Snapchat: Is the expanding startup Venice’s new dirty word?

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It’s fitting that a company that created an app that sends disappearing messages is reluctant to speak on the record. Their logo is a ghost, and Snapchat’s mysterious presence in Venice is scaring the bejeezus out of locals.

Accused of displacing long term tenants from office space, driving up commercial rent prices, driving up property prices, and driving away everything that made Venice so cool that they wanted to be here in the first place, Snapchat’s name is the dirty word frequently spat out in conversations about the changing face of Venice.

Snapchat agreed to talk to Yo! Venice only if the chat was off the record and just like one of their “snaps”, the conversation has long dissipated into the ether. However, the gist of it was this: Snapchat wants to be your friend. They really do want to be good neighbors.

Recently the startup disrupted local business owners in the Venice Village at 606-654 Venice Blvd. and 1800 Abbot Kinney Blvd.

Contrary to rumors, Snapchat did not purchase this property but instead signed a 10-year lease. The company has now taken over as landlord to the existing tenants. So far no one has been given an eviction notice but if they are, finding similar Venice digs could prove a tough gig.

This was the reason Robin Solo of Turning Point Pilates chose to get out before she was kicked out.

While still at the Venice Village location, Solo had heard through the rumor mill, the under-the-radar-gossip-network of building workers and people who washed cars, that Snapchat was moving in.

“However then it kind of went away, it went away, and then it came back a few times and the landlord was never really forthcoming with what was going on so everything was really top secret,” said Solo.
Soon after Solo moved an announcement was made that Snapchat had in fact taken over the lease.

“What I do know through the grapevine – I’m not there anymore – is that at some point the old landlord sent a letter out and informed the tenants that are still there that Snapchat was their new landlord and that their checks would be going to Snapchat.”

Solo said Venice Village was a desirable location.

“It’s an awesome piece of land; it’s right smack in the heart or Venice,” Solo said. “Sadly the last little bastion of small business owners are in there, in Venice. So that’s pretty much what was most disappointing. The rent was manageable and it was really in the thick of things and you could afford to be there. This is really not the case now, the influx of all these higher end Richie Rich businesses, corporations, franchises, and chains that are replacing all these Mom and Pop businesses. I would consider myself one of those Mom and Pop businesses as would a lot of those who are still in there, or the people who have moved out.”

Once Solo was certain eviction was not a matter of if but rather, when, she said she took steps to secure her future.

“Knowing how challenging it is to find space in the area, literally for seven months I drove like a crazy person up and down Venice Blvd., up and down Washington, up and down Rose, up and down Main. I would do these circles back and forth because there would be new for lease signs every day. I would be on Craigslist everyday and talking to realtors everyday. It was very stressful. It turned me inside out.”

Solo said Snapchat dashed her hopes for a long-term future at Venice Village.

“It was a huge drag, especially because literally seven months before that I had refurbished that space so I’d dropped some money into the space to make it look prettier and a little more high end and then I got a kick in the teeth once I found out I’d eventually have to move,” she said. “That made me really nervous because I’m not somebody like some of the people who are still there who are just waiting, waiting, waiting until they’re asked to be removed. I didn’t feel comfortable in not knowing, that at any moment I could get a 30-day eviction notice. Not with this kind of business.”

Solo said relocating her business was never going to be an easy task.
“I don’t have the kind of business you can go, ‘Oh okay, I’ll just move it into my second bedroom’ or ‘I’ll just move back into my garage.’ These are big pieces of equipment and you need to have room for them,” she said.

Solo, who has run her local Pilates business for nine years, said she began to prepare herself for the worst case scenario: she may simply have to close the door on the business that she had worked so hard to build up.

“Literally up until I found this spot (at 337 Washington Blvd.) I was ready emotionally to be like, ‘okay I don’t have this business anymore,’” she said.

Claiming that they don’t want to risk rocking the boat, tenants remaining in the Venice Village complex declined interview requests with Yo! Venice.

“You see the Snapchat people around a lot,” said one local business employee. “You can tell who they are, they hang out together and they don’t really say much about the company. If you ask they kind of avoid answering.”

However one, uncharacteristically chatty Snapchat employee was overheard in Venice saying that there were plans to turn what was once Nikki’s at 72 Market St., a favorite Venice haunt for 10 years, into a community space where anyone would be welcome to go and hang out. Other rumors circling claim it is slated to be Snapchat’s employee cafeteria.

Last year, in their voracious take over of Market Street, Snapchat displaced local non-profit, The Teen Project’s Venice PAD (Protection and Direction). The Venice PAD had been at their Market Street location for two years when founder Lauri Burns received news that the organization whose mission is to move youth from the streets to safe housing, education, and job obtainment, was now facing homelessness themselves.

Burns recalled the moment she found out.

“I get a call saying Snapchat are moving in and they’re taking over our building and we have to move out,” she said.

Local business owner Carl Lambert stepped up and helped out.

“Carl Lambert was like ‘Lauri, I’m going to help you. I’m going to see what I can do. I have some friends, they have a place, maybe they can let you use it’ and he called me back and he said ‘the Sutters said you can use the place for free,’” Burns said. “So we went from $4,500 a month to free, and we’re in a better location.”

Lambert said The Teen Project was a “great great group.”

“I went to Gary and Vera Sutter because I knew they had some space and they immediately said yes,” said Lambert.

Why were the Sutters, who are long-term Venice residents so generous, donating a space that, in today’s market they might otherwise rent for $10 a square foot a month?

Lambert said the couple “understand the need.”

Inadvertently, in pushing out The PAD, Snapchat did the non-profit a favor. Snapchat also collected and donated computers to the organization. Again, in an employee driven philanthropic project staff donated computers and the company matched the donations.

Snapchat’s unofficial spokesperson informed that some of the company’s engineers have done panels and mentorship with UrbanTXT, an organization that helps inspire at-risk youth from low income areas to become technology entrepreneurs, teaching them coding and app development. This philanthropy however is not something that is arranged from within Snapchat but rather something the company’s employees do off their own back in their own time.

Snapchat has an internal culture that drives hiring the kind of people the company would like to work with, nice people, good people said our contact. Perhaps this is the reason employees take it upon themselves to donate their spare time to a greater good, because they’re nice people.

So far however, overall, Snapchat has not appeared to do a whole lot of philanthropy in their own neighborhood and the question remains, is the company doing enough to be good neighbors in Venice?

The unofficial Snapchat spokesperson told Yo! Venice that the company loves being in Venice and loves the culture and that they are trying to be good neighbors.

The reality is that Snapchat has grown huge and fast. What began as a hip startup looking for a hip spot in a community that was full of creativity and culture and far away from Silicon Valley, has exploded into a big company with a multi-billion dollar valuation.

Two of the company’s founders, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy were drawn to the sun, sand, and creative vibe in Venice when they decided to move into their first Venice home in The Blue House at 523 Ocean Front Walk back in 2013.

Once the team grew to 20 they needed to move on and into bigger digs. By October last year the company had around 100 employees. Now, less than one year down the track they have more than 300 employees spread across multiple locations in Venice including their Market Street headquarters, the Thornton Lofts at 619 Ocean Front Walk, and the Venice Village.

If we cut them a little slack for being a preoccupied trying to steer a bolting horse, one might forgive Snapchat for being bad neighbors. The type that don’t realize their pomeranian is incessantly barking while they’re out busy working all day…until that is, everyone on the street speaks up.

Snapchat’s unofficial spokesperson mused over the idea that maybe the company could create a way locals could reach out. Some kind of feedback channel.

Sam the millennial, aka the fabulous drag queen Sammy Sparkles, uses the Snapchat app regularly.

“When you say the words to a person in real life the words don’t float in the air to be accessed later,” he said. “It has a more natural feel of communication, much like a spoken conversation.”

Sparkles said one way Snapchat could be a better neighbor would be to allow local businesses to submit logos and graphics and use a GPS check-in to display graphics onto the screen in a Snapchat message.

The company is as yet to turn a profit; all revenue generated has come through investment capital and this kind of startup money comes with strings attached and restrictions. This may explain that while Snapchat is flush with cash and busy snapping up prime real estate in Venice, it is not able to be as philanthropic as they might like to be if all the cash they had was their own to do with as they wish.

The Snapchat insider said that the last wave of growth has really made the company aware that they need to do more and that it is currently a priority within Snapchat to address the issue of giving back.

In fact the word was, that following their unofficial chat with Yo! Venice, certain people within the company were meeting to discuss creating a new think tank within the startup. The working title, “Snapchat Philanthropy”.

When asked if Snaptchat were like the cool new neighbors who you invite to all your parties but are always too busy to show up the not spokesperson replied, “We hope we come to the party more than that!”

To be continued…

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