IRL is a new social network taking on Facebook groups

Do people want an app dedicated to discovering events and messaging as a group? That’s the bet behind IRL, a young social network that has quietly grown over the past year and just attracted a staggering amount of money to receive on Facebook.

The two-year-old startup is betting that the post-pandemic world will advance its mission to help people “do more together,” usually by meeting in real life — you know, IRL. The idea has attracted a lot of Japanese technology group SoftBank, which is the largest investor in a new $170 million funding round valuing IRL at nearly $1 billion.

That’s an impressive amount of money for an app with nearly 12 million monthly users and no earnings. However, IRL is finding early traction primarily with people under 18 in the US, and the app has already facilitated over a billion messages in about one year. A handful of universities now allow students to enter school emails to access virtual events and group chats.

What does a paid IRL group look like.
Photo: IRL

“We’re building Facebook groups and events for the non-Facebook generation,” said IRL CEO and co-founder Abraham Chaffee. the edge. “It just so happens that no other product is truly focused on this space for the next generation.”

It’s true that Facebook users are getting older – look no further than the kids’ app Instagram as proof that the company is desperate to attract young people. Al Shafi is right to identify groups as an important area of ​​social networking, where people are increasingly moving away from communicating primarily in public feeds to private chats.

IRL has also begun experimenting with allowing groups to charge for access to things like tutoring or music lessons, although it hasn’t rolled out the feature widely. Ultimately, it also plans to allow brands to promote events on their discovery homepage.

According to Shafee, the goal is to become a “super-messaging social network” over time. “We have the opportunity to build WeChat for the rest of the world,” he said, referring to the messaging app that more than a billion people in China use to do everything from paying bills to taxis. “The combination of messages and events creates the conditions for a platform,” said venture capitalist Mike Maples, an IRL board member and investor who was also an early supporter of Twitter.

Currently, the vast majority of IRL users are teens living in Central America, but Chaffee plans to use SoftBank’s money to help grow in other countries. Besides paying some creators on TikTok to promote IRL chats early on, the startup hasn’t spent money on marketing. Instead, new users are being found in apps where young people already spend time, such as Snapchat, Roblox, and TikTok – the latter also working on product integration with IRL. (SoftBank’s only other known investment in the social media industry is ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok.)

As part of this fundraising campaign, IRL is creating a fund for creators that will pay people to organize events in major cities using the app, such as an outdoor movie night or group party. Up to $100,000 in grant money will be allocated to each city in the application program, which will begin in the US this year and move to other countries sometime in 2022. This initiative is an application only and IRL has not identified a list of cities yet.

IRL CEO and Co-founder Abraham Chaffee.

Giving its young audience to group chats with strangers opens up the potential for problems, and IRL will have to deal with adjusting its growing network. The startup has already had to fight spam, and it’s just starting to ramp up hiring for its Trust and Security team. It plans to give group moderators customizable tools to proactively weed out bad messages through Hive, an automated content control platform that Reddit also uses. Invite-only group chats will be reviewed by IRL employees before they are promoted on the app’s Explore page.

Even with all the money it raised, IRL faces tough odds against the incumbents of the giant tech positions. Aside from the audio social app Clubhouse, which has already seen its growth come to a halt as people emerge from pandemic lockdowns, only a small handful of social networks have managed to reach hundreds of millions of people since Snapchat debuted nearly a decade ago. Unlike Clubhouse, IRL still has to crack the top of the App Store’s free downloads chart, according to research firm Apptopia.

Thanks to a new fundraiser, IRL doesn’t need to make money in the near term, but it definitely needs to prove it can continue to grow, according to Chaffee. “The pressure is to become a global phenomenon as quickly as possible.”

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