Zenly has always felt like the little social app that could become the next big thing. But it turns out that Zenly is quietly becoming a social giant without anyone paying much attention to it – at least until now.
Originally designed in Paris, the app was acquired by Snap in 2017. But that acquisition was just the start of Zenly’s crazy growth story. According to internal company data, the app has now reached 35 million monthly active users.
And today, the Zenly team releases its biggest redesign ever. While the update is rolling out to the App Store and Play Store, Zenly co-founder and CEO Antoine Martin is taking advantage of this milestone to leave the company in just a few weeks.
Before unpacking all of this, let’s go back to Zenly’s original vision. I first covered Zenly in 2016. When you opened the app, you were presented with a map showing your location and that of your friends.
“This is not another messaging app. This is not a social network. This is not a utility. This is something that sits between all of those areas. And I keep opening the app,” I wrote at the time.
This vision has not changed much. Zenly still wants to create the definitive social maps app. It’s an unconventional bet that took years to prepare. And the brand new Zenly could bring a new wave of users.
people and places
When you look at the metrics, Zenly is doing better than ever. In March 2022, according to data.ai (formerly App Annie), Zenly was the tenth most downloaded social app in the world. There are still nine applications ahead of Zenly. But popular social apps like Discord and Twitter aren’t growing as fast as Zenly.
There’s a reason why Zenly is doing so well right now. “When the confinement rules are lifted, when people go out again, they need Zenly,” Antoine Martin told me.
“It’s still a very personal, very contextual and very social product.” Anthony Martin
But the company does not want to stand still. I have been using the updated app for a week. The redesign is confusing at first but provides a promising foundation for the future. It doesn’t look like Zenly, because the design language is completely different. There are a few new features, while some existing features have been refined.
The old Zenly featured lots of rainbow colors, animated emojis, and playful design elements. It was both fancy and fun, but also felt like looking at the candy aisle in the supermarket.
Here’s what Zenly looked like when Snap acquired it in 2017:
When you open the revamped Zenly app, it looks much more serious. Profile screens and conversations now have a black background. The main buttons at the bottom of the screen look like neon signs in a trendy restaurant.
With this new look and feel, Zenly wants to appeal to a wider user base. “What attracts students from all over the world today?” Antoine Martin summarized.
Instead of bold, rounded fonts, Zenly now relies on thin, sleek fonts. You’ll also instantly notice the permanent overlay on the map in various shades of yellow and orange. Like in strategy video games, it displays your footprints — it shows where you’ve been and where you haven’t been yet.
Here it is again:
“Since the end of last year, we have been working on a comprehensive redesign of the entire application. It’s the biggest overhaul we’ve ever done with multiple goals in mind. First, we’re turning Zenly into a map app,” Martin said.
There are now three buttons at the bottom of the screen. The messaging function is in the foreground. When tapped, the list of recent conversations slides out from the bottom of the screen.
In the lower right corner, the button allows you to either recenter the map or view recent highlights. This way you can see where you’ve been for the past few days, share a highlight with friends, and more.
“It’s still a very personal, very contextual and very social product,” Martin said.
And finally, in the lower left corner, there is a magnifying glass icon. This button alone hides a lot of potential.
“The big addition is the seats. We believe we can build something better than anyone,” Martin said. “Zenly has this unique ability to run constantly in the background. We take the friction out of records.
“Locations and movements are the best ways to make a map more personal,” he added.
On the search screen, you can search for a friend to see what they are up to. When you tap on a profile, you see where they are, how long they’ve been here, and who they’re with. You can also view recent highlights, start a conversation, and tap the “What’s Up” button.
This feature has been around for a while and has become quite popular. He sends a request to a friend, asking him to record and share what is happening right now.
From the search screen, you can now also search for places, such as bars and restaurants. The search experience itself is quite good as the list refreshes in a split second with each new keystroke.
Each place card contains basic information, such as address and telephone number. But Zenly also adds contextual information to give you clues about that specific location. For example, you can see if it’s a convenient location for a large team, if best friends tend to hang out there, or if there are a lot of loyal visitors.
unlock my world
With today’s update, Zenly wants to passively build a graph of places. Users shouldn’t have to open the app and check in when they go to their favorite bar. Instead, the company wants to learn from your habits and highlight that information for you and your friends.
On each profile page, there is a new section called “My World”. You can tap on it to see someone’s best city and place. You can also see some recent places to get a better idea of their lifestyle.
But you can also use this feature to browse the map and watch places. It’s a great way to discover new places or revisit old favourites.
“My World” is locked by default due to privacy concerns. After installing the update, users can choose to enable the feature in profile, which means you will share certain information publicly. For example, each place has a ranking with the people who go there often.
Interestingly, Zenly is creating a global rollout event around this feature. When you choose to participate in “My World”, your map is not instantly unlocked, as Zenly wants to pre-populate the map with some of your favorite places.
Instead, people who activate the feature today will receive a countdown. Three days later, you can roam your world and let other people roam your world. The feature is a bit frustrating right now as there aren’t many users on the beta. I can’t wait to see the data from millions of enterprise users.
When I installed the beta version of Zenly on my phone, I had to type “100 million” to unlock it. At Zenly, everything makes sense. And that figure is the company’s milestone for monthly active users.
Zenly was a radically different app when Snap acquired it. The company had only 120,000 daily active users. “Zenly is now Europe’s largest social app of all time,” Martin said.
“We joined Snap five years ago and started working on Zenly 11 years ago.” Anthony Martin
And yet, if you live in the United States, chances are you haven’t necessarily heard of Zenly. “Today in the United States we’re really small but we’ve never tried to grow there since we joined Snap,” Martin said.
The app is especially popular in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. There are also many people registering in Brazil and India. It is clear that there is still a lot of untapped potential. But it will not be the work of Antoine Martin.
“We joined Snap five years ago and started working on Zenly 11 years ago. I want to move on. And I haven’t had the opportunity to take a long paternity leave,” Martin said.
He hasn’t told me what he plans to do next. First, he will take a few months of vacation. He can start a new business after that.
Going forward, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel takes over as CEO of Zenly (in addition to the rest of Snap). This could hint at synergies between the Zenly and Snap teams as the Zenly team has remained independent since the acquisition.
“I would like to thank Antoine for his leadership of Zenly over the years, and for his friendship. I remain inspired by his vision and wish him the best for the future,” Spiegel said in a statement. “We will continue to support Zenly and ensure its success, and I am confident that we will make Antoine proud of our stewardship of the product and of Zenly’s vision.”
When I met Antoine Martin, he kept saying that Zenly had come full circle — “The circle is completeas he would say in French. I asked him why he kept using that phrase.
“We came full circle because we achieved the original vision,” he said.