Joel Simkhai founded the company behind an incredibly popular app called Grindr. But to take the service mainstream, he knew he had to pivot. Well, sort of.
Joel Simkhai, the founder of Grindr, a location-based gay social network, says he never really intended to build a business.
“I went into this with no business model, no plan, no expectations,” Simkhai says. “I’ve never been driven by the exit or the business part of it. I’m driven by the part that does amazing things.”
The app launched in November 2009. Fewer than three years later, it already has more than three million users in 192 countries. There are up to 52,000 users on the service at any time, and more than 700,000 daily users. In some senses, apps such as Grindr are largely redefining the way people meet and interact, not just online, but in person. “We’re going to understand the concept of ‘1,000 feet away’ in a new way,” Simkhai says.
I met Joel for coffee at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago. Simkhai was not there to promote Grindr—he was there, instead, to promote Blendr, a similar app that connects people, both straight and gay, for both romantic and social purposes. Users log on to Blendr, and can find people with similar tastes and interests that are nearby. Blendr began as an idea as early as 2010, just right around when Grindr really started to gain popularity.
“I began hearing from my straight friends and women they asked me why we don’t make a Grindr for everyone,” Simkhai says. “I took those requests seriously. And I’m a person who has always been passionate about matchmaking and connecting people anyway, so Blendr was the obvious next step. Blendr is based on that passion for connecting, that idea that whenever I walk into a room, I’m always wondering, ‘Who are these people around me?’ So wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool to help you figure that out, to find new connections and be more social?”
Blendr officially launched in September 2011, about two years after Grindr went live. Since its launch, it’s been featured as “New and Noteworthy” in the app store; it has also been highlighted as a staff favorite.
But there seems to be an obvious question: Why pivot to a new company when you already have an extremely fast-growing firm under your belt?
“I don’t think of Blendr as a pivot, because that would suggest we’re turning away from Grindr, which we’re definitely not,” Simkhai says. “Grindr is alive and well, and we’re very committed to the Grindr community, whose growth is as strong as ever. In fact, almost 10,000 new users join Grindr daily.”
Before launching Blendr, the company scaled up, hired a full executive team and have since expanded the staff significantly. The company now has 56 full-time employees, 45 of whom are on site, and are still looking to fill position.
“While both apps are completely separate, we do leverage the same technology platform and resources, and our teams all work on both products,” Simkhai says.
In short, Simkhai realized that he could leverage his current human capital and technology to build an entirely new product. And it wasn’t expensive to do so.
Both companies are self-financed and through premium services and advertising revenue, though Simkhai is reluctant to offer revenue numbers. He says the company has spent no money of marketing, and downloads are completely driven by word of mouth. He does not plan on taking outside funding.
Of course, there were some hurdles of expanding into new markets. Simkhai was surprised, for example, that women were especially more concerned with privacy issues.
“Since Blendr is geared toward a broader audience with a focus on women, we built the app with privacy in mind, and we decided to give the user total control,” he says. “You can choose how much or how little of your location to reveal. You also choose who can view your profile, and you can block users.”
Plus, competition in the space has heated up. Rival apps like Highlight and Glancee, not to mention the mobile app for OkCupid, make the quest for market share all the more difficult.
“The key is getting critical mass,” he says. “No merchants want you if you have 10 users.”
Ultimately, Simkhai is driven by the conviction that people want to connect with the interesting people around them, but lack the tools to interact. Technology, he believes, can solve that problem.
“We’ve heard tales from guys in places where it’s not so easy for guys who like guys—small, conservative towns, for instance—about how they use Grindr as a sort of romantic lifeline,” he says. “We’ve seen stories of new best friends and new love from users as far away as China, the Philippines, Australia, Italy, Brazil…everywhere. I’m really proud of the fact that by harnessing the power of location-based technology, we’re able to bring people together—people who would otherwise be completely disconnected. And we’re working on collecting the same stories from Blendr users.”