⚠️ Time to BeWorried ⚠️

Viral photo app BeReal has a unique feature, but not a unique network.

Sponsored By: Streak

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If you see a social app that’s growing quickly, there is only one question that matters: “Can Meta copy this?” 

In the old days they could at least acquire you, so you’d get something out of the deal. But times have changed. Lately the FTC has been guarding Meta more aggressively than Dennis Rodman guarded Karl Malone in the late 1990s! Nobody is getting acquired anytime soon, it seems.

So all that’s left to do is A) ignore, or B) copy. And there are very few companies that are less interested in ignoring emerging competitors than Meta. 

Snapchat and TikTok both have faced this challenge, and sustained varying degrees of damage. But these battles are actively playing out, and, especially in TikTok’s case, the future is still up for grabs. 

Meanwhile, a new contender has emerged from the unlikeliest of places (France). BeReal was founded in 2020 by a former GoPro engineer, and the app slowly and steadily marinated until breaking out in summer 2021, vaulting from negligible DAU to 300k+ DAU, and raising $30m from Andrew Chen at Andreessen Horowitz—the same guy who led the big Clubhouse and Substack rounds.

Since last summer, BeReal has just kept growing. Their last reported DAU count was nearly 8 million, and they raised a series B from Yuri Milner at DST valuing the business at $600m. (Readers with a sense of history may remember when Yuri Milner led a giant round in Facebook back in 2009.) 

What is driving BeReal’s growth? A simple but brilliantly executed product mechanic that, unlike most social apps, solves an actual problem people have. 

Here’s how it works:

Every day at a random time, you get a notification informing you that you have a 2-minute window to post a photo. You tap the notification, open the app, and it takes a photo using both your front and back facing camera, so your friends can see you and what you’re looking at. Everybody gets the notification at the same time, so you can stick around in the app and immediately see what all your friends are doing right now, and you can “comment and react with RealMojis” (basically you can send a quick small selfie as a reaction).

So, what problem does all this solve?

There’s the narrative of the problem, and then there’s reality. The two overlap but it’s important to tease them apart.

The narrative that BeReal and its users would like you to believe is that the app solves the problem of inauthenticity on social media. People are tired of having to put effort into looking perfect on Instagram. By only being allowed to post at a random time, people just candidly share what they’re doing, and this takes the pressure off and allows friends to BeReal™ with each other.

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This is partially true, but there’s a lot more going on. BeReal’s core product mechanics are all fairly genius ways to solve growth and retention problems that all social apps face. If it was just about the authenticity, perhaps one of BeReal’s predecessors (like Disco, Poparazzi, Beme, FrontBack, etc) would have broken out. But they all stopped growing because they didn’t solve the real problems people face when using new social apps.

And in fact I would go further and submit that BeReal doesn’t even do the core thing their public narrative says they do: “take the pressure off.” You’re posting photos of yourself on the internet! There is always pressure. The thing it actually does is change the rules of the game in a way that changes the nature of the pressure and makes it more interesting. The old game was “take the best photo you can.” The new game is “take the best photo you can in two minutes.” Constraints breed creativity, this is well known. New constraints breed new types of creativity. If I didn’t have to meet a weekly deadline each week I would hardly ever post. (This was me in 2021.)

But beyond changing the nature of the pressure in a way that makes the game more interesting, there are a few other smart solutions embedded in BeReal’s product mechanics:

Scheduling — it’s compelling to have a bunch of people in the same place at the same time. A lot of new content pops up at once, and you never know who will show up or what they will be doing. And when everyone is active at the same time, conversations can happen in the comments. No app can get everyone to use them all the time, so by limiting people to a specific time slot each day, you can increase the liquidity of social interactions (likelihood of supply and demand meeting up) quite dramatically.

Notifications — a huge challenge for any social app is getting people to remember to come back. By building the entire product around a scheduled experience, they create a huge incentive for people to opt-in to push notifications. It’s actually more than an incentive, it’s a requirement: you literally can’t use the product without it. But they have a reason that makes you not resent it and makes you feel like it was an opt-in choice. I’m sure this is fantastic for their retention curve.

Deletion — if you want to delete your BeReal post, they make a huge stink about it. It’s like trying to cancel your Comcast service or something. Not only does it take several taps and warnings, but if you do go through with it, they won’t let you delete your post the next day! Hilarious. The idea is to force you to just commit and not worry so much, I guess? I think BeReal understands that people are neurotic about their photos and require a bit of coaching to not just delete things all the time. This of course increases their supply, reinforces their narrative, and helps users feel that magic feeling of validation from friends on a photo they didn’t even think was that good.

Memories — BeReal has an interesting way of showing history. It almost seems like a habit tracking app, where you either have a “complete” or “incomplete” status for each day. But besides the feeling of “keeping the streak alive” it also provides single-player utility so you might want to keep posting even if few (or none) of your friends are. It functions like a journaling app. This is a classic product wedge—come for the tool, stay for the network. It’s also a failsafe in case your BeReal network starts to weaken. Come for the network, stay for the tool?

So these are BeReal’s most strategically important product mechanics. They’re clearly working. A high percentage of people who try the app stick around and keep posting, and tell their friends about it. Each improvement multiplies upon previous improvements, creating an exponentially better end result

This compounding loop that is built on smart product design has propelled BeReal past 8m DAU. But will it be enough to overcome Meta’s competitive advantages? 

I think not.

My general framework for answering these types of questions is to try to see the difference between content formats and network structures. Content formats (like Stories) are easy for large networks like Instagram to copy if they align with their network structure and purpose. But novel network structures (like the TikTok “for you” page) are much harder to copy.

BeReal has invented a unique and valuable content format—but the network structure is pretty much the exact same as Instagram for most people. It uses your phone’s address book to find people who you might know, which is commoditized and already exists on Instagram and every other app. And the purpose for using the network (sharing candid photos from your life) is already well-served by Instagram Stories. So I think when we hear news that Instagram is testing a version of BeReal in their app, my first reaction is that it makes total sense and will probably work pretty well.

The big question is how much of BeReal does Instagram need to copy in order to achieve their goal. We’ve already seen Meta is incapable of launching new apps, so they need to somehow make BeReal’s features exist within Instagram and maybe also Facebook and WhatsApp. At some point won’t it get too crowded? Won’t it continue to degrade the core Instagram experience? I don’t think so. I think a minimum version of BeReal will be enough to do pretty serious damage. All it really is is a push notification and a special type of story. They can easily make it take up one place in the row of circles where Stories live. All the rest of BeReal’s features are just icing, not cake.

And here’s the most important thing to understand: Instagram is not going to take many people who already love BeReal and get them to switch to using their take on the “daily photo challenge.” That’s not their goal. Just as Snapchat’s core constituency remains loyal and so does TikTok’s, I think BeReal is probably already reaching a scale where they will have people who love it and won’t leave. 

But that’s only 10-20 million people. That’s nothing to Instagram. The real goal is simply to prevent hundreds of millions of people from leaving Instagram to join BeReal, the same way droves of users left it to join Snapchat and TikTok. To accomplish this they don’t need a perfect clone, it just needs to be pretty good. 

If this happens, it’s quite bad news for BeReal. Their most recent round of funding was based on the assumption that growth would accelerate. If growth stalls they will be stuck in no-man's land where they have a cap table that is completely disconnected from the actual size of the economic opportunity in front of them. 

Perhaps their best outcome is to sell to Snap, if the FTC will allow it. (More likely than Meta, but still probably pretty unlikely.) Or maybe some seemingly unrelated tech company will buy it like Microsoft or Amazon, who for some reason have so far been able to acquire pretty much anyone they want without setting off alarm bells. 

But as a standalone business I have an incredibly hard time seeing BeReal turn into something real. Not only do they have to continue attracting new users exponentially, then they have to build an ad business, which as my colleague Evan has written about over at Napkin Math, is much harder than it seems.

That being said, I am rooting for BeReal to prove me wrong. The world is a better place when random French companies can survive and thrive even in bloody-competitive markets like social media. I hope I’m missing something, and they can make it. 

But honestly, I’m worried. (Sorry! Just being real!)

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