Inside the crash of Fling, the London startup whose founder partied in Ibiza while his company burned through $21 million

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Marco Nardone fling
Fling CEO Marco
Nardone.

Fling


  • London-based social media app Fling burned through $21
    million in less than three years.
  • Fling never brought in any revenue.
  • The founder splashed out on 1st class flights, Ibiza
    hotels, and Michelin-star restaurants.
  • The app struggled after Apple pulled it from the App
    Store last summer for becoming too sexually explicit.

In early July 2015, temperatures were rising in the boardroom on
the top floor of a 12-storey office block in Hammersmith, West
London.

Marco Nardone, the 28-year-old CEO and founder of social media
app Fling, had called an emergency meeting the day after his
app was removed from the App Store by Apple
for being too similar to the notorious Chatroulette platform.

The atmosphere was tense and Nardone was furious, three former
employees said, because his COO, Emerson Osmond, had gone behind
his back. Specifically, he was angry because Osmond had told
Nardone’s assistant, Kris Gillet, not to order tents for the
office that would allow staff to sleep by their desks and work
around the clock to get Fling back onto the App Store, a former
employee told Business Insider.

Nardone shouted and swore at Osmond before squaring up to him as
if he was about to do something more, said two former employees.
At this point, Nardone’s Italian father, Remo Nardone — a
man in his eighties and Fling’s biggest investor — stepped in to
try and cool the situation down, one of the employees said. But
his son didn’t react well. He swore at his father before hurling
a Pret a Manger baguette in his direction. It narrowly missed and
collided with a glass window above his head. The event was
described to Business Insider by four former employees.

In the lead-up to the incident, Fling — a social media app that
raised $21 million (£17 million) from investors — had become
inundated with explicit photos. Built by a London startup called
Unii, Fling allowed people to send photos and videos to strangers
around the world. The random recipients could then chat and reply
to the sender. The app also showed “Flingers” a map of where
their Flings had landed.

At its peak, Fling claimed to have 4 million users on its app,
who sent a total of 50 billion messages. However, the
revenue-free company burnt through the last of its millions in
August 2015, according to documents produced by bankruptcy
administrators.

The app — built by up to 50 staff and backed by a network of
wealthy individuals from the UK, Italy, and Asia — struggled to
retain users. Mismanagement at the top of the company was a major
issue, according to nine former employees that Business Insider
has spoken to over the last three months.

Several of them said they believed Nardone’s behaviour changed
significantly during Fling’s lifetime, while others told stories
of mysterious girls around the office and wild party weekends.
But more on that later.

After failing to secure the funding it needed to continue, Fling
quietly shut down in August 2016, based on bankruptcy
administration documents submitted to Companies House by
Unii Limited.

Nardone told Business Insider he refutes what his former
colleagues have told us, but he declined to comment further.

Fling started out as a social network for students

In 2012, Nardone set out to build a social network for students
called Unii from an office on Berkeley Street in London. That’s
the Berkeley Street that adjoins the legendary Berkeley Square in
Mayfair, where a nightingale
once sang for Vera Lynn
. It’s the capital’s most expensive
neighbourhood.

The 28-year-old only child — who attended the £37,000-a-year
Charterhouse boarding school before studying physics at Imperial
College London — worked as a trader for Credit Suisse for a year
before becoming a technology entrepreneur. His father is the
multimillionaire founder of Enotria Winecellars, a successful
wine business that distributes wine and spirits to bars and
restaurants around the UK. “Marco felt pressure to live up to his
father,” said a former Fling employee. In person, Nardone was
hyper, ambitious, and volatile, our sources said. He had the
ability to charm investors and would-be employees, but several
former staff said they ended up scared of him, citing his
unpredictable moods and confrontational approach as major issues.

Describing the concept behind Unii to Tech City News
on a speedboat in the River Thames in October 2014, which is
where Tech City News got entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas,
Nardone said: “Unii.com is a social network made exclusively for
students in UK higher education and it allows students to better
engage with individuals and societies at their university or
college.” The platform included a jobs board, opinion polling,
accommodation matching, society pages, and student offers.


Unii
The Unii
platform.

TechCrunch

Nardone secured approximately £1.5 million from his father to
help him build and launch Unii.com, according to a former
employee, who added that he went on to receive a total of around
£5 million from his father for Unii.com and Fling.

Things started off relatively well at Unii.com. “The culture of
the company was great, the team was a good mix,” an ex-employee
said. “However, from the top, it was built to feel like a
university startup built out of a dorm room. I think it envied
what Facebook had become, and wanted to emulate what they had
done.”

Unii.com attracted 100,000 UK students within six months of going
live, according to Nardone. But the entrepreneur said he
had a flash of inspiration for Fling while on a flight to Hong
Kong in January 2014, which ultimately led to the demise of the
Unii.com platform.

“While I was staring at the flightpath map on my seat screen I
had one of those insane moments where my fingers couldn’t type my
idea fast enough on Notes,” he
told TechCrunch
. “What if we shook up the messaging
structure? What if you could ‘fling’ a private message out to the
world, and literally see it fly and land all over a world map –
much like the one I was looking at on my British Airways seat
screen. By the time we landed I had already prototyped the
designs for Fling.”


Marco Nardone Fling
Marco Nardone in London in
October 2014.

YouTube/Tech City
News


When Nardone returned to London, he pulled his engineers off the
original Unii idea. He assigned them to build the Fling app and
moved them into a new, top-floor office in Hammersmith — far from
Mayfair — that had the ability to accommodate more staff. The new
HQ was roughly 15 minutes walk from his riverside penthouse apartment at Distillery
Wharf.

Fling was built in less than four months between March and July
2014. When Nardone felt it was ready, he took it upon himself to
set it live in the App Store in July without consulting other
people in the company. “Marco made decisions completely on his
own to the point where the tech team didn’t know what he was
doing,” a former employee said.

Fling was getting ‘a thousand users every 10 minutes’

Almost immediately after the launch there were thousands of
people signing up to Fling on a daily basis, according to a
former employee. “I remember seeing the signups just going up,
and up, and up, and up, for the app,” they said.

“We were pretty chuffed because we were being told ‘this is all
organic’ or ‘I’ve only spent a few hundred pounds on a few
Facebook ads’ and the numbers were shooting up like a thousand
[users] every 10 minutes.” It later turned out that considerable
sums of money had been spent on social media marketing campaigns
in order to get these users, according to three former employees
and documents submitted to Companies House.

Fling’s tech team wasn’t anticipating the initial strain on the
company’s servers and Fling’s infrastructure buckled.

“Our tech guys had no clue what was going on so things started to
fall over and Marco started to show his true colours and lose his
rag on a regular basis with the tech teams,” said a former
employee. “He’d shout and scream and throw things across the
office.” These claims were supported by four ex-employees.

“The ego took over,” said the same employee. “The perceived
success took over. He was likening himself to Evan Spiegel, the
Snapchat guy, and all this bullshit.” Another employee said
Nardone used to compare himself to Elon Musk.

Apple banned Fling after nudity became a big issue


Marco Nardone
A photo that Marco Nardone
uploaded onto Fling.

Anonymous
ex-Fling employee


Insufficient computing resources weren’t Fling’s only problem.

Within weeks of launching, people were using the app to send nude
photos and sexual material to strangers.

In an early review of the app in July 2014, TechCrunch’s
Natasha Lomas wrote: “The most obvious use-case — beyond shiggles
[shits and giggles] — appears to be as a virtual hook-up app to
find remote sexting buddies to photo-message to one-on-one.”

Lomas later updated her story to say: “Well that didn’t take
long; the first five replies to my inaugural Fling included one
picture of a penis. Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

In September 2014, three months after the app was released, a
moderation team was hired in the Philippines to vet photos on the
platform. There were about 10 people moderating Fling content at
any one time, according to a former employee, who said Fling was
paying the moderators about $20,000 (£16,000) a month in total.

Nardone kicked other male users off the platform who posted
inappropriate photos of themselves on the app.

“They couldn’t even have a photograph with their shirt off,” said
a former employee. “Unless it was him. He would then boost
himself to everybody on the [Fling] database.” Nardone would
regularly walk around the office with his shirt off, according to
multiple former employees, and had a topless portrait of himself
stuck to the ceiling.

As Nardone clamped down on male nudity, he allowed female users
to “pretty much do what they wanted and actively encouraged it as
well by boosting pretty girls and stuff like that,” said a former
employee. “Guys were getting booted off the app as soon as they
approached it while girls were getting absolutely trolled as soon
as they were on it. It was just a spiral.”

In June 2015, as the company struggled to deal with sexual
photos, Fling was pulled from the App Store by Apple.
Apple hated the fact that Fling was a randomised messaging app
that was similar in many respects to the notorious ChatRoulette, according to a former
employee.


Apple email
Apple emailed Fling to
tell the company what it didn’t like about the
app.

Anonymous ex-Fling
employee


“It was the worst day of my life,” Nardone told Business Insider’s Matt
Weinberger
at the time, referring to the day he found out his
app had been pulled from the App Store. The removal took Nardone
by surprise. He found out while having an unrelated a
conversation with a would-be venture capital investor. As he
reached for the investor’s phone to show him how to download the
app, one of his executives stopped him, muttering “no, no, no.”
As Weinberger wrote at the time, “a perplexed Nardone made it
through the conversation. But when he asked the employee what had
him so agitated, he got the worst news that an app startup can
get: It had been removed from Apple’s App Store.”

On the day, Nardone asked staff to work late so they could
address the issue. The CEO turned up in the middle of the night
with two women that staff had never seen before and took them
into a room, according to three former employees.

Commenting on the evening, one employee said: “He came into the
office around midnight, with two girls I’d never met before in my
life. He proceeded to be in the social space, which we had as a
chill-out room. It had a big company sofa and [fake] grass on the
floor, big screens, all that sort of stuff. And he basically
frolicked, for want of a better word, with these girls in that
room, sending out Flings of the two girls kissing.”


The Fling app after it was redeveloped.
The
Fling app.

Fling

Unsurprisingly, Fling’s employees were not able to fix the
problems with the app in one night.

For 19 straight days, Fling’s team worked all hours of the day
and night trying to build a new version of the app that met
Apple’s guidelines.

Nardone wanted to put up tents in the office so that staff could
work longer hours. When Fling’s COO told him that this might be a
violation of UK employment law, there was a heated debate in a
boardroom that ended up with a baguette being thrown at Nardone’s
father.

As the engineers worked on the problem, Nardone went to Ibiza
with two other members of staff, according to multiple sources
and Instagram posts like this one. While in Ibiza, Nardone and his staff
stayed in a suite at the Ushuaïa
beach hotel
, which is one of Ibiza’s premier hotels, complete
with an open-air club.

One former employee said the trip was to a “supposedly quiet
beach to have a relaxed weekend so they could think about stuff.”
But while in Ibiza, Nardone took them partying.

The ex-employee added: “[It was] full on, full-scale, Avicii
partying, which is well documented,” the source said, referring
to a concert they attended featuring the Swedish DJ.

“Ok FIIIINE Avicii, I’ll fly over to see your opening party
tonight pfff 😆 #weekendbreak
#avicii
#whynot,”
Nardone wrote on one Instagram post that he uploaded
from a British Airways business class lounge at Heathrow airport.

James Campbell, a former iOS engineer on the Fling app, told
Business Insider that “staff morale was severely dented” while
the app was off the App Store and Nardone was in Ibiza.

Eventually, the engineers made a new app, almost totally from
scratch, that removed the “chat-with-strangers” feature and made
it more like Snapchat, with followers and broadcast options.

Apple approved the app and let it back into the App Store on July
14, 2015, while Nardone was still partying in Ibiza, according to
an ex-employee.

“Can’t tell you HOW PROUD I am to introduce the #new #flingapp
to you 😆🎉✌🏼️ the team did 19 all-nighters to get it out quick –
here’s a sneak peek before launch 😜#startuplife
#family,”
Nardone wrote on an Instagram post.

Referring to the time, an ex-employee said: “We were slogging our
guts off. So that left a really bitter taste in the mouth of
pretty much everybody, so he started to lose people at that
point. Understandably so.”

The new version of the Fling app, which Nardone later described as an enhanced version of
Fling
, was not well-received by users, who gave it an average
rating of 1.5 stars out of five on the App Store.


Instagram Marco Nardone Fling
Marco Nardone went to
Ibiza as his team battled to get Fling back on the App
Store.

Instagram/Marco
Nardone


Nardone’s behaviour took a turn for the worse when he returned,
according to three former employees.

Fling COO Emerson Osmond left in August 2015 and several others
followed suit. “The entire marketing team resigned en masse,”
said one of the former employees. “About 10 people. That was
September 2015 onwards. They all quit, and they actually weren’t
that often at the brunt of his wrath. They just didn’t want to be
there.”

From then on, Fling really struggled to retain users, with most
people downloading the app onto their phone for around 30 days
before deleting it, according to one employee.

Money was spent on first-class flights, extravagant parties, a
tour bus, and Michelin star meals


Instagram Marco Nardone
Marco Nardone pictured
with colleagues in Ibiza.

Instagram/Marco Nardone

Despite the internal problems, Fling raised millions of pounds,
with Nardone’s LinkedIn profile stating that the figure totalled
$21 million (£17 million) over its lifetime. Two former Fling
employees said around £5 million of that came from Nardone’s
father.


Raffaele Costa
Ex-Goldman Sachs employee
Rafaela Costa introduced Marco Nardone to a series of
investors.

YouTube/SuperReturnTV

“He [Nardone] was pouring money in at the top of this thing and
it was just pissing out of the bottom in terms of users,” said
one of the former employees. “He was pumping tens of thousands of
pounds a day through Facebook advertising and Twitter and
what-have-you without telling anyone that he was doing it.”

The rest of Fling’s funding came from a syndicate of investors
that was largely assembled by ex-Goldman Sachs banker turned
hedge fund manager Raffaele Costa, according to three former
employees.

Costa, who did not reply to Business Insider’s request for
comment, owns a 54-metre mega-yacht, according to Boat
magazine, worth $25 million (£20 million). The Italian
multimillionaire, who is the CEO and founder of Savile
Row hedge fund Tyndaris
, refers to himself as “Captain
Magic,” according to a Financial Times article from February 2013.
He met Nardone in the summer of 2013, according to a former Fling
employee.


Raffaele Costa boat
Raffaele Costa’s
boat.

YouTube/stefan
katafai


The same former Fling employee said: “This guy [Costa], he
delivered. He could raise money dead easy. He had an amazing
network of very, very high net worths from all of the world,
including many Italians. They were pumping in money [to Fling]
basically on his say-so and Marco’s enthusiasm. We basically
seemed to be constantly raising money and that’s mainly because
Marco was constantly burning money.”

Nardone wasn’t afraid to spend big, either. Meals at exclusive
London restaurants like Nobu, Aqua, and Hakkasan were paid for by
Nardone on the company account, according to two former
employees, as were business class and first class flights.

“He had no concept of the value of money,” said one ex-employee.
“Literally none. He used to think he was lean. He used to tell us
we were a lean startup yet we had top floor offices in
Hammersmith with strip lighting down the ceiling which the
developers hated because it reflected on their screens.”


Fling neon lights
Fling had neon lights in
the officers that developers loathed because they used to reflect
on their screens.

YouTube/Marco
Nardone


Nardone didn’t hold back when it came to marketing either, both
online and offline.

One employee said there were “two tours in the USA, including a
full-on fucking bus completely decked out in Fling colours.” The
bus cost tens of thousands of pounds, according to the employee,
who added that it was once used by musician Lenny Kravitz.


fling ceo marco nardone bus
Marco
Nardone and the Fling campus tour bus.

Fling


Fling bus party
A photo from a Fling bus
party that was posted on Marco Nardone’s Instagram
page.

Instagram/Marco
Nardone


“He [Nardone] controlled everything financially,” said the former
employee, adding that there was no chief financial officer (CFO)
or accountant. “It was a black hole. No one had sight of what was
in the accounts. He would just spend how he felt like he was
going to spend. He had no idea what a budget was.”


Marco Nardone's office Fling
Marco Nardone’s
office.

An anonymous
employee


Nardone’s office in Hammersmith had a view over the river. He
equipped it with two iMacs, a luxurious rug, and customised wood
flooring. He “basically built his own little throne room,” as one
former employee put it.

Adding to the company’s overhead, there were at least three staff
members at the startup who were on salaries in excess of
£100,000, according to two former employees.

Nardone himself paid himself over £204,000, according to a
payroll spreadsheet seen by Business Insider.

Staff claimed the CEO’s behaviour was inappropriate

Multiple employees told Business Insider that they considered
Nardone’s workplace behaviour to be inappropriate on more than
one occasion. Four of them said that they hope people never have
to work under him again.

In addition to throwing a Pret a Manger baguette at his father in
the board room, Nardone also threw a cup of miso soup at his head
of design in front of the whole office, one employee said, while
another said that he threw chairs around the office as well.


Marco Nardone Fling
A portrait of Nardone was put on the ceiling of the
office.

Fling
employee


Nardone was regularly seen in with mysterious women on business
trips and at parties attended by colleagues, according to four
employees.

Staff said that Nardone lost a lot of weight during the lifetime
of Fling but they couldn’t understand why. Another said that his
mood became increasingly erratic around the summer of 2015,
around the time he went to Ibiza.

In March 2016, Nardone hired his girlfriend Toni Allcock as head
of human resources (HR) to handle some of the backlash he started
to receive from staff. Allcock did not respond to Business
Insider’s request for comment.

“He attempted to funnel all unpopular or unpleasant decisions
through her,” said one former employee. “It was relatively common
for staff leaving to have some part of their pay held back and
take a while to reach them. Unsure if this was some sort of
leverage or just petty.”

Another former member of staff said: “When people built up a
resentment towards him he seemed baffled and considered it just
angry townspeople pointing fingers at the ‘guy at the top.’
Occasionally he’d (appear to) arrange token gifts in an attempt
to appease people somewhat. These varied from cookies all the way
up to full-day team-building activities. In my opinion, he
started a company simply to be the ‘boss’ because he feels that’s
his natural station.”


Marco Nardone and his girlfriend
Marco Nardone and his
girlfriend Toni Allcock on holiday in Bora Bora shortly after
Fling filed for administration.

Instagram/Marco Nadrone

The money ran out and Fling took its app offline

With staff leaving and money running out, Fling started to run
out of options. The company needed a constant stream of money to
fuel its aggressive marketing efforts and keep paying its
employees.

The bankruptcy administrators wrote that Fling struggled to raise
further capital as a result of its “legacy issues,” which
included, but were not limited to, “senior management who left
the company after Apple App Store removal, high overhead costs as
the company owned and had developed 10 other products (not solely
the Fling application), as well as low product growth and
retention.” Nardone initially set out to build a series of apps
and websites for students, including one called Studently and
another to help students find accommodation, but these products
never really took off as Fling became Nardone’s main priority.

As the finances dwindled, Nardone stopped using and paying for
the Fling content moderation team in the Philippines. Users
immediately took advantage and began behaving as if they were on
Chatroulette again. Ian Morris, a contributor for Forbes,
wrote a review of the app in September 2016
titled, “Social Network Converts To Amateur Porn Hub Overnight.”

The app shut down quietly at some point towards the end of last
summer, with users complaining on Twitter that they hadn’t heard
anything from the company about why they couldn’t access their
accounts.

Nardone burnt through £9 million in 2015 and almost £3.5 million
in the nine months leading up to 31 December 2014, according to
the administrators’ report.

A former employee said: “He basically went down in flames at the
end of the day. His dad got to the point where he wasn’t going to
pump any more money in.”

Fling filed for administration in August 2016

London-based Resolve Ltd was appointed as the administrator on
August 26, 2016, by Nardone’s father. Resolve employees Simon
Harris, Mark Supperstone, and Ben Woodthorpe handled the case but
none of them responded to Business Insider’s request for comment.

The administrators were tasked with rescuing the company or
achieving a better result for Unii’s shareholders than if it were
wound up.


Fling app UniiCompanies
House

The administration process was dragged out over several months,
with the company filing not one but four “notifications of
intent” to file for insolvency administration.

The administrators wrote that a number of companies looked into
buying Fling in the six months leading up to September 7. But in
the end, Nardone set up another company called DSCVR Ltd and used
this business to make an offer for Unii of £250,000 on August 4,
2016, which was accepted on August 31, 2016. The administrators
wrote that the company’s intellectual property (IP) was valued at
£213,639, while the office equipment was worth £15,100.

DSCVR Ltd is expected to fold due to a lack of funds, according
to a former employee. The company had not filed for
administration at the time of writing.

The administrators went on to state that the money is simply
being circulated — passed from one of Nardone’s companies to
another — but stressed that there was nothing illegal about the
deal.

Nardone travelled the world after his company filed for
administration

Fling shut down with debts of £880,997, including a £120,268 debt
with Twitter and a £45,068 debt with Google. The administrator’s
report also shows that former COO Emerson Osmond is owed £98,634,
likely in unpaid wages.


Fling app debts
Fling owes hundreds of thousands of
pounds.

Companies
House


While reporting this story, Business Insider contacted more than
15 former employees.

Nardone told Business Insider on January 5 that he denies all the
allegations made by his former employees.

Prior to that, he sent two screenshots of a LinkedIn conversation
between Business Insider and Chung Lin Hsieh, one of his former
employees, where we asked what life was like working for Fling.
He did not explain his logic for sending the screenshots.

Fling is no longer available for download on the App Store and
existing users can’t use the app.

Fling has not made any announcements on its website or its social
media channels to inform its users that it is no longer in
business.

Photos on Facebook and Instagram show that Nardone has been away
on holiday with his girlfriend during the administration process.
The entrepreneur visited Bora Bora, Nice, Venice, the Maldives,
and Miami all in the last few months. “You just look at it and
he’s one of those rich kids of Instagram,” said a former
employee.


Marco Nardone InstagramInstagram/Marco Nardone

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