Forget invite-only social apps, Lapse is testing a new technique to acquire its users: It forces you to invite your friends in order to get in. The reinvention of a social camera app first introduced in 2021, Lapse is now king of the U.S. App Store after having jumped from No. 118 Overall earlier this month to reach No. 1. The app offers a similar experience to other mobile apps that attempted to recreate the disposable camera experience, like Dispo and Later Cam, with some tweaks. But some say its new success has been achieved by ill-gotten means.
Growth-hacking techniques are common these days, with many apps relying on TikTok social videos to help their app go viral, then climb the App Store charts. Others create demand by limiting access to their app like Clubhouse once did during its heyday or now the Twitter/X competitor Bluesky is doing, which saw its invites selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
But Lapse is doing something different with its invites. Instead of just gating its app to only those with an invite, it’s actually requiring users to invite friends in order to start using its features.
This concept comes from co-founders and brothers Dan and Ben Silvertown, who said they were originally inspired to build Lapse following an experience they had when traveling using a point-and-shoot camera to disconnect and unwind. They wanted to bring a similar experience to the mobile app market with an app that recreated that idea by allowing users to take pictures with delayed viewing and share them with a group of friends.
However, the version of Lapse that launched in 2021 is no more.
Dan tells TechCrunch the team noticed the app’s most avid users had begun to use it as more of a photo journal rather than the disposable party camera they intended. So they worked on a new version of Lapse over the past year and and a half that works to address that need.
The app retains its disposable camera mimicry, where snaps “develop” at random later in the day, but the focus is now on curating photos into albums and creating user profiles featuring your monthly photo dumps.
The company trialed the new version of the app using TikTok ads during its stealth phase and then launched it to the public in June 2023. Dan claims that 100% of the app’s recent growth is organic. But we’d argue that depends on your definition of the term.
The app features a slick onboarding experience where it presents a fairly lengthy mini-movie with haptics to get you excited about its capabilities. It also verifies users with a phone number, asks for permission to your contacts and camera, and then forces you to add at least five friends before you’re able to use Lapse.
An informational pop-up in the app explains you have to send out invites because Lapse only works with friends, and that your invites will give your friends early access.
However, not everyone is a fan of this format.
Explains Sheel Mohnot, a VC at Better Tomorrow Ventures, this process will send a text message to your friends to download the app. “I felt dirty,” he wrote on X. “It got to the top of the App Store on a pyramid scheme.”
He’s not alone with that criticism, as others have called out Lapse’s onboarding as “pretty annoying to spam my friends.”
Even Dan admits that Lapse’s onboarding is controversial.
“Our onboarding process is divisive, there are a few detractors but also many fans,” he says. “We are top of the charts because Lapse is resonating with young people, who are sharing millions of photos per day in our app. They are exhausted by existing photo-sharing apps and Lapse is a way for them to live in the moment and share memories pressure-free,” Dan added.
The reality is the text-your-friends invite mode is an old growth hack and one that remains controversial. TechCrunch was writing about SMS invite spam seven years ago when the then-culprit was another photo app called Everalbum. The following year, users got played again by another social app, Gather. This stuff is old hat!
More recently, another photo-sharing app, Poparrazzi, hyped itself to No. 1 on the App Store in 2021 using a combination of growth hacks, including those that comprised user privacy by requiring full address book access, then immediately matching your contacts’ phone numbers to existing users and then having you automatically follow them. As users found themselves following exes they had blocked, they were not happy.
Poparrazi shut down earlier this year.
Where Lapse differs is that it doesn’t spam your friends without your consent, unlike some older apps. When you tap to “invite your friends” you know what you’re getting yourself into, so to speak.
The system, for whatever it’s worth, appears to be working in the near term. According to data from market intelligence firm data.ai, Lapse has close to 1.2 million installs worldwide, with the U.S. accounting for 92% of those. The app has also climbed to No. 1 from its earlier Overall rank of No. 118 since September 10.
Lapse in 2021 announced a mega-seed round of $11 million from investors including Octopus Ventures, GV, Speedinvest, and individuals, including an early Facebook designer Soleio Cuervo, who was on the team that built the “like” button. Speedinvest tells us the app has raised $12 million to date and confirms the new version of the app is seeing incredible growth “without spending any marketing budget.”
But now that Lapse has acquired users and attention, it faces a much harder test — convincing its users to stay and remain engaged. It remains to be seen if it can turn its hype into a business when others have not.