The South Carolina native who thought up the idea behind the year’s most-anticipated Wall Street debut keeps a low profile. But what little trace he’s left behind points straight back to the Palmetto State, to a modest home on a quiet block of the Isle of Palms.
Then again, it’s hard to say what exactly Reggie Brown is doing these days.
The one-time California college student who was once at the epicenter of the app that would become Snapchat — the Midlands-raised fraternity brother suggested the idea of disappearing pictures — appears to have vanished himself.
Six years ago, the Columbia native was in a friend’s dorm room at Stanford University creating the early sketches of an idea that would launch them both into stunning wealth.
He was talking with his Kappa Sigma brother Evan Spiegel when he suggested an app for vanishing messages. Spiegel liked the concept — he called it a "million-dollar idea" that day, according to court documents — so they started looking for someone with the coding chops to make it a reality.
They recruited another frat brother, Bobby Murphy, and they were in business. They called their new app Picaboo, a name Brown came up with, and they decided to spend the summer at Spiegel's dad's house in southern California working on it.
Before it was the darling of America’s tech sector and before it was a social media behemoth commanding a market value close to $30 billion, the company that would become Snap Inc. was just a few frat guys working out of a house in suburban Los Angeles.
Two of the three — Spiegel and Murphy, now the company's top executives — became instant billionaires Thursday when Snap went public. Their troves of stock are now worth more than $5 billion apiece.
Brown, meantime, doesn’t appear to have owned a share. He was pushed out in 2011. But as Snapchat took off, he sued his college frat buddies, alleging he was owed a third of the company they’d formed.
Brown, now 27, dropped his claim in 2014. He settled the case for $157.5 million in cash.
Capturing the moment
The company that investors are now clamoring for a slice of is wildly different from the one Brown was ousted from when he was in school.
Back when Brown was involved with Picaboo, the app’s success was measured in hundreds of downloads, and it did only one thing: take pictures that disappeared after a few seconds.
Now, Snap says 158 million people use its app on a daily basis — more than Twitter. The average user opens it 18 times a day and, all together, they send 2.5 billion photos and videos every 24 hours. They can add filters to their pictures, send customized stickers and add special effects. The company now sells video-recording sunglasses, and it describes itself first and foremost as a "camera company."
Snap says its products are meant to let people "live in the moment," and indeed, Snapchat’s success owes largely to the fact that its posts go away.
Social networks like Facebook and Instagram show their users at their best, but Snapchat isn't so manicured. It pushed out perfectly posed photos and made room for spontaneous selfies instead.
Yet for as much as it’s changed, the way Snap describes itself today isn’t so different from the way Picaboo did back then, when Brown was writing press releases to drum up interest, court filings show.
"Send Picaboos like you experience the world around you!" Brown wrote in a draft press release in 2011. "These are photos of moments, so capture them how you live out your daily life."
Years later, as it prepared to go public, the company would write in a prospectus for investors that it hoped to bring to online communication what everyday conversations already had: "spontaneity, emotion, honesty — the full range of human expression that makes us human in the first place."
A falling-out between friends
The falling-out happened late that summer, while Brown was back home in South Carolina.
After spending most of the break before his senior year in California, he'd returned to visit his parents and finish up the paperwork that would register the young company’s intellectual property.
He filed it that August, listing his parents’ address in a gated Columbia subdivision on a patent application for "timed, non-permanent picture messages for smart phone devices."
With it, he had the key to the legal argument he’d make two years later: On paper, he appeared to own a third of the company’s work.
A simmering question over his stake in the company apparently boiled over around the same time. On one side, Brown was asking about his role in Picaboo’s future. On the other, Spiegel was asking for a copy of the patent application, to see what exactly he’d filed.
A phone call later in the month grew heated, court documents show, and Spiegel hung up abruptly. Days later, Picaboo changed its passwords.
"Do you have regrets at all about the way you dealt with Reggie in regards to the project?" an attorney would ask Spiegel in a deposition two years later, according to recordings posted by Business Insider.
"That’s a really hard question for me," Spiegel responded after a 30-second pause, "because it’s pretty clear that I lost a good friend."
Snapchat settled with Brown a year and a half after he sued his college friends, and for years it said little about the deal they struck.
But it did acknowledge Brown’s role in Snapchat’s "early and most formative days." And the idea of disappearing images was his, it acknowledged.
"We acknowledge Reggie’s contribution to the creation of Snapchat and appreciate his work in getting the application off the ground," Spiegel said in a statement at the time.
Setting up shop on IOP
It was around then — after the legal back-and-forth with Snapchat was over — that Brown went silent.
As lawyers in California traded arguments over his case, he was back in the Carolinas. He spent a few months in 2013 interning at the state Attorney General’s Office in Columbia, an unpaid gig while he thought about going to law school.
Then he switched paths, enrolling in a 10-month master’s program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business that he finished the next year.
What he’s done since is mostly unclear, as Brown has left only a faint trail of public records connecting him to the state in recent years. But it appears that the Lowcountry now fits into his plans.
In December, state records show, he incorporated a business on the Isle of Palms and called it Rita Brown, apparently the name of his dog. Like a company he incorporated at his parents' house in 2012, there's little evidence that it's a functioning business. City officials say it isn't licensed to do business on the island.
He gave the address of a worn-looking beach house his family owns a block away from the water. It’s a small, single-story home — modest compared with the vacation rentals and new construction nearby.
A porch fan whirred and a dog barked inside when The Post and Courier knocked on the door Wednesday morning, but no one answered. A pick-up truck parked in the driveway sported a bumper sticker for Duke’s Fuqua School.
Efforts to reach Brown by phone and on social media were likewise unsuccessful. Attorneys who represented him in his lawsuit against Snapchat didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment over the last few weeks.
On the sidelines
Brown’s nine-figure settlement makes him arguably one of South Carolina’s most successful technology entrepreneurs, dwarfing much of the state’s home-grown tech sector.
Charleston’s two largest tech firms, Blackbaud and Benefitfocus, each raised less when they listed their shares publicly. And among the handful of local startups that have found buyers in recent years — companies like CompareCards.com, PureCars and SPARC — none has sold for more than Brown’s $158 million.
Unlike the founders and executives of those companies, however, Brown has largely remained unknown in the Lowcountry’s up-and-coming tech sector. Even at home in Columbia, talk of a Snapchat co-founder who grew up in town is met with a measure of surprise and skepticism.
Brown’s ouster recalls the story of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twins who first enlisted a Harvard classmate, Mark Zuckerberg, to build the website that would become Facebook.
Unlike Brown, their story was documented by an Oscar-winning film, “The Social Network.” And they have remained in public view, rowing in the 2008 Summer Olympics and launching a venture capital firm after Facebook went public. The twins had settled, at least in part, for a stake in the company.
Brown, meantime, is on the sidelines. In a 2013 article about his lawsuit, The Washington Post reasoned that his story was a cautionary tale for the startup age.
Snapchat was another dorm-room idea that found runaway success. Brown was another college student left behind after dreaming it up, ditched in "the footnotes of creation and the foothills of fortune."
And there he was when Snap Inc. filed to go public last month, dropping a 248-page disclosure about its business and its history. Brown appears on page 221, down in the footnotes of its finances.
"In February 2013, an individual filed an action against us," Snap wrote. The company said it was accused of "using certain intellectual property that the individual jointly owned with our founders."
The "individual" was Brown, and the intellectual property was his idea, the concept that Snapchat was built on before it evolved into the giant it is today.
In 131 words, it would go on to say that the last check cleared last year, that it didn’t owe him anything in the future. In effect, it said that Snap’s involvement with Brown was over.
His name didn’t appear once.