“I’m healthy. I have a great family. I have a great group of friends.”
Whitney Wolfe had to remind herself of that often in August, when she was in the middle of a very-public sexual harassment lawsuit with a company she co-founded, Tinder.
Tinder is one of the world’s hottest new companies. Founded in 2012 by Wolfe, Sean Rad, Chris Gulzcynski and Justin Mateen in an IAC startup incubator, Tinder is now valued by Silicon Valley investors at ~ $US750 million.
“I don’t wish for anyone to go through that, especially right as you’re turning 25,” Wolfe says of the lawsuit.
Wolfe joined Hatch Labs, the IAC incubator that yielded Tinder, when she was 22. She met Sean Rad, Tinder’s co-founder, at a dinner with mutual friends in Los Angeles. Rad was leading a project in the incubator, a customer service loyalty startup called Cardify, and hired Wolfe. But when Cardify failed to gain traction, the team began spinning its wheels on other projects, including a dating app that allowed users to quickly swipe through Facebook profiles of local single people, like Hot or Not.
Wolfe, took the idea for Tinder under her wing. She says she came up with the name of the app and initially promoted it on college campuses. She was given a cofounder title.
Then, her direct manager and fellow cofounder, Justin Mateen, took a liking to her. The pair dated in February 2013 and dated on and off for the remainder of the year. Wolfe says her relationship with Mateen ended for good when he became “verbally controlling and abusive.” The way he acted after their break up allegedly forced her to resign from the company, resulting in a lawsuit which has since been settled, netting Wolfe more than $US1 million and stock in Tinder.
“It wasn’t about the money,” Wolfe says, insisting she tried to resolve the matter privately for a long time before the lawsuit was filed. “It was about my hard work. I had been erased from the company’s history … I’m not here to take credit fully for Tinder, it’s about the team and I think I played a really important role in the team. I was there from inception of this app that’s now known by the world.”
The lawsuit attracted a lot of attention in the press, some which accused Wolfe of being equally nasty to Mateen and trying to get rich off of someone else’s success.
“It’s easy to say, ‘She asked for it,’ or ‘Oh, she was dramatic,'” Wolfe says. “I think insecurities sometimes are extremely loud. The average person out there reading an article [about me] wants to say whatever they want. I know my truth and I know what really matters to me.”
Wolfe received notes of encouragement too. One person who reached out to Wolfe in August was Andrey Andreev, whom Wolfe had met briefly at Tinder. Andreev is the co-founder of Badoo, a dating website that has 250 million users. He asked Wolfe to meet, and the two discussed what she planned to work on next.
Wolfe initially wanted to make an Instagram competitor for a younger audience, where only positive comments could be left. Andreev encouraged her to think about getting back into the dating space.
“I wanted to do something that would promote a responsible user online. There’s a lot of room to be negligent and nasty to each other,” Wolfe says. “I figured, whatever I do next I want to narrow that down. I wasn’t going to do it in the dating space at all.”
Andreev got her to reconsider, and now he’s partnered with her on a new dating app that resembles Tinder, Bumble. They recruited another Tinder co-founder who departed, Chris Gulzcynski, and Tinder’s former VP of Design, Sarah Mick.
In late 2014, the four launched Bumble. Wolfe is marketing the app to young adults and college sororities (Wolfe was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma). Her efforts have created traction at a few southern schools like Auburn and UT Austin where thousands of students are on the app.
Bumble, like Tinder, uses profile swiping to match single people in the same town. But on Bumble, women are forced to make the first move. They have 24 hours to message a match, otherwise the match disappears. Men are left to pine over women, powerless, unless they’re reached out to. If a relationship is same-sex however, either person who’s matched can reach out.
Wolfe says the decision to empower women was inspired by Sadie Hawkins dances.
“We’re definitely not trying to be sexist, that’s not the goal,” Wolfe says. “I know guys get sick of making the first move all the time. Why does a girl feel like she should sit and wait around? Why is there this standard that, as a woman, you can get your dream job but you can’t talk to a guy first? Let’s make dating feel more modern.”
The ephemeral nature of Bumble is meant to eliminate dead-end matches.
“On Tinder, maybe you get 100 matches, then the guy either feels like he has to do 100 chats or the girl feels uncomfortable starting a chat, so I think it gets convoluted for the user and results in dead-end matches [where no one reaches out],” says Wolfe. “60% of matches on Bumble are turning into conversations. That means women are saving 60% of their matches.”
While Wolfe says founding Tinder was exciting, it’s easy to take a startup rocketship for granted. With Bumble, she’s hoping she’ll get a second chance to witness success.
“I remember when we were starting Tinder we were like, ‘We’re going to be the next Instagram!,'” Wolfe says. “I remember sending my parents emails being like, ‘We got 300 members!’ It was crazy, but as much as we appreciated it, you take [that kind of growth] for granted a little bit too … To go from 0 to [tens of millions of users] in a short amount of time, it’s like the human mind can’t understand success on that level … It was phenomenal and so surreal.”
Bumble’s launch looks promising. Wolfe says the initial traction is even better than Tinder’s was, with nearly 100,000 downloads in a little over one month and high user engagement.
“Any startup would dream for what we’re seeing,” says Wolfe. “I know everyone wants to refute my roll at tinder but the truth is the truth. I played my roll at that company and I’m going to do it again in a different way. I don’t think anyone should be limited in continuing on in their career.”
Wolfe adds, “I realise yes, maybe Tinder ended in a lawsuit and we all went our own ways. But two years ago we were all just kids who were working on a company that didn’t have users yet. It was just a really crazy ride.”