Every time Alexis Barreyat scrolled through his Instagram feed, the flood of influencers posting pictures of their impossibly perfect lives made him feel even worse about his personal struggles.
So three years ago, he launched BeReal, an anti-influencer photo-sharing app to connect with friends by getting a more realistic glimpse of their lives. BeReal subsequently struck a nerve with younger users thirsty for authenticity, and became the breakout social media star of 2022 with 93.5m global downloads, according to Apptopia.
That success — particularly in the US — attracted marquee investors like Andreessen Horowitz and Accel, as well as greater scrutiny. With downloads falling at the end of 2022 and user churn remaining high, one market research firm warned that its appeal is “waning”. Others have questioned its ability to keep users engaged, monetise a platform that rejects classic social networking mechanics and beat back competition from copycats.
“BeReal needs to step up and demonstrate that it's iterating on its initial success and that it has a plan for generating revenue,” says Debra Williamson, principal analyst for Insider Intelligence. “It needs to keep moving forward with new features, and ways for marketers to use BeReal to reach the all-important Gen Z demographic group.”
BeReal has reacted to this spotlight by ignoring it. The Paris-based company does little online promotion, doesn’t give interviews and has asked investors to avoid talking to the press.
But in an October 2021 interview with Sifted, before usage exploded, Barreyat said the growth metrics offered strong evidence that BeReal had tapped into a desire to rethink online social experiences.
“When I was pitching this idea, I just knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “And I just did it for me, but eventually understood that this product was appealing to more people than I had hoped.”
BeReal declined to offer additional comments for this story. But in an email, a spokesperson emphasised that BeReal has never confirmed any fundraising reports and that all metrics provided by third parties are estimates not validated by the company.
BeReal takes centre stage
BeReal offers users a simple, throwback social media experience. Each day at a different time, users receive a BeReal notification — ⚠️ Time to BeReal. ⚠️. They have two minutes to snap a photo that includes a selfie and a rear-facing photo that are melded together in a single post.
Users must post to see their friend’s photos, a dynamic that Barreyat said is key to engagement. There is an option to share a photo later, but these are labelled “late”; a kind of scarlet letter of social media shame.
When Barreyat gave his Sifted interview, BeReal was off to a heady start. From 233 downloads in January 2020, it had grown to 209k monthly downloads in September 2021, placing it among a notable herd of French social media apps making international waves.
This turned out to be a mere prelude. By Q4 2022, worldwide downloads of the app had climbed to more than 934k, according to Apptopia. That jumped to 4.4m in Q1 2022, 17.7m in Q2 and 39.8m in Q3.
BeReal “combines nostalgia for social apps that came before with an anxiety about the world those apps created,” wrote influential tech journalist Casey Newton in his Platformer newsletter last July, part of a surge of media attention the app has received in the US.
BeReal was consistently topping Apple and Google App Charts. It was selected as the 2022 Users Choice on Android. In November 2022, Apple named it its App Of The Year:
In perhaps what is the ultimate recognition that BeReal had fully entered mainstream American culture, it was the subject of a skit last October on Saturday Night Live, involving people wanting to post during a bank robbery:
But the easy growth phase may have ended. In Q4 2022 BeReal’s worldwide app downloads fell from the previous quarter for the first time since Q3 2021, to 31.5m, according to Apptopia.
Other red flags: Sensor Tower noted in a recent report that worldwide monthly average users (MAU) growth increased just 3% in December 2022, a “significant slowdown” from the 75% month-over-month increase in April 2022. In addition, BeReal saw churn rates as high as 20.7% in 2022, while churn at rivals like Instagram, Facebook, Snap and TikTok was typically below 10%. And only 9% of BeReal users open the app every day — far below the rates for those big rivals, which range from 28-43%.
BeReal’s surging popularity in mid-2022 and ability to drive new installs appears to be waning
“BeReal’s surging popularity in mid-2022 and ability to drive new installs appears to be waning,” Sensor Tower analysts wrote, “suggesting that consumers have really pulled back on their usage of the app, which is concerning for all apps, but particularly for a social media app.”
These compound the challenges BeReal already faces, such as complaints that the platform is prone to glitches, and doesn’t get in touch with users and potential partners to discuss planned features or bug fixes. Insider Intelligence’s Williamson says the lack of support for marketers — such as hands-on support or feedback on campaigns — is limiting experiments.
“Not only does BeReal need to start expanding its features for users, it also needs to launch a monetisation model,” Williamson says. “I think an advertising-based business model is inevitable for BeReal.”
Social media fakery
Barreyat’s developer career got its start when he was selected in 2013 to attend 42, the coding school created by French billionaire and entrepreneur Xavier Niel.
After finishing in 2016, Barreyat took a job with GoPro in the company’s Munich-based media production division, where his job involved traveling and filming “crazy videos, people jumping off cliffs on skis and motorbikes… a lot of crazy events,” he said, in his October 2021 interview with Sifted.
But behind the scenes, Barreyat told Sifted that he saw people “struggling a lot” with social media depression and anxiety, feelings made worse every time they went on Instagram or some other platform.
“In reality, my life wasn’t as perfect as what they were always showcasing,” he said. “That's when I realised I wanted to build my own platform.”
Barreyat returned to Paris and began working on the first version of BeReal. At some point in 2019 Kévin Perreau, who had also attended 42 from 2014 to 2017, joined Barreyat to help build BeReal.
As the company got started, Barreyat and Perreau joined Hook, a three-month incubator programme for alumni of 42. In early 2020, BeReal was officially released.
No like, no followers, no ads, no filters, just what my friends are doing, in the most authentic way possible
“Stoked to finally launch BeReal, the First Uncontrollable Photo Sharing App,” Barreyat wrote in a LinkedIn post. “After being tired and annoyed with all the bullshit on social media, I decided to launch my own. No like, No followers, No ads, No filters, just what my Friends are doing, in the most authentic way possible.”
In building the company, Barreyat studied some of the other French social media successes such as Zenly and Yubo. He understood any new social media app faced high hurdles in finding users in a market dominated by giants like Facebook and its Instagram app. Barreyat heard from plenty of doubters who advised him to focus on a B2B or SaaS startup, an area where money would be much easier to raise.
The app debuted just before the pandemic sent France into national lockdown. Perreau noted in a post that the first lockdown and then a second one in October 2020 put the brakes on BeReal’s initial growth.
Still, growth came slow and steady until Q4 2020, when downloads more than tripled from the previous quarter to 25.4k. In early 2021, Barreyat celebrated that BeReal was ranking high in French app charts.
“Crazy to find BeReal in the top 10 french social charts without spending a single $ in marketing & acquisition, making our user base 100% organic,” he wrote on LinkedIn.
They understand that we are building something special when they look at our numbers
That momentum caught the attention of some big names in venture capital. By summer 2021, BeReal closed a $30m round that included money from Andreessen Horowitz, Accel and DST.
Other early investors include Paris angel investor Sylvain Zimmer (April 2019), Sweet Angel partner Pippa Lamb, who invested personally as an angel (July 2021), Upfront Ventures partner Seksom Suriyapa (2021) and Alven partner François Meteyer (May 2021).
At the time of the October 2021 interview, BeReal had not publicly confirmed any funding. But Barreyat did say that BeReal’s basic mechanic that required people to post a photo to be able to see their friends’ photos was driving engagement and creating a virtuous cycle as people talked it up to their circles — and VCs liked that.
“They understand that we are building something special when they look at our numbers,” he said.
Something special enough, they thought, to take on the promised land of social media: the US.
BeReal's American ambitions
While the engineering team remained in Paris, the focus on growth shifted to the US by late 2021. BeReal created an ambassador programme that recruited students at universities to pitch the app to their friends.
“We're trying to go into the US and kind of replicate the same growth,” Barreyat said. “Only we're trying to make it happen faster. And so we are chasing ambassador programmes with sponsoring outlets and universities, and we are trying to penetrate universities and many campuses in the US and build a lot of initiatives to understand what works for us and what doesn't.”
By the summer of 2022, BeReal had ambassadors at dozens of universities, including Brown University, the University of Connecticut, the University of Miami, the University of Southern California and Southern Methodist University. The Rice University student newspaper said BeReal had become a hot item on campus thanks to a team of ambassadors.
“Sophomore Elias Hansen said that he started using BeReal in August last year and was one of the first students to promote BeReal at Rice,” the story said. “Last month, he became one of seven campus BeReal ambassadors, who facilitate events and perks like free boba [tea] to recruit new users.”
Analysts also noted that BeReal seemed to benefit from the growing disenchantment with incumbent apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Various feature changes and policy decisions had led to slower or declining growth at many of these giants, which were scrambling to keep up with the insurgent TikTok.
As everything fell into place, downloads exploded from 4.4m in Q1 2022 to 39.8m in Q3 2022.
After years of domination by Facebook and Instagram, investors apparently felt there was an opening for new social apps. In the spring of 2022, DST Global led a Series B investment of about $60m, according to TechCrunch. The round valued BeReal at $600m, according to The Information. BeReal has not confirmed this investment.
A rocky road
That growth seemed to take its toll on BeReal’s stability, a fate not uncommon among young apps that experience lightning-fast growth. Work is being done on the backend — but Insider Intelligence found that there continues to be frustration with BeReal’s bugs among users: “One of BeReal’s bigger problems is its functionality. Users complain about the app’s frequent crashes and glitches.” Its report also cited a major outage in September and a lack of communication with users around the issue.
Such strains are not surprising considering the app asks all of its users to engage during the same brief window, creating a rapid surge. Still, Ben Ratner, a US TV writer, complained on Twitter about the app consistently being too slow to open, too slow to post and the camera not functioning properly.
“It doesn’t help that the app itself runs off coding better suited for potato salad,” he tweeted.
Others aren’t too charmed by BeReal’s aesthetic. “BeReal is the first social network where every single post is bad,” Casey Newton wrote in a July 2021 tweet. “Every day, the same haggard faces in the same three rooms of their houses. Anti-aspiration for people trying to remember what Instagram felt like in 2010.”
Meanwhile, brands are testing the BeReal platform — American Eagle Outfitters, e.l.f. Cosmetics, Chipotle and PacSun have tried sending daily BeReal posts — but at the moment the app does not offer any revenue-generating features or support for marketers.
Insider Intelligence’s Williamson says BeReal could offer paid or subscription features, like Twitter Blue — although that could be a hard sell to its Gen Z user base, who likely won’t have as much money for premium features. Another option: BeReal could find a type of advertising adapted to its platform, such as ads that appear after a user posts but before they can see friends’ posts.
Whatever route it goes down, it needs to do so soon, says Williamson.
“BeReal has been surprisingly quiet while its user base grows. Typically the founders of up-and-coming apps will be a lot more public than the founders of BeReal have been. I think they're going to need to get more visible and do it soon.”
Rather than offer additional comments for this story, BeReal sent a BeReal “Fact Sheet” and referred to the press statement on the website.
“We’re grateful for the response to BeReal, which is keeping us very busy,” said the statement posted on its site. “We want for ourselves what we want for our users — not to chase fame or the spotlight or to be tethered to metrics like the number of followers or number of downloads. We don't share our numbers, even though we see lots of rumoured estimates online. In the spirit of authenticity and veracity, we’ll say to take these figures for what they are… estimates :).”