Photo-sharing app BeReal is exploring the addition of in-app payments for extra features to avoid Instagram-style advertising, as the French start-up grapples with technical glitches caused by this summer’s massive surge in its popularity among Gen Z users.
BeReal has become wildly popular with teenagers and college students in the US as well as in Europe, with its emphasis on capturing an authentic moment at a specific time without editing or filters that are commonplace on rivals Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.
The app has grown from 10,000 daily active users just over a year ago to more than 15mn today, surpassing internal targets. Insiders expect it to reach tens of millions of people by the end of the year.
“Tons of apps can find users, but few can keep them. It [is] fascinating how well they [can] retain users . . . world-class,” said Jean de La Rochebrochard, a BeReal board member and partner at Kima Ventures and New Wave, investment firms co-founded by French billionaire Xavier Niel.
The company raised $30mn in a series A funding in June, led by Andreessen Horowitz and Accel. Its valuation was not disclosed but several sources told the Financial Times it was around $600mn.
The free app’s rapid rise to prominence has already drawn copycat features from TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, bringing forward discussions of BeReal’s long-term business model.
BeReal and its executives declined to comment for this story, which is based on interviews with multiple people close to the company.
The app’s executives are said to be keen to avoid the pitfalls of larger US rivals such as Facebook and Snapchat, keeping a small team focused on improving the product, rather than raising vast sums from venture capitalists to pursue global expansion.
However, investors are urging BeReal to introduce new features that can help it avoid becoming a “one-hit wonder” like other faddish social apps, such as Houseparty or Clubhouse. Those discussions have also included early consideration of how best to monetise the platform without ruining the experience for users.
BeReal’s core product will remain free to access but it is weighing optional paid-for extras. The approach is likely to resemble Discord, the social platform used by gamers and crypto enthusiasts, which charges a monthly subscription from $2.99 for bonus content such as digital stickers.
No paid features are likely to launch before the second half of next year, these people said. Though some at BeReal see ads as intrusive, advertising has not entirely been ruled out.
But breakneck growth has made monetisation a lower priority for BeReal than bolstering its technical infrastructure. Its capital reserves and small team mean there is no immediate need to start generating revenue.
The company, founded in 2020 by 26-year-old Alexis Barreyat, has around 40 staff working at its headquarters in the fashionable Paris district of Marais.
As a former camera editor for influencers, Barreyat saw first-hand that curated social media content could harm young people’s mental health. The launch of his app coincided with growing awareness of the matter among a new generation of users.
The app sends a notification to every user at a given time of the day, with a two-minute window to take a snapshot using both the front and back cameras on the phone.
But the very design that made BeReal a hit has led to widespread glitches, temporarily preventing people from uploading photos or seeing friends’ posts. Because millions of users try to access the platform at the same time, the so-called data throughput or concurrency at that moment is comparable to some of the world’s largest internet platforms.
Barreyat, who does not have a high school diploma, attended Niel’s coding school, 42, in France. His first pitch to Niel’s headhunter La Rochebrochard, in March 2020 when BeReal had just 500 users, was unsuccessful.
But a year later, after Niel’s son said he loved the app, La Rochebrochard called Barreyat back. BeReal’s user base had by then grown to 30,000. After two days of due diligence, Niel’s team invested $1.2mn to acquire a 10 per cent stake in the company.
Despite its aversion to in-app advertising, in-person marketing campaigns on US college campuses have been key to BeReal’s success.
Its campus ambassador programme pays some students around $250 per month, plus about $7 commission for each new user acquired. BeReal merchandise is given away at fraternity and sorority parties or other events. The strategy is working: the US now accounts for 40 per cent of BeReal’s downloads, according to data from analysts Sensor Tower, making it the app’s largest market.
“I like BeReal because it is so transparent,” said Sharon Choi, a 21-year-old ambassador at Stony Brook University in New York. “On Instagram and TikTok everything is filtered, on BeReal I don’t need to photoshop myself.”
However, some critics fear BeReal lacks the resources to control harmful content, a problem that has long plagued social networks.
BeReal does not have its own large-scale content moderation team, instead relying on automated filtering.
Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who blew the whistle on the tech giant, accusing Meta of prioritising profit over safety, said BeReal’s design could make it difficult to introduce misinformation.
However, ephemeral photo sharing can lead to sharing of other kinds of harmful or offensive material.
“Unlike TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram, BeReal does not emphasise going viral or building large reach — meaning there is less ability for the small number of bad apples to have much impact — disincentivising bad behaviour,” Haugen said. “At the same time, it’s never OK to tack on safety systems at the end — I hope they have an intentional integrity plan they’re weaving into the development of their platform.”