There are a number of ephemeral messaging apps out there (some might say too many), all of which are trying to give their users the ability to send self-destructing text messages or photos or videos, or some combination of the three. But those apps aren’t always intuitive, and that sometimes leads them to be used in ways that weren’t intended.
In a world where ephemeral messaging apps run wild, wouldn’t it be nice to have one that was fun and easy, but would still allow you to communicate with groups and share photos, videos and text messages all in one place?
That’s what Leo hopes to be.
The idea behind Leo, which is available for both iOS and Android, is to provide an ultra-lightweight platform for one-on-one and group conversations. The fact that its messages disappear will cause some to draw comparisons between it and all the other ephemeral messaging apps out there, but that kind of misses the point.
Yes, its messages self-destruct after a few seconds, but the rationale behind doing so isn’t necessarily about privacy. For Leo co-founder Carlos Whitt, the ephemeral nature of the app is more about getting rid of the “cognitive load” that comes with photos or videos being saved or shared in public.
People act and share differently when they know that a photo or video will live forever, the thinking goes. One need only look at Instagram and the all-too-perfectly filtered photos that appear there to know what Whitt is talking about. The impetus behind Leo, then, is to be able to share what you’re doing without having to worry too much about what happens to it.
In this new world, though, photos, text, and video are all disposable. And that will (hopefully) make users want to share more.
Making sharing lightweight isn’t just about having messages that float off into the ether after a few seconds. It’s also about getting the message out in the smallest number of clicks possible, and being able to quickly skim through a conversation as it’s happening.
That’s where Leo really excels.
Once you’ve started a conversation or been added to one, you follow what everyone in a group says through a linear conversation “stack,” with each photo or text message disappearing after five seconds. (Videos can be up to 10 seconds long.) Or if you’re impatient, you can skip to the next message by swiping the current one away.
To post your own message, it takes just a few clicks to contribute to it. At the bottom of the screen there’s one button for video, one for photos and one for text. Just select your media, shoot your moment, add (optional) text, and send to the group. It’s that simple.
“We wanted to make the easiest way to share things going on in your life, with the least amount of clicks to get there,” Whitt told me.
A Man Walks Into A Bar
One of the other nice features of Leo is the ability to share to a group and participate in a many-to-many, ephemeral conversation. While Snapchat Stories lets you broadcast to your follower list, you get no real direct feedback from that communication. And while people can comment or respond to an Instagram post, the follower model means that not all viewers are able to participate in the conversation together.
With Leo’s implementation, anyone can create a new group and invite any of their friends. And anyone who has been invited to a group can invite someone else. So what happens if you’re invited to a group after it’s already kicked off and there’s a lively conversation going on?
Whitt says it’s kind of like if you came into a bar and started talking to a couple of your friends. You’d pick up on what they were talking about at that moment and could contribute to the conversation, but you wouldn’t know what they were talking about before you showed up.
In the same way, you can leave a group at any time — sort of like how you can just ghost at a party — but you won’t know what happens after you disappear.
I’ve been testing out Leo with a limited number of folks on the app — which includes the founders and a random assortment of their friends and family, not to mention the usual early adopter set — and it seems to work well for engaging people in conversation.
Different users in a conversation might not know each other, but they can easily friend one another and begin sharing in a separate conversation. And, of course, the app allows users to block one another if they don’t want to be bothered. But blocking a person means not being able to be contacted, as well as not seeing them in any conversations that you’re both a part of.
While the group dynamic speeds up the ability to capture a moment and share it with others who you’ve already started conversations with, my one quibble is that starting a new conversation isn’t as easy as it could be. If you haven’t already started a conversation with a friend, you have to ‘start a new group’ and then pick the people who you wish to share with.
Founding Team And Backers
Leo is the brainchild of Whitt and co-founder Austin Broyles, two engineers who most recently worked together at Square. Whitt was a tech lead there, and before that was CTO at e-commerce data startup Adku, which had been acquired by Groupon. Broyles, meanwhile, worked on Square’s payments processing system and integration with Starbucks’ POS system, as well as the development of Square Cash. Before that, Broyles worked at Google, where he and Whitt overlapped for about five years but never really knew each other or worked together.
Both Whitt and Broyles left Square about four months ago and began working on building an app together. But, surprisingly, it wasn’t this one. They spent the first six to eight weeks working on an app that was designed to help groups share photos and experiences with each other.
In particular, they found there was too much work for too little payoff, and besides, people only used the app every now and again when there was a big group event to engage with. So they set out to build something that was just the opposite — quick, lightweight, and would bring people back several times a day to engage with each other.
Along the way, the founders brought together a pretty decent syndicate of investors, including Battery Ventures, Freestyle Capital, Greylock Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and SV Angel. Angel investors include Bob Lee, David King, Elad Gil, Mike Chu, Sara Haider, Steve Lee, Kent Goldman, and Raymond Tonsing. The company has raised $1.5 million to get things off the ground.
Now that it’s launched on the Apple App Store and Google Play, we’ll just have to see if it can get adoption. There’s plenty of competition out there, after all. Then again, users aren’t exactly religious about the messaging platforms that people use. And maybe, just maybe, a lightweight alternative is just what the market needs.