Snapchat's growing importance, Facebook's dominance and Twitter's travails

Facebook has it. So does Snapchat. Uber and Atlassian as well. Even BuzzFeed. Twitter, on the other hand, does not.

User growth? A surging valuation? Perhaps, but that's not what I'm referring to. What I'm referring to is a dominant founder (or in the case of Atlassian, two founders) with a strong vision and a vice-like grip over their business.

Evan Spiegel is estimated to own 13 per cent of Snapchat.
Evan Spiegel is estimated to own 13 per cent of Snapchat. Photo: AP

We've touched on this issue before, but events over the last week or so have only reinforced to me how critical it is.

Take Snapchat, which seems to be on a bit of a roll at the moment.

Illustration: John Spooner.
Illustration: John Spooner. 

Media companies in the US are scrambling to establish a foothold on the ephemeral smartphone video messaging service, by broadcasting content to its rapidly growing millennial audience. It was recently claimed that Snapchat video traffic was approaching that of the Facebook juggernaut.

Like Facebook, Snapchat has a dominant figurehead holding its reins. His name is Evan Spiegel, and he famously walked away from multibillion-dollar buyout offers from both Facebook and Google in 2013, according to reports at the time. That decision, which shocked many (including me), could soon be vindicated. Snapchat has subsequently raised money at even higher valuations (most recently at $US16 billion, according to CB Insights).


Snapchat is starting to feature prominently in the US presidential election primaries, which kick off this week with the Iowa caucuses. Candidates are even using it to throw shade at rivals.

Some are calling this the Snapchat election, which feels eerily familiar, since 2008 was described by the same types of people as the Twitter election.

Poor old Twitter, meanwhile ,continues to struggle at the corporate level. Its stock price has sunk well below the price at which shares were sold to the general public in its 2013 initial public offering . Last week, the company was beset by a sting of high-level executive departures. Various outlets (see local trade publication Mumbrella, or The New Yorker) have written eulogies for the platform.

I think a big part of Twitter's problems is that it has never really had a truly dominant figure at the helm. Its CEO Jack Dorsey was a co-founder of course, but he has never been truly synonymous with the business like some of his peers and he has been running another company, Square, for much of that time. Nor has anyone had a clear vision about what Twitter actually is. As recently as 2011, Dorsey said "we don't have an answer, and that's OK," on this issue.

Some are calling this the Snapchat election, which feels eerily familiar.

Infighting rife

Since inception Twitter has been beset by infighting in the boardroom. Dorsey, who came up with the idea in 2006 while working on a podcasting app for Ev Williams, was the original CEO. In 2008, when Twitter was booming but creaking at the seams, Dorsey was pushed out by the board in favour of the more experienced Williams.

Then, in 2010, when it hit another bottleneck, Williams was ousted in favour of onetime comedian Dick Costolo, with Dorsey taking on a more visible role as executive chairman. Costolo led Twitter through its (highly successful) IPO, but last year, with Wall Street unimpressed with the company's subsequent progress, he stepped aside with Dorsey reinstalled as CEO.

Perhaps Dorsey is the man with the vision to fix Twitter. Yet, he's only been back a few months and will surely need time to execute it. And, he only controls about 3 per cent of the company's shares, according to Bloomberg. Unlike Facebook or Atlassian, Twitter does not have a dual class share structure, ensuring the co-founders retain control, either. So if shareholders get impatient, in theory at least, Dorsey might not get the time he needs to execute his vision.

If I had to guess, it would be that Twitter will be just fine once it accepts that it is a niche service. It is never going to be as big as Facebook, but it does have a devoted core of very influential users, many of whom have invested a lot in the product. And it remains the destination where lots of incredibly important content surfaces first.

Either that, or it ends up being acquired by Alphabet (Google).

Facebook, which cannot put a foot wrong at the corporate level right now, is clearly benefiting from the strong leadership and clear vision of its founder Mark Zuckerberg. His decisions to spend billions of dollars on unproven companies with no revenue (photo sharing app Instagram, messaging service WhatsApp and virtual reality headset maker Occulus Rift) shocked people at the time, but with each passing day look more prescient. And they never would have happened if Zuckerberg didn't have complete control over the business.

I have no idea whether Snapchat will ultimately emulate Facebook and go completely mainstream, or like Twitter, hit a plateau. But it does have a dominant founder, who does seem to be pretty confident about his vision for the business.