In the fast-paced world of startups, success stories and failures go hand in hand. One such cautionary tale is the startup that soared to a $1.2 billion valuation with an impressive $200 million in funding, only to come crashing down due to a shocking revelation. This article delves into the story of a startup with 95% fake users that ultimately led to its demise. We’ll explore the rise and fall of this ambitious venture, the impact of fake users on its business, reactions from industry leaders, and the lessons learned from this unfortunate incident.

The Rise of a Promising Startup

The Birth of IRL and Its Vision

Two years ago, a messaging app startup called IRL emerged onto the scene with a grand vision. Led by CEO Abraham Shafi, the company aimed to create an inclusive and vibrant community by bringing people together through events and shared experiences. IRL quickly gained attention and investor interest, culminating in a remarkable $1.2 billion valuation.

Impressive Funding and “Unicorn Status”

To support its ambitious plans, IRL secured substantial funding. In a Series C funding round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2, the startup raised $170 million. With this infusion of capital, IRL achieved the coveted “unicorn status” and amassed over $200 million in total funding. The stage was set for IRL to revolutionize the messaging app landscape.

Unveiling the Shocking Truth

Doubts Arise about User Authenticity

As IRL continued its upward trajectory, questions began to surface about the authenticity of its user base. A Fortune report revealed that employees had cast doubt on CEO Abraham Shafi’s claim of having 20 million monthly active users. These doubts sent shockwaves through the startup and investor community.

The Investigation Unveils the Truth

Prompted by the growing concerns, the board of directors launched an investigation into IRL’s user base. The findings were staggering. The investigation concluded that an astounding 95% of IRL’s users were either automated accounts or bots, rendering the majority of the user base fake. The revelation shook the foundations of the startup, leading to a grim realization of the unsustainability of their future prospects.

Fake Startup

The Downfall of IRL

Unsustainable Prospects and the Decision to Shut Down

Confronted with the harsh truth of their user base, IRL’s majority shareholders unanimously agreed that the company’s future prospects were unsustainable. A spokesperson for IRL announced the decision to shut down the venture, acknowledging that the path forward had become untenable.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) initiated an investigation into IRL’s business practices, focusing on potential violations of securities laws and misrepresentation of business performance to investors. The investigation cast a shadow of legal uncertainty over the startup. Additionally, in the midst of the turmoil, CEO Abraham Shafi resigned from his position, further intensifying the challenges faced by the company.

Industry Reactions and Lessons Learned

Startup Leaders Reflect on the Downfall

The downfall of IRL reverberated throughout the startup ecosystem, prompting reactions and reflections from industry leaders. Many expressed concerns about the prevalence of fraud in the pursuit of unicorn status. Winnie CEO Sara Mauskopf took to Twitter, stating, “Building a real business without fraud means it’s nearly impossible to reach ‘unicorn status’ in a few years’ time.” Others, like Sean Byrnes, previously CEO of, shared their own experiences of being compared to fraudulent companies, highlighting the deceptive nature of rapid growth.

The Importance of Authentic Growth and User Engagement

The downfall of IRL serves as a poignant reminder that sustainable growth and genuine user engagement are fundamental to long-term success. Startups must prioritize building organic communities rather than succumbing to shortcuts that compromise their integrity. The incident underscores the need for transparency, ethical practices, and a focus on real value creation in the startup ecosystem.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: How did IRL achieve such a high valuation and funding?

A: IRL’s impressive valuation and funding were the result of investor interest in its vision and potential. The company secured a $1.2 billion valuation and $200 million in funding through successful funding rounds led by prominent investors like SoftBank Vision Fund 2.

Q: What led to the discovery of fake users?

A: Doubts regarding IRL’s user base arose when employees questioned the authenticity of the claimed 20 million monthly active users. Subsequently, an investigation revealed that 95% of the users were either automated accounts or bots, exposing the prevalence of fake users within the app.

A: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) initiated an investigation into IRL’s business practices, focusing on potential securities law violations and misrepresentation of performance to investors. The legal ramifications of the investigation added to the challenges faced by the company.

Q: How did industry leaders react to IRL’s downfall?

A: Industry leaders expressed concerns about the prevalence of fraud in pursuit of unicorn status. Many highlighted the importance of building authentic business and cautioned against unrealistic growth expectations fueled by deception.

Q: What are the lessons learned from IRL’s downfall?

A: The incident emphasizes the significance of sustainable growth, genuine user engagement, and ethical practices. Startups must prioritize transparency, community building, and delivering real value to users to ensure long-term success and avoid the pitfalls encountered by IRL.

Q: What can the startup ecosystem learn from IRL’s story?

A: IRL’s downfall serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the risks associated with artificial growth and fraudulent practices. The incident emphasizes the need for startups to focus on building authentic communities, maintaining transparency, and prioritizing long-term sustainability.


The story of the startup with 95% fake users serves as a stark reminder of the perils that can befall ambitious ventures. IRL’s rise to unicorn status and subsequent downfall underscore the importance of authenticity, transparency, and sustainable growth in the startup ecosystem. The incident prompts reflection and serves as a valuable lesson for entrepreneurs and investors alike. By prioritizing genuine user engagement, ethical practices, and long-term value creation, startups can chart a path towards lasting success and avoid the pitfalls encountered by IRL.

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