Eran Eyal had it all: a trendy New York apartment, a jetset lifestyle and investors lining up to get in on his milliondollar cryptocurrency startup, Shopin. He had come a long way from an ordinary middleclass childhood in Durban and the burgeoning tech startup world of Cape Town.
But the New York authorities pounced in 2018, charged him with fraud and packed him off to Rikers Island.
As more than $40 million went up in smoke, the South African entrepreneur was exposed as an audacious fraudster determined to succeed at any cost – even if it meant spinning a web of lies to do so.
Read this extract to the book At Any Cost by Stephen Timm, a Cape Town-based journalist, researcher and writer.
By Stephen Timm
Springleap had partnered with HelpMeSocial to produce a “$250,000 to $1 million proposal” for Starbucks to embed creative campaigns in myStarbucks.com.
Springleap, he said, was also in discussion with Mastercard’s agency to do a creative challenge for 2014 with Corvette and was in “latter stage discussions” with Marvel Comics for ongoing design challenges.
In addition, he mentioned that BOS Ice Tea were engaging with Springleap to run creative social media marketing campaigns across 2014.
Finally, he noted that oil company Engen had placed a booking for a creative challenge with Springleap for 2014.
What potential investors weren’t told, however, is that these were all just proposals that the start-up was working on, or discussions that staff members had been holding at the time with these brands.
None of them amounted to any completed work.
Despite this, Eyal claimed that Springleap had finished several campaigns for clients. For example, he said his start-up had closed a design challenge with Samsung and Universal Music. He also noted that SABMiller had booked its third campaign with Springleap, via the firm’s agency, Integer.
Springleap had also delivered on its first order for digital agency Clearwater, noted Eyal, adding that the agency had also invested in the start-up.
“Clearwater was so impressed with the delivery that they have handed over 13 more briefs,” he wrote, adding that the agency was keen to help spearhead Springleap sales in Africa and Middle East. Things were going very well indeed, it seemed.
In February 2014, Eyal reported on his Facebook profile that Springleap was opening a new branch in Johannesburg.
He even boasted of having run into Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at Sandton shopping centre in Johannesburg and that he’d spent two hours in a one-on one meeting with him.
Posting a photo of him and “The Woz” on his Facebook profile, he called Wozniak “an inspirational human being and personal icon”.
By March that same year he was back in New York. The Big Apple, he announced in a post on his Facebook profile at the time, was “starting to feel like home”.
It was no wonder Eyal was beginning to settle in. He had a new apartment and a new love interest.
His two-bedroom apartment was located in a three-storey building on 192 North 9th Street in Williamsburg, situated in the north of Brooklyn, one of the city’s largest boroughs.
North 9th Street was a tranquil street from what I could tell on a later visit and close to the Bedford Avenue subway station.
From there it was a five-minute subway ride to New York’s busy Manhattan Island on the L line.
In contrast to Manhattan’s skyscrapers and mad rush, Williamsburg is a quiet suburb with wide pavements, lined with wooden-fronted or brick-fronted double- or triple-storey apartments with unimposing flat roofs. Most residents are young singles or new couples.
In the parks and on the wide pavements between taco trucks, you can see them quietly pushing prams or riding bicycles. But it wasn’t always like this.
A few years before Eyal arrived there, prostitutes plied Bedford Street, the main drag, which is lined with bars, and it wasn’t all that safe at night. But a lot had changed and the suburb had gentrified.
Eyal, it seemed, had arrived just in time to take it all in. It’s easy to see why he opted to stay there.
For one, it was close to Manhattan and more affordable. Williamsburg was also frequented in the 1990s and onwards by artists. Today street murals still grace the sides of many buildings in the suburbs, rising up like big imposing characters.
Writer Henry Miller stayed in an apartment block there during the 1930s. Others who’d once lived there include Alfred Hitchcock, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Taylor and Jerry Seinfeld.
Perhaps it was easy for Eyal, who thought of himself as an artist, to feel right at home in the suburb.
Eyal’s building itself had a bohemian quality about it. On the left of the entrance to the apartment, the wall of the neighbouring block was splashed with colourful graffiti tagging.
His apartment itself took up an entire floor of the three-floor building. The apartment was decked out with Kartell Ghost chairs and modern furnishing, an entertainment system with a new Apple TV and a fully equipped modern kitchen.
Some of the city’s best coffee shops and eateries were a stone’s throw away.
In a later advert Eyal put out on Roomi, an online platform advertising apartments and homes available to rent, he listed that he was looking for a room-mate to take his spare room for $2,000 a month.
The apartment wasn’t his only pride and joy.
In July 2014 Eyal posted a photo on Facebook of an attractive, artsy-looking brunette, just a few centimetres taller than him.
She was an interior designer and originally from the small town of North Andover in Massachusetts.
At the time she was working for a fashion outlet in New York as a store planning assistant.
“Capturing the lovely Miss XXX,” [her name is being withheld to respect her request for privacy] Eyal posted above an image of his friend, her back to the camera. It was clear from the photos and gushing comments that Eyal was in love.
This wasn’t the only thing that had changed in his life. Eyal also got a new look. In September that year he shaved his head.
The new, clean and slick look was one that would later define him. Previously he would keep his head closely shaved, but often wore a variety of hats to cover his fast-receding hairline. Subsequent photos would rarely show him wearing a cap or hat.
The clean-shaven head was his new crowning pride and perhaps evidence of someone who took careful care of his image.
The new look also showed how keen he was to reinvent himself as an intelligent and successful entrepreneur and, above all, as someone who was in control of things.
What was little known at the time was the extent to which he would push himself to achieve this. It was something he wanted at any cost.