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Zenly Playbook

Zenly, a popular Gen-Z location-sharing social app, shut down two days ago. So how did this French hidden champion flourish and vanish? And what can we learn from it?


Unparalleled technology. The market has dozens of location-tracking apps that are either battery hoarders or inaccurate at best (not real-time or not precise.) Zenly shows surprising accuracy and battery efficiency from a 3-year research project for a child safety app before founding Zenly. Even from the early days, Zenly hired Ph.D.-level researchers to acquire unparalleled tech talents. Server and Front-end engineers were mainly seniors, forming a small elite team.

Targeting the right group. Zenly targeted Gen-Z's, finding that when a quarter of a school uses Zenly, it takes less than a week to saturate the entire school. Zenly focused on sub-group-led growths; for example, Japanese students studying abroad at Taiwanese University eventually spread Zenly to the whole island. One interesting note was that teenagers surprisingly did not care about privacy; the CEO regretted that privacy concerns in the early days were a waste of time—the market always outmove makers.

Branding. Location tracking is creepy, so they aimed the Best Friend Forever or In Real Life Friend vibe: pop interface, Gen-Z copywriting, cute colors, and smiley emoji everywhere. When asking for the actual location, it emphasized spending good times with your friends rather than the location tracking itself.

** Acquiring talents**. Zenly had not only exceptional engineers but also outstanding designers and operators. 10x people don't join a startup upfront, so Zenly made them involved in the company by hiring them as a freelancer and then onboarded them to the team.

Zenly, now part of history

From the Stay Home challenge in 2020 to a mass-scale 3D map update in 2022, Zenly prepared for its upcoming future. However, the recent layoff at Snap wiped out the Zenly team alongside the Snap Mini App team. I do think this is Snap's mistake. Even my university peers do not use Snap anymore but still use Zenly. It almost feels like Facebook is killing Instagram for Facebook. I hope Zenly's revolutionary DNA gets well-integrated into Snap, seeking revival.

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