Conventional wisdom says that Europe long ago lost the battle of social networks to the tech giants of the United States. But a handful of French businessmen didn’t seem to get the message.
In defiance of difficulties, France has become a hotbed of social networking applications that have found different degrees of attraction and investment by creating distinctive social experiences that attract a younger audience. Perhaps the most well-known app is Zenly, the mapping app that has been going strong for more than four years after it was acquired by Snap.
But other names have also been successful recently: Yubo, a live social video streaming app; Powder, a platform for sharing gaming highlights; and BeReal, an app that promotes more credibility by limiting posts to once a day. Two other apps – Mindie and Yolo – watched their stars shine briefly before fading out. However, through success and failure, the founders have forged bonds by acting as mentors and investors for each other.
These founders say it’s no accident that this micro-ecosystem emerged in France, a country known for being very social in real life. While Facebook and Twitter may not sweat these rebels, the founders believe that their success indicates that France may be ready to make even more noise in this area.
“I think it’s unnatural that France doesn’t really dominate the consumer society,” says Antoine Martin, CEO and co-founder of Zenly. “We are some of the most social of human beings but we also have a history of craft and design that we often need to build great social consumer products. It is very natural to me that France is now on the radar of social consumer apps and I am just amazed that it hasn’t happened so soon.”
Martin is credited with lighting a beacon for this generation of French social apps. Founded in 2011 by Martin and co-founder Alexis Bonillo, the company wanted to succeed where other map and check-in apps had faltered by making the experience more social and seamless. By 2016, they appeared to have cracked the code, raising a total of $33.2 million from backers such as Xavier Niel, OneRagtime, Eurazeo, and Docker founder Solomon Hykes and Benchmark.
“[The French] They are some of the most social human beings… It’s very natural for me that France is on the radar of social apps and I’m just amazed that it didn’t happen soon”
In 2017, Snap came around the same time that Bonillo was relocating to the United States to expand operations. Not only did Snap want to launch a mapping service, but its president, Evan Spiegel, turned out to be a big fan of Francophiles. Martin remembers walking into Spiegel’s office and looking at shelves full of books on French history and culture. In the end, a deal was struck to sell Zenly for about $250 million.
Martin remains CEO of Zenly, which operates as a semi-independent arm of Snap. According to Apptopia, Zenly’s monthly downloads grew from 1.75 million in January 2020 to 4.7 million in September of this year. (For context, Facebook was downloaded 25.05 million times in September.) He has also become an influential consultant and business owner in the French ecosystem. That includes participating in Xavier Niel’s New Wave Seed Fund, which was launched last year.
“My job is to grow Zenly and that’s what I think about I sleep and that’s what I wake up thinking about and it’s been the same thing for the past 10 years,” Martin says. “Now, when there are ways to help the ecosystem grow that don’t require a lot of time or idea sharing, I’m on the spot.”
Yubo . Social Video Service Appears
Martin’s offer of help was accepted by Yubo founder and CEO Sacha Lazimi, who serves as his advisor. Yubo has gone through many failed releases since Lazimi and co-founder Jeremy Oate The attempt began over a decade ago to design an app that would differently allow people to send anonymous messages and later find friends on Snapchat. When they finally settled on the current format, a live social video chatting service, sharing and downloads took off.
Last year, Yubo raised 40 million euros in venture capital. Instead of advertising, the company makes its money from paid subscriptions and in-app purchases. Martin remembers discussing the driven ideas with Lazimi several years ago and was very cautious about it. Lazimi ignored the advice, and Martin is glad he did.
“My job is to grow Zenly and that’s what I think about I sleep and what I wake up thinking about”
“We had lunch maybe two months later, and the company turned in a profit,” Martin says. “App stores have evolved and users have evolved thanks to their Netflix subscriptions and the fact that they pay by phone for Uber.”
Yubo saw Yubo downloads rise from 1.16 million in January 2020 to a peak of 1.42 million in December last year before slowing to 864,000 in September this year, according to Apptopia. The company recently introduced a virtual currency – YuBucks – and it has 55 million users, according to Azimi. Yubo’s largest markets are Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, where the company is opening a global branding and marketing office.
Lazimi says the narrow community of social consumer startups in Paris was necessary to get Yubo this far.
“People in the consumer space have been there for nearly 10 years and we work and talk a lot together,” he says. “It has been very helpful to share the ideas and issues we are facing.”
misses and second verbs
Not all efforts of French social networks were blessed with pride. For example, Yolo launched in 2019 and went straight to the top of Apple’s app charts in the UK and US. A year later, it had 10 million active users and raised $8 million in funding. In a LinkedIn post from January, the company boasted of being the eighth most downloaded social media app of 2020 in the US: “Thank you everyone for your support, 2021 will be Yolo’s biggest year yet!”
Unfortunately, Yolo has also sparked controversy.
Co-founded by Greg Henry and Clement RavenoAnd Yolo allows teens to post questions on Snapchat and receive anonymous responses. Parents complained that she was enabling bullying and harassment and even filed lawsuits. Earlier this year, Snap cut Yolo’s access to its platform, effectively shutting it down.
This was Raveno and Henrion’s second social media outing on social media. In 2013, they co-founded an app called Mindie, which developed a social format that combined short videos with music. The company raised $1.2 million from some notable investors like SV Angels and Pete Cashmore, but it also broke Snapchat rules. His biggest problem was that he was outdone by the app that would eventually become TikTok.
By 2016, Mindie was completely dead, and her IP was taken over by Shots, an app powered by Justin Bieber. Simon Corsen, co-founder of Mindie, is now at Snap. Mindie’s fourth founder, Stanislas Cobain, is back to ride the social wave with powder.
In 2018, Coppin started a new company with three other founders: Barthélémy Kiss, Yannis Mangematin and Christian Navelot. Initially, the group was looking for a product idea. So they set up a Discord server to test ideas and get feedback. In August of that year, they raised $400,000 in a pre-formation round that included money from Kima Ventures and my partners Zenly, Martin and Bonillo. A year later, they recorded an initial $1.5 million tour with money from General Catalyst and SV Angel, among others.
The money purchased the team’s time and resources to attract more than 50,000 members to the Discord server that eventually helped shape Powder’s flagship product: an app that lets users record, edit and share highlights from their video games. Cobain says this remains the first version of a more ambitious vision.
“Our basic idea is that with Instagram you can share your daily life, and with Powder you can share your virtual life,” he says. “We think in the next 10 years there will be more mega games and there will be this metaverse that everyone is talking about and they will all be connected. I think there will be very few very large companies that are building the infrastructure, the graphics and the narratives. What we want to do is build a camera metaverse”.
Cobain says he was struck by how much easier it was to build a social company in France than it was eight years ago when the Mindie team all moved to the US for funding. The first version of Powder shipped in April of last year when it was downloaded 88,000 times, according to Apptopia. By February of this year, that had risen to 251K and settled down to 158K in September. The company raised $14 million in February to help it grow the team and forge partnerships with gaming companies.
Alexis Barreyat was working as a product manager for GoPro when he was assigned to work with influencers. The work left him increasingly concerned about the way people tried to create unrealistic images of their lives on social media.
“Every time I open Instagram, I’m going to be full of ads, influencers, and the perfect life for everyone,” Barryat says. “My life wasn’t as perfect as they always show it. That’s when I realized I wanted to build my platform. The main idea was to keep in touch with my friends and discover what everyone else was doing in their lives.”
Last year, he created BeReal as a kind of antidote. The app sends an alert at a different time every day for the user to take a photo and share it. Users have 2 minutes to post the photo, so they can’t take a look or a scene. And in order to see what other friends are sharing, they should publish their photos.
“Every time I open Instagram I would be filled with everyone’s perfect life… My life wasn’t perfect as they always reviewed”
From 233 downloads in January 2020, BeReal grew to 209,000 in September. And while the company hasn’t confirmed any news about the funding, it was reported last summer that BeReal had closed a $30 million round that included funds from Andreessen Horowitz, Accel and DST.
Bariyat says he has spent some time studying predecessors like Zenli, Yobo and Yulo to understand how they managed to advance to a certain level as well as truly global winners like Instagram. And like these other French founders, he’s heard many people tell him that they should instead focus on the idea of B2B or SaaS.
“When I came up with this idea, I just knew what I wanted to do,” he says. “And it did it for me and in the end I understood that this product was more attractive to more people than I had hoped.”
For Zenly’s Martin, the rise of BeReal underscores how powerful the tide has turned in favor of these French social startups. Even just a few years ago, founders were still required to come to Silicon Valley if they wanted money. Now, he’s heard stories of American venture capital firms chartering private jets to Paris to pursue these deals.
Even if none of these companies is ready to divest from Twitter or TikTok, Martin says momentum, investment, and learning are leading to something big.
“We’ll see how the next five years unfold,” Martin says. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see other Zenly level successes happen.”
Chris O’Brien is a France-based sieve reporter. Tweet from obrien