OPW INTERVIEW - July 31 - You know Joel, no doubt. We interviewed Joel Simkhai about Grindr in December 2010. Here’s Scott Lewallen, the co-founder of Grindr and Blendr. - Mark Brooks
You started Grindr with $5,000. How did you do it?
I had met Joel when I lived in New York. I had moved back to Los Angeles and he showed up one day in L.A. and said: “You know what? I'm going to try out Los Angeles and I've got this idea. I want to be able to meet the gay guys around me. What do you think? Do you want to help me?” I was like, oh sure, that's a great idea and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. There were a lot of tireless nights where we didn't sleep, there was a lot of scribbling on napkins and pieces of paper. Some brainstorming in Photoshop and other sort of drawing programs.
So your background is branding?
Yeah, my background is branding, art, and technology.
At what stage did you realize that this was not going to be a small thing?
When Joel first came to me with the idea, I knew we were onto something. But I think the first time that it dawned on me that we hit something really big was a month after we launched. There was a big gay party in Palm Springs called the White Party. I was there to introduce Grindr and people were using it already.
How did you make it easy for people to talk and spread the word.
Keeping the experience very basic helped us because it solved a problem: figure out who is gay and then break the ice so you can talk to them.
Tell us more about LBS. You’ve done it right. How have you done it right?
It solved one single problem – finding out who's gay around you and letting the app do that for you.
There's other apps that have actually used a map, like SinglesAroundMe. What do you think of that?
I've seen it used in a number of places. Some people have done it brilliantly and some people have not. When it comes to Grindr it doesn't really matter where they are on the map. You only know they're 500 feet away.
So how have you used what you've learned from Grindr in Blendr, and what have been the challenges?
In Blendr, obviously the magic of our simple interface and the location based services were very important to us. Because it's clear that the gay men and straight men are interested in this type of thing, but would the women really ready for this? What we found is that it's picked up really well and that people are very engaged on Blendr as well.
Do you think you would move Blendr more towards the Badoo direction? Friendsmaking, if you'd like, finding new friends.
We did poll our Blendr users quite recently and the number that came back to us is that over 90% of both male and female are using it to talk with new people. Talking to new people essentially means dating or flirting. After watching our user habits and seeing what their doing, we've begun to push it in more of a dating and flirting direction instead of just social discovery.
Do you think anybody has really gotten the social graph right. Friends date friends of friends. There's one school of thought that says that's not cool, it should be a separate group. You don't want to mix that world. But in the real world, the reality is that people meet through their friends of friends. What's your philosophy on this and how does Blendr blend that in?
I think it's applicable to both Blendr and Grindr and just the social sphere in general. I do see it as two distinct buckets and I'm not sure that anyone has done it right in combining the two. Badoo would appear to be for flirting and dating. Whereas Facebook, it's more about social proof.
Could you define social proof?
Social proof for me is when I'm investigating somebody and something in their profile, whether it's an obvious mutual connection or mutual friend, or it's just some event that I know about. It qualifies them in my mind that I might be able to talk to them and they're not completely crazy.
What do you think is the future? Do you think these two buckets should be separate? Do you think the money's in a particular bucket in the future, in terms of monetization?
I'm not sure. It bugs me that I have to open five or six different apps to achieve what I want to do online. It would be nice to do that from a single location. But at the same time, if there was that single solution, would I want all those different aspects of my personal life to smear together?
How does Grindr use social media to generate word of mouth?
People talk about Grindr, regardless of our efforts to market it outside the app. We've got a pretty big following on Twitter and also on Facebook. We've had countless press mentions both in New York Times or TechCrunch – mainstream publications like that, and also pop culture. One of our big moments was when Stephen Fry mentioned us in his program and basically introduced Grindr to the masses.
How difficult was it to come up with the name?
Oh my gosh. The word Grindr came out of weeks and weeks of just looking at words and looking at concepts. I had a list of maybe 50 words and we just kept circling them and doing different iterations of each word. And we ended up on the word Grindr. It's a unique word. It's short, it rolls off your tongue, and it's memorable.
What would be your advice for someone who's just starting out and thinking I want to grow something for my particular dating community online and for mobile phone. How would you recommend they start? How would you recommend they spend money to seed?
I think a lot of success is built within taking risks and being passionate and focused about what you’re doing.
What one thing would you have done different in the first three months if you had to do it all over again?
Preparing ourselves for the amount of growth that we've had. We have 3.5 million users around the world. And very early on it became apparent that we weren't set up to handle the rapid scaling or the adoption rate with the gay guys that found out about Grindr. People are spending about 1.5 hours a day engaging on the app, and that leads to a lot of traffic.
Let's talk about the tech side of things as well. Do you think HTML5 is ever going to be strong enough to be able to do what you're doing with your native apps?
As a geek, I think HTML5 is super exciting. I wish there were more mainstream tools that facilitated development in HTML5. But we've created an ecosystem and a culture where people ask what apps are on your phone, not what websites do you go to. There's still some performance gaps that have to be met with HTML5. HTML5 seems to require a lot of processing cycles on your mobile device. As you get into older devices, the performance might not be up to par. We live in a world that is driven by app stores and the apps available in them.
You're on Android and iPhone. Do you have a Blackberry app?
We do have a Blackberry app and we support iPad as well.
How do you treat an iPad differently?
Apple defined two very different categories of their mobile devices. Whereas Android has one big ecosystem of things that run their operating system. So with regards to Grindr, we've done some optimization on the iPad. There's more room to display information on the profile. And certainly, at the end of the day, you see a much bigger, clearer picture of the person that you're talking to on your profile.
Do you see much difference between the usage of people on the Andoird versus iPhone?
Because we were first to market with iPhone, that's certainly where our largest population is. Android is catching up quickly. The barrier to entry to Android is a lot lower than iPhone, simply because a lot of the devices are cheaper or given away.
Are you seeing iPhone monetizing a lot better than Android?
I think Apple has done a wonderful job in terms of monetization. On iOS it's very easy for you to purchase your subscription credits.
So it's more streamlined basically?
A single button versus two pages of entering information is a much better user experience.
Who else would you say is doing a good job in the mobile dating space?
Anybody who's in Google Play, iTunes App Store or Blackberry App World top rankings is doing a tremendous job. If you look at the mobile dating space, I love Badoo.
The growth of mobile dating has been amazing over the last several months. It seems that most top tier dating sites are seeing 40-50% of their traffic on mobile now. Are you going to keep on doing the same thing and improving and growing? Or is there any revelation with the growth of the competitive space around you?
The competitive space is constantly growing and changing. Both in the gay market and also the mainstream market. I think that whatever happens tomorrow, happens tomorrow. Any company adapts and responds and evaluates. With regards to Grindr, our single most important thing is to make our users happy. So with regards to the future of Grindr, to me the most important thing is to sort of take the loyalty and the monetization our users give us and turn that around and develop new features and constantly improve the experience so that we can give it back to our users. Because at the end of the day, if we're trying to help gay guys meet each other, that better be one hell of an experience.