Antoine Martin (former Zenli): “We want to create a European alternative to Twitter, Meta and TikTok”
Posted on December 6, 2022 at 2:50 pmUpdated December 6, 2022 at 2:57 p.m
At the beginning of September 2022, we learned in Les Echos that the geolocation app Zenly, created by two French friends, will be shut down after the decision of its parent company Snap. We now have an end date: February 3, 2023 Twitter account service.
After being acquired by Snap in 2017 for roughly $300 million, Zenly has retained the form of autonomy and flexibility startups hold dear. Hailed for their talents by many tech observers from Paris, just 70 people ran one of the 10 most downloaded social apps in the world in March, according to data.ai. From Japan to Eastern Europe, they still earn 40 million every month by opening Zenly to see where their loved ones are and chat with them. Popular with early teens, Zenly has earned old-school and technophile profiles over the years, admired for its design, ease of use and customization features, halfway between a mapping app, messaging and social network.
After 5 years of testing under American supervision and a deep redesign of the app he tested, Antoine Martin stepped down as CEO in April 2022. After a few months of hiatus, he found entrepreneurial freedom. And speaking. Within an hour, in an apartment converted into offices in Paris, the 36-year-old entrepreneur agreed to return to the end of Zenly and discuss his new project.
What was your reaction when you found out that Zenly was shutting down a few months after your departure?
I didn’t expect it, and neither did the staff. At first I was proud. The app has saved lives with location sharing. The most famous story is about the kidnapping of a female taxi driver in Japan, which was found thanks to Zenly.
I am also very proud of the impact we have had on our teams. We proved that it is possible to create an international social network from France. And finally, when we sold to Snap in 2017, we changed the trajectory of a lot of people, employees as well as investors. The sale of Zenly benefited the funding of other French startups.
On the other hand, I am sad that the story ended there, with such a success. Zenly grew from 150,000 daily active users to 15 million in 5 years and was in the best position to handle the departure of the founders. Today, it is one of the fastest growing social networks in the world.
Moreover, when the closure was announced, many players in the tech ecosystem in France, but also in Europe and the United States, did not have strong words to regret this choice and congratulate the workers. Were you surprised by these reactions?
If I answer yes, it would be a lie. Zenly remains one of the most used products by tech people on a daily basis. They don’t want to see this program die. Stripe’s founders, for example, can’t stop publicly lamenting the end of the program. Being a subsidiary of an American group, we didn’t get the attention or media coverage we would have gotten by remaining independent.
It was nice to hear that publicly. It gives credit to the teams. While this announcement may be wasteful in the short term, it frees everyone up in the medium term. Half of the CEOs of French scale companies ask me who to hire at Zenly…
Either way, are these future ex-Zenly employees also potential entrepreneurs?
Yes, it is clear. This will create a Zenly Mafia. Zenly already has several companies created on cracked themes. Reputable investment funds closely monitor these rates. 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 inception, Zenly was still gone…
No social network has scaled by monetizing early. Often, this option was also the limit of French startups, because there were no investors to finance the growth model for a long enough time. Take the examples of Deezer, Dailymotion or Viadeo. They probably had equivalent or better products than Spotify, YouTube or LinkedIn, but were too focused on monetization to let them slip away. When a project like Zenly has this impact, this growth, this number of users, there will always be people to fund it until the IPO.
Was that even a conceivable prospect within Nasdaq-listed Snap?
Yes, that was one possible scenario. Zenly has become the largest social network ever built in Europe. Zenly already had the critical scale to turn a profit very quickly within a year. We have seen the emergence of players, especially the French, asking the user to pay a subscription fee or get add-ons to the app. Rather, Zenly would follow this model. The community’s commitment to the product left us in no doubt about its funding.
We could do a spin-off. That way, Snap could try to find liquidity and fund a sequel. It would also have the huge advantage of allowing teams to buy shares of Zenly instead of Snap, which is highly volatile. But to enter the stock market, you need to have significant cash flow. This is a costly process. Cash flow projections for Snap have changed. Snap realized that they no longer had the financial capacity to meet these goals. Dozens of investors, funds and companies expressed interest. Snap opted to close to prevent a competitor from emerging.
It’s been a few weeks since you’ve been plunged back into the frenzy of a startup. What is this project?
I can’t give details yet. We’ll be revealing all over the next few months. I can say that there are fifteen of us, including ten partners. We want to make the main social mobile application that is missing in Europe. We don’t have Meta, Tik Tok, or Snapchat, and that’s an anomaly of history.
When these American giants emerged, there was no financial ecosystem to compete with them on this side of the Atlantic. Now that it’s available, there’s no longer any reason not to succeed with the French, who know all things engineering, design and fashion very well. These are the three main qualities to build a great social network in Europe.
Will Twitter be an alternative to Tik Tok and Meta?
Yes, partially. Let’s say that the market of social programs is very concentrated. Social networks are not growing in the right direction because their business model is based on the attention economy, which we want to break out of and make the best tech product possible.
Many social networks have lost their soul. Recent changes at Twitter perfectly demonstrate that the interests of the team and the user come after the interests of the company. We saw almost the same episode with Cambridge Analytica at Meta. If we had one or more major players in Europe, we would reduce the risk of these behaviors emerging.
What can you say to users who find it hard to imagine without Zenly?
This is a question I get asked every day. I am sure that similar projects or projects inspired by it will emerge in France or elsewhere. There are already some good examples in Japan. We asked ourselves a lot of questions with the old people about Zenly repacking. It’s our baby and millions of people use it every day, but we’re probably a little too curious and want a taste of something else!