’s really traditional,” I say.

She winces.

“We can’t … I mean we’re just … waiting.”

That’s like the 19th century. Who’d have thought?

She nods so dolorously that I feel overcome with pity.

“I know!” she cries.

You poor thing, I console her, and she bursts into giggles.

I begin to grasp why her numerous publicists were so keen to approve my questions beforehand.

OK, now that you’ve got an insight into their private life, let’s get onto the part of the interview that really caught my attention.

There’s seems almost an unwritten rule among the tech billionaires that they only say nice things about each other. It’s all bonhomie and peace and love despite them being in a constant dogfight for fickle investors and global audiences whose habits keep changing. So it’s refreshing when an insider like Kerr calls it as she sees it.

And what she sees taps into a provocative and topical area — real innovation, how it happens, and whether Mark Zuckerberg borrows his best new ideas from her beloved fiancee.

Back to the interview:

“I cannot stand Facebook,” Kerr says. “Can they not be innovative? Do they have to steal all of my partner’s ideas? I’m so appalled by that … When you directly copy someone, that’s not innovation.”

And then a sudden look of panic crosses her face. “Do I get to approve this interview? Crystal!”

She admonishes her publicist, who long ago drifted out of the conversation.

“Oh, I don’t even care. It’s a disgrace. How do they sleep at night?”

It’s priceless. And it reflects what a lot of tech observers believe, too, that Facebook and Instagram spend most of their time nicking ideas from Snapchat. (Incidentally, Kerr is not on Facebook, but she does have 10 million Instagram followers.)

The claims include developments like Instagram Stories, Lenses, Slingshot, and Pokie.

At this point I’m going to segue into another interview that also touches on whether Spiegel is the great new innovator, and the state of tech innovation generally.

Jeremy Liew is less blunt than Kerr, but, as Snapchat’s first big investor five years ago, his level of insight is almost as deep. And who better, apart from Kerr, to tap into than Liew from Lightspeed Venture Partners?

Kara Swisher did a fascinating Recode Decode podcast with Liew recently.

The entire podcast is worth a listen, but I’ve pulled out a couple of points relevant to this blog post. At the heart of it is why Liew invested in Snapchat so early, allowing his company to roll an original investment of US$485,000 into US$2 billion at the recent IPO.

Liew, 45, is a really interesting guy who grew up about 10 kilometres from where I’m writing this in Perth, Australia. His career path went from studying maths and linguistics to McKinsey, jumping into digital with Citysearch, then AOL and Netscape, before making the leap into the bear pit of venture capitalism with Lightspeed.

Liew talks a lot about pop culture and how the current state of innovation is very different from the first wave back in the late ‘90s. Back then Silicon Valley became the epicentre of connecting ideas, early adopters, funding, and execution.

“You only saw successful innovation in Silicon Valley before because you had this overlap of having an idea and being able to build it. Back in the day, you needed 30 engineers just to launch a Web site. But today you can launch an e-commerce site off the shelf, or figure out how to build an app by reading a blog,” he says.

Liew still sees some innovation on the infrastructure and enterprise side coming out of Silicon Valley, but the more significant innovations — the pop culture innovation — is happening elsewhere, often in the cities that traditionally lead pop culture such as New York and Los Angeles, but not in the bubble of uncool Silicon Valley.

“I think about consumer technology as popular culture,” he says. “The early adopters of popular culture tend to be young women. So if I see a product or service or an app that is really taking off with young women because of genuine word-of-mouth, then that’s something that gets me really excited. I think that’s predictive of the future.”

This is where Spiegel comes into the picture.

Liew wasn’t bothered that he didn’t understand Snapchat. He recognised he was too old, and didn’t have a circle of teenage friends to understand how they were using the product. “There was no way I could have organically understood what that engagement process looked like,” he says.

“But what I could do was open up the Flurry analytics dashboard with Evan and look at the numbers and see 50% month-on-month growth, and see engagement and retention metrics that were multiples of what you might expect from other companies. Something was working, and it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand it right away.”

He adds: “It didn’t matter that my intuition was bad. What mattered was the data.”

And Spiegel, of course.

“I think a lot of it comes down to Evan being a pretty special person,” Liew told Swisher. And Spiegel then backed the man rather than just the single product.

“I said, ‘You seem to have unique insights that will lead to not just one idea but many good ideas in the future.’ And that’s proven to be the case.”

For both Liew — and Zuckerberg, too, if you believe Kerr.

About Michael Beach

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