Antoine Martin (ex-Zenly): “We want to create a European alternative to Twitter, Meta and TikTok”

Posted on 6 Dec. 2022 at 2:50 pmUpdated on December 6, 2022 at 3:44 PM

At the beginning of September 2022, we learned from Les Echos that Zenly, the geolocation app between friends, created by two French people, was going to close following a decision by its parent company Snap. We now have an end date: February 3, 2023, according to the twitter account of service.

Since being acquired by Snap in 2017 for nearly $300 million, Zenly has maintained a form of autonomy and agility that startups are dear to. From Paris, just 70 people, hailed for their talent by many tech watchers, were running one of the top 10 most downloaded social apps in the world in March, according to data.ai. From Japan to Eastern Europe, they are still 40 million each month to open Zenly to see where their loved ones are and chat with them. Popular with teenagers, over the years Zenly has won over older profiles and technophiles, admiring its design, ease of use and customization features, halfway between the mapping application, messaging and social networks.

After 5 years piloting under American supervision, and thanks to a profound overhaul of the application he piloted, Antoine Martin stepped down as CEO in April 2022. After several months of break, he found his entrepreneurial freedom. And talking. For an hour, in a Parisian apartment converted into offices, the 36-year-old businessman agreed to return to the end of Zenly and talk about his new project.

What was your reaction when you learned of Zenly’s closure a few months after your departure?

I didn’t expect it, nor did the employees. At first I felt proud. The app has literally saved lives with location sharing. The best known story is the kidnapping of a taxi driver in Japan who was found thanks to Zenly.

I’m also very proud of the impact we’ve had on our teams. We proved that it is possible to create an international social network from France. And finally, we changed the trajectory of many people at the time of the sale to Snap in 2017, employees, but also investors. The sale of Zenly benefited funding from other French start-ups.

On the other hand, I am sad that the story ends there, with such success. Zenly was in the best position to deal with the departure of the founders, having grown in 5 years from 150,000 daily active users to 15 million. Even today it is one of the fastest growing social networks in the world.

Furthermore, when the closure was announced, many players in the technological ecosystem, in France but also in Europe and the United States, did not have strong enough words to regret this choice and congratulate the employees. by Zenly. Did these reactions surprise you?

I would be lying if I said yes. Zenly remains one of the most used products by tech people on a daily basis. They don’t want to see this app die. For example, the founders of Stripe have not stopped publicly lamenting the demise of the application. By becoming a subsidiary of an American group, we do not receive the attention or media coverage that we would have if we remained independent.

It was good to hear that publicly. Give credit to the teams. In the short term this announcement is a waste, but in the medium term it frees everyone. Half of French scale-up CEOs ask me who to recruit at Zenly…

Desired, are these future former Zenly employees also potential entrepreneurs?

Yes, it’s obvious. This will create a Zenly mafia. There are already several companies creating cracked subjects on Zenly. Prestigious investment funds closely follow these courses. They don’t want to miss out on a potential nugget.

Yes, but how not to stumble again on the problem of profitability? Eleven years after its creation, Zenly was still not…

No social network has achieved scale by monetizing early. This choice was also often the limit for French start-ups, because there were no investors to finance a growth model long enough. See examples from Deezer, Dailymotion or Viadeo. They probably had equivalent or even better products than Spotify, YouTube or LinkedIn but let them slip by focusing too much on monetization. When a project like Zenly has that impact, that growth, that number of users, there would always be people to fund it until an IPO.

Was that a conceivable prospect, even within Snap, which is listed on the Nasdaq?

Yes, that was one of the possible scenarios. Zenly became the biggest social network ever built in Europe. Zenly already had the critical size to be very profitable very quickly, within a year. We have seen the emergence of players, mainly French, who ask the user to pay for a subscription or obtain add-ons to the application. It is rather this model that Zenly would have followed. The community’s commitment to the product left us in no doubt about its funding.

We could have done a spin-off. Snap could have looked to find liquidity and fund the sequel that way. It would also have the big advantage of allowing teams to receive shares from Zenly instead of Snap, which are very volatile. But to get into the stock market, you need to have substantial cash flow. It is a process that consumes a lot of money. Cash flow forecasts for Snap have changed. Snap understood that they no longer had the financial wherewithal to pursue these goals. There were expressions of interest from dozens of investors, funds and companies. Snap preferred to close to avoid the emergence of a competitor.

For several weeks, you’ve plunged back into the frenzy of starting a start-up. What is this project?

I can’t give details yet. We will announce things in the coming months. What I can say is that we are about fifteen, including ten partners. We want to make the biggest social mobile app that Europe lacks. We don’t have any Meta, Tik Tok or Snapchat, and that’s a story anomaly.

At the time these American giants emerged, there was no finance ecosystem on this side of the Atlantic to compete with them. Now that it exists, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be successful, with French people who are very good at engineering, design and everything that has to do with fashion. These are the three main qualities for building a great social network in Europe.

Will it be an alternative to Twitter, Tik Tok and Meta?

Yes, in part. Let’s say the social app market is very concentrated. Social networks are not evolving in the right direction, in part because their business model is based on the attention economy, a model we want to get out of and make the best possible technology product.

Many social networks have lost their soul. The recent changes at Twitter perfectly demonstrate that the interests of the team and the user are behind the interests of the company. And we saw more or less the same episode at Meta with Cambridge Analytica. We would have reduced the risk of seeing these behaviors emerge if we had one or more key players in Europe.

What can you say to users who have trouble imagining without Zenly?

This is a question I am asked every day. I am sure that projects similar to or inspired by her will emerge, in France or elsewhere. There are already several good examples in Japan. We ask ourselves a lot with seniors about reassembling a Zenly. It’s our baby and millions of people use it every day, but we’re probably a little curious and want to try something else!

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