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 Nardones assistant 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, two former employees said. At this point, Nardones Italian father, Remo Nardone — a man in his 80s and Flings biggest investor — stepped in to try to cool the situation down, one of the employees said. But his son didnt react well. He swore at his father before hurling a Pret a Manger baguette, believed to be prosciutto ham, 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 — which 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.
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.
The 28-year-old — 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.
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.”
“While I was staring at the flightpath map on my seat screen I had one of those insane moments where my fingers couldnt 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.”
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.
“We were pretty chuffed because we were being told this is all organic or Ive 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.
“Our tech guys had no clue what was going on so things started to fall over and Marco started to show his true colors 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.
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.
“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 used to promote “influencers” on the platform using a feature known as a “Super Fling” so that their Flings would reach up to 5,000 people at one, according to the employee, who added that Nardone had access to “the whole user base.”
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.”
“It was the worst day of my life,” Nardone told Business Insiders 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 investors phone to show him how to download the app, one of his executives stopped him, muttering “no, no, no.”
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.”
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 Ibizas premier hotels, complete with an open-air club.
“Cant tell you HOW PROUD I am to introduce the #new #flingapp to you ✌ ️ the team did 19 all-nighters to get it out quick – heres a sneak peek before launch #startuplife #family,” Nardone wrote on an Instagram post.
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 werent that often at the brunt of his wrath. They just didn’t want to be there.”
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Fling Finder Customer Service Phone Number, Email, Help Center
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Money was spent on first-class flights, extravagant parties, a tour bus, and Michelin star meals
Despite the internal problems, Fling raised millions of pounds, with Nardones LinkedIn profile stating that the figure totaled $21 million (£17 million) over its lifetime. Two former Fling employees said around £5 million of that came from Nardones father.
The rest of Flings 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 Insiders 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.
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 Marcos enthusiasm. We basically seemed to be constantly raising money and thats mainly because Marco was constantly burning money.”
Nardone wasnt 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.”
Nardone didnt 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.
“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.”
Adding to the companys 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.
Multiple employees told Business Insider that they considered Nardones 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.
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 couldnt 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 Insiders 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 hed (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 thats his natural station.”
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 Nardones 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 toward the end of last summer, with users complaining on Twitter that they hadnt heard anything from the company about why they couldnt 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.”
London-based Resolve Ltd was appointed as the administrator on August 26, 2016, by Nardones father. Resolve employees Simon Harris, Mark Supperstone, and Ben Woodthorpe handled the case but none of them responded to Business Insiders request for comment.
The administrators were tasked with rescuing the company or achieving a better result for Uniis shareholders than if it were wound up.
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 companys 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 Nardones companies to another — but stressed that there was nothing illegal about the deal.