A year ago, Snapchat was so excited about its first hardware product that it renamed itself Snap Inc. With the launch of Spectacles, CEO Evan Spiegel decided, the company would no longer be defined solely by the Snapchat app. It was not a social media company, he told the Wall Street Journal, but a camera company. Internet-connected photography, he philosophized, necessitated a “a reinvention of the camera.”
Yeah, not so much. Citing “two people close to the company,” the Information reported Monday that Snap had “badly overestimated demand” and now has “hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting in warehouses, either fully assembled or in parts.” This comes just weeks after Spiegel said at a Vanity Fair summit that Spectacles sales had “exceeded our expectations,” topping 150,000. If the Information’s reporting is accurate, then Spiegel’s claim, well … isn’t. (A Snap spokesperson declined my request for comment.)
Regardless of who’s telling the truth, it already seemed clear from Snap’s first two earnings reports that Spectacles were fizzling. As Business Insider pointed out in August, the company reported just $5.4 million in “other” revenue in its second quarter, down from $8.3 million in its first quarter. Spectacles are presumed to make up the bulk of revenue in this category. It’s one thing to only sell 150,000 of a product in its first year, as long as sales are growing. If they’re already tailing off, that suggests the product might be doomed.
It probably shouldn’t shock anyone that Spectacles haven’t taken off. Like Google Glass before them, they look goofy—a handicap that was not overcome by Snap’s effort to make them look intentionally goofy, rather than accidentally so. Anyway, there was no more reason to believe that normal people wanted cameras on their faces in 2016 than there had been in 2013, when Google launched its ill-fated augmented-reality device.
Skim Twitter today and you might get the impression that pretty much everyone in the tech industry saw this coming from a mile away. Yet if you had read it a year ago, when Spectacles launched, you would have gotten a very different picture. Spiegel had earned a reputation for successfully defying conventional wisdom, and a lot of influential people bought into the hype that he was about to do it again.
Let’s put on our hindsight goggles and go for a stroll, shall we?
The whimsical fun branding of @Spectacles is proof, once again, of the pure product genius of Snap Inc.— Steve Cheney (@stevecheney) September 24, 2016
And at $130, they're within reach of many Snapchat users, and aspirational for many more.— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) September 24, 2016
Snapchat trying to become the camera is smartest thing it's done yet. Absolutely no judgement on whether it will work btw, but right to do.— Matthew Panzarino (@panzer) September 24, 2016
No offense to those folks—everyone gets it wrong sometimes (and even most of the above were careful to qualify their praise). It just goes to show that Spectacles’ failure was not a foregone conclusion. In retrospect, the Spectacles launch tweet I find most poignant is this one from investor Benedict Evans:
The best thing about Snapchat is the creativity, and defiance of tech product convention. They try stuff that shouldn’t work.— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) September 24, 2016
I wrote at length recently about Snap’s philosophy of innovation, which emphasizes whimsy and intuition over data analysis and optimization. It makes the company easy to root for, in some ways.
But the Spectacles debacle also highlights the risks Snap faces as a public company competing against the likes of Facebook. It turns out that when you make a habit of trying stuff that shouldn’t work, well—sometimes it just doesn’t.