IRL is a new social network taking on Facebook groups

Do people want an app specifically for discovering events and messaging as a group? That’s the bet behind IRL, a young social network that has been quietly growing over the past year and just attracted an eye-popping amount of money to take on Facebook.

The two-year-old startup is betting that a post-pandemic world will fuel its mission to help people “do more together,” usually by meeting up in real life — you know, IRL. The idea has attracted the deep pockets of the Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank, which is the biggest investor in a new $170 million round of funding that values IRL at roughly $1 billion.

That’s a remarkable amount of money for an app with roughly 12 million monthly users and no revenue. Even still, IRL is finding early traction primarily with people under the age of 18 in the United States, and the app has already facilitated more than 1 billion messages in barely a year. A handful of universities have now let students enter their school emails to gain access to virtual events and group chats.

“We’re building Facebook groups and events for the generation that doesn’t use Facebook,” IRL CEO and co-founder Abraham Shafi said. “There just happens to be no other product really focused on this space for the next generation.”

It’s true that Facebook’s users are getting older — look no further than Instagram preparing an app for kids as a sign that the company is desperate to attract young people. And Shafi is right to identify groups as a critical area in social networking, as people are increasingly moving away from communicating primarily in public feeds to private chats.

IRL is also starting to experiment with allowing groups to charge for access to for things like tutoring or music lessons, though it hasn’t rolled the feature out broadly. Eventually, it also plans to let brands promote events on its main discovery page.

According to Shafi, 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 in reference to the messaging app that over 1 billion people use in China to do everything from pay bills to hail taxis. “The combination of messaging and events creates the conditions for a platform,” said the venture capitalist Mike Maples, an IRL board member and investor who was also an early backer of Twitter.

For now, the vast majority of IRL’s users are teenagers that live in middle America, but Shafi plans to use SoftBank’s money to help grow in other countries. Besides paying some creators on TikTok to promote their IRL chats early on, the startup hasn’t spent money on marketing. Instead, it’s finding new users in apps where young people are already spending time, like Snapchat, Roblox, and TikTok — the latter of which is also working on a product integration with IRL. (SoftBank’s only other known investment in the social media industry is ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company.)

As part of this fundraiser, IRL is setting up a creator fund that will pay people to organize events in major cities using its app, like an outdoor movie night or a block party. Up to $100,000 in grant money will be earmarked for each city in the application program, which will start in the US this year and move to other countries sometime in 2022. The initiative is application only and IRL hasn’t specified the list of cities yet.

Giving its young audience exposure to group chats with strangers opens up the potential for problems, and IRL will have to contend with moderating its growing network. The startup has already had to battle spam, and it’s just now starting to ramp up hiring for its trust and safety team. It plans to give group moderators adjustable tools for proactively weeding out bad messages through Hive, an automated content moderation platform that Reddit also uses. Group chats that aren’t invite-only will be reviewed by IRL staff before they are promoted on the app’s explore page.

Even with all the money it has raised, IRL faces tough odds against tech giant incumbents. Aside from the audio social app Clubhouse, which has already seen its growth stall 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 almost a decade ago. Unlike Clubhouse, IRL has yet to crack the top of the App Store’s free downloads chart, according to the research firm Apptopia.

Thanks to its new fundraiser, IRL doesn’t need to make money in the near term, but it certainly needs to prove it can keep growing, according to Shafi. “The pressure is to become a global phenomena as quickly as possible.”