Spending a year in New York City to conquer America was the challenge accepted by the three founders of French start-up Yuka, who moved to Brooklyn a few months ago. “We gave ourselves a year to test as many things as possible,” explains Julie Chapon, 36, who founded the company in 2016 with brothers Benoît and François Martin. “None of us had ever had an American dream, but since the United States represents our biggest potential market, we thought it was worth a try.”
Almost everyone in France is familiar with the app, which enables users to evaluate the quality of a food item or beauty product, with grades ranging from 0 (“Bad”) to 100 (“Excellent”), simply by scanning the barcode with a smartphone camera. Since its launch in January 2017, it has won over more than 20 million people in France. A spectacular success which has even pushed certain food distributors and manufacturers to reformulate some of their recipes to avoid being rated too poorly.
In the United States, on the other hand, Yuka has yet to make a name for itself. The app has been available in the U.S. since 2020, but got off to a much slower start than in France and other European countries. That was until one day in January 2022, when downloads skyrocketed thanks to TikTok. “It was a video posted by a user filming herself scanning cosmetics in a store,” says Julie Chapon. “It got seven million views and our traffic went through the roof! We thought it was just a passing craze, but it’s still going strong. Since then, we have registered between 300,000 and 500,000 new users every month.” Almost two years later, there are more than 10 million users in the United States.
From Paris to New York City
This unexpected growth prompted the trio of entrepreneurs to cross the Atlantic. Since mid-September 2023, they have been running the company from a coworking space in Gowanus, a neighborhood in northwest Brooklyn. “Yuka’s whole operation relies on a careful balance between the three of us. We’re very close – we were friends before we became business partners – and all strategic decisions are made together,” says Julie Chapon. “We also wanted to experience this adventure as a team, to reconnect with the excitement of the early days.”
The Yuka story began in 2016 with a “hackathon,” a competition in which participants have to develop and present a concept in record time. At the event, Benoît Martin, a young father working in the banking sector, designed a connected object that analyzed food labels to help his family eat better. His younger brother, François, a computer engineer, helped him create a prototype. François’ childhood friend Julie, a consultant at a strategy firm, then joined them on the project.
The trio won the competition hands down and were given a space at Station F, the start-up incubator opened in Paris by Xavier Niel, founder of telecoms operator Free. The connected object was soon replaced by an app (a more practical solution for on-the-go use), which launched officially in January 2017. At the time, France was recovering from a series of food scandals, and the promise of immediate, easy-to-understand, independent information about product ingredients resonated with the public. “We were aiming for 10,000 users in the first year, but we ended up with one million!ˮ
Despite the success, the start-up refused to rush its financing. “We raised funds a little reluctantly, but we needed to recruit someone to develop a premium version in order to generate revenue.” Yuka’s basic services are free, but users have to pay at least 20 dollars a year to access additional features, including warnings tailored to dietary preferences such as gluten- or lactose-free products. This has enabled Yuka to be “profitable for the past two years, without receiving any money from brands or manufacturers,” says Julie Chapon.
A Frugal, Family-Focused Approach
The business has just 12 employees, and that’s enough for its co-founder. “We don’t want to become a big company. Having a hands-on role is what motivates us the most, not managing hundreds of people or raising more money than is reasonable.” This frugal approach has been reflected in their American adventure. The three entrepreneurs have chosen to live together, with their partners and children, in a large house south of Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s green lung. “Living together means that we can share costs,” says Julie Chapon. As for the nine employees who have remained in Paris, they have the opportunity to spend a month in New York City “so that it’s not just a project for the founders.”
Although the entrepreneur says that she arrived in the United States “without too many plans, just wanting to test as many things as possible,” this American year presents a major strategic and financial opportunity. “In France and Europe, it’s hard to get people to pay for an app. In the U.S., it’s different; there’s a culture of tipping, and people are willing to spend money on a service. The proportion of users who upgrade to the premium version is therefore higher. That’s how we are financing our time here.”
Yuka’s founders would also like to encourage users to scan more food items; as things stand, 75% of all traffic in the United States is focused on cosmetics, compared with 25% in Europe. “It’s all well and good paying attention to what you put on your skin, but it’s even more important to pay attention to what you eat,” says the co-founder. And when it comes to food ingredients, the U.S. is a constant source of shock: “I’ve discovered that some products contain 20 or 30 additives – I’ve never seen anything like it! We’ve also confirmed that certain products have different compositions in different countries. Here, for example, candy can contain titanium dioxide, a white coloring agent that is banned in Europe.”
To raise its profile beyond word-of-mouth and social media, Yuka also tried its hand at advertising for the first time. “When we first started out, the French media were very helpful in promoting our app. Here, we have to get them to notice us.” With this in mind, throughout December, the start-up invested in its first ever billboard, judiciously placed in Midtown Manhattan opposite the offices of The New York Times. “That way, there was no way their journalists could miss us!”