Twenty questions for Grindr creator Joel Simkhai
CEO on imitators, haters and the pressures of being on top
In just over two years, Grindr has gone from upstart hookup site to a premier gay networking site with more than 2.3 million users in 192 countries. The genius of Grindr is in the way it combines a smartphone’s GPS with photo and text messaging to help users connect with nearby gay guys wherever they go.
But the app’s success has sparked criticism from some quarters: those who say it censors profile pictures using a standard of morality that would make Victorian England chuckle.
As the company gets ready to launch a straight version of Grindr later this summer, Xtra spoke with company creator and CEO Joel Simkhai...
Xtra: How did you come up with the idea for Grindr?
Joel Simkhai: I always wondered who’s gay around me, and I’ve always wanted to find a way to figure that out. That’s largely what’s driven it. As a second piece to it, I’ve also used online dating sites throughout my whole life, and location isn’t quite a priority on them. You go in, put in a mile or kilometre, and that’s quite far. I always look: who are the guys in my building, in my block, right around me? That’s always been the nagging question for me. I looked for a way to solve that and it just wasn’t there. The second generation iPhone comes in with GPS and the app store and the ability to write native applications, and then it just became a race to get the app out as quickly as possible.
Xtra: What’s the next step when you’ve got an app idea?
Simkhai: You’ve got to have a concept and a developer to write the software for that. And with software, there’s two pieces to it: the software that sits on your iPhone, and just as important is the software on the servers connecting all these iPhones. That’s quite complicated. We spend a lot of our time and resources to scale to the two million users that we have. It’s really important that when you launch Grindr you connect within seconds – no long delays. My friend Scott Lewallen designed it, came up with the branding and design and all the stuff that’s not the programming.
Xtra: Can you explain what the name and logo are about?
Simkhai: The word Grindr comes from a coffee grinder. We’re mixing people up together, a bit of a social stew. It is a little bit rough – not to mix, but to grind. Our design, logo, colouring – we wanted something a little bit tougher, rough. It’s also very masculine. It’s a masculine word, sound. We wanted something that wasn’t necessarily about being gay. It could be anything.
We looked at this notion of meeting people and the idea is very much a basic human need to relax and to socialize. I went back to primitive tribal arts in Africa and Polynesia. One of the things I saw was these primal masks. It brings us back to basics, primal needs. Socialization is the basis of humanity.
Xtra: How did Grindr get from being a new launch in the app store to having 2.3 million users at last count?
Simkhai: I’m not quite sure how it gets that big. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Largely it’s been based on word of mouth. We’ve had mentions in mainstream press and gay press, The Wall Street Journal blog, we’ve had press around the world.
If I was to give someone advice on how to get an app out, create an app that people need and that solves an important problem in their lives, and make sure it’s fun and easy to use. I think Grindr passes all three of those tests.
We also did some street teams. We went to different Prides; went to the White Party at Palm Springs. There was a mention on [UK automobile television show] Top Gear by Stephen Fry. That put us on the map in the UK and around the world.
It’s hard to figure out how exactly we got from the 10 people who worked on it internally to the 10,000th user. We were lucky that we got in early. We were one of the first 10,000 apps. It’s a lot harder to get noticed these days. We got mentioned on Tech Crunch within the first week.
Xtra: How does Grindr make money? Is it primarily from sales of Grindr Xtra or ads?
Simkhai: It’s about half and half between ads on Grindr and payments received from users of Grindr Xtra. We launched Xtra several months after Grindr. We haven’t taken any outside capital. All of our revenue goes back to operations, to hire people, maintain servers and release new features.
Xtra: How do you explain its success in some markets relative to others? For example, there are twice as many users in Australia than Canada when Australia has about 65 percent of our population.
Simkhai: I wish I knew the answer to it. When something happens organically, it’s quite tough to figure it out. The Stephen Fry thing helped in the UK. Why does Australia have more users than Canada? I’m not sure. I can’t say we bought 10 commercials in Australia, because we didn’t. I read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I would guess that in a lot of these countries, you need to reach the tipping point and then it takes off. It could be in some places we didn’t get that key person, or that press mention that enabled it. Or it could be societal. It could be a lot easier for gay men to meet guys in Canada than Australia, so the need is less. When there isn’t a marketing plan it’s hard to figure out.
Xtra: You also claim to have lots of users in countries where homosexuality is still taboo, if not illegal. Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei are among the top 10 cities for number of users, and Japan and Taiwan are both in the top 10 countries.
Simkhai: I am surprised, but it could make more sense. I know in Hong Kong, there were one or two gay bars when I was there five years ago. It’s super surprising to me when you’ve got users around the world. Tokyo’s a top city and it is very surprising. It’s encouraging because it tells me we did create a product that serves a universal need. And you don’t need to speak English to use Grindr. That’s simply exciting.
Xtra: Grindr’s press releases also claim that it has users in places like Iraq, Iran, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Malawi, Yemen. Being gay in those countries entails huge risk, even the death penalty. Do you think Grindr might sow seeds of a revolution in gay socializing, or even the gay rights movement in those countries?
Simkhai: I don’t know how that will affect different areas. But certainly being in a country where you can’t express yourself, hopefully we’re helping them connect in these different places. Certainly just by our user numbers in these countries, people are using the app to meet others in places where they couldn’t do so.
Xtra: For a site that’s essentially all about gay guys cruising other gay guys, its product description is very coy. The product tagline is “Grindr. It’s a guy thing.” The description boasts that “Grindr is the largest all-male location-based mobile network tool for Android, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad and BlackBerry.” Why not come out and say exactly what it is?
Simkhai: I don’t think we play down the gay aspect of it at all. For us, this is a tool to meet other men. That’s what we’re about. It’s not necessarily about being gay. It’s about someone who’s into other men. Some people don’t take to the description of gay or bi. I think it’s not much of a distinction with guys who would say that they’re straight but have been with guys before. We’re less about labels, but we’re about "Hey, I’d like to meet another guy." We’re not putting any labels on it. That’s the practicality of it.
Xtra: But it is an app for cruising, isn’t it?
Simkhai: I would disagree with that. It’s an app for guys meeting guys. Some are for sex, some are just to meet people. From our own research, the number one thing people are looking for is friendship. Eighty-five percent of users have made a friend off of it. I’m less concerned with how people are using it. We’re quite comfortable with our users using the app in any way that’s lawful and safe. If they are going to have sex, I just hope it’s safe sex.
Xtra: If you’re so comfortable with users using the app for sex, why all the rules about what’s allowed and restricted in user profiles? The Grindr guidelines currently ban profanity and nudity but also even the hint of nudity, pictures of guys in their underwear, wearing towels, fluids that look like semen, etc.
Simkhai: Apple has some guidelines. They’ve got their rules. They’re fairly explicit about profanity, nudity, overall sexuality. We have to obey those guidelines. There have been other apps out there that haven’t minded those guidelines, and they’ve come down. We simply have to abide by those guidelines; therefore, profiles have to conform to those guidelines. Some of them have to do with nudity, profanity, commercial activity. We also don’t want people selling [on Grindr]. It’s for socializing.
Xtra: Your competitors don’t have rules like that – sites like Recon, GuySpy, Scruff, Jack’d, etc are much less stringent about their rules.
Simkhai: I don’t know. I do know some of those apps have been taken down from the app store. I don’t answer for those apps. I look at Apple’s guidelines and use my interpretation. It’s a bit like looking at the constitution. We are the number one app in the App Store. Being number one, you get a different level of scrutiny, a different level of responsibility. I have 60 people working for this company. I can’t jeopardize their work based on a loose interpretation of the rules. I also have 2.3 million users I’m responsible for.
These rules are for our profile guidelines. This is simply what people can put in their profiles. There’s private chat where people can express themselves in different ways. Just like in real life, there’s public space and private space. In private space the rules are more relaxed. From my perspective this is something of a non-issue. I don’t particularly see a huge need for a profile to be explicit. I just don’t think it’s absolutely necessary.
Xtra: Have you been following the imitator apps that have come out? How do you respond to them?
Simkhai: I don’t pay attention to that stuff. I pay very close attention to our app and what we’re doing, and we are the largest in terms of — we probably have more users on a daily basis than other apps have total users. The power of that is immense. You can go to any bar in the world and meet people who are close to you. We continue to innovate and do things that are very powerful. Others will have different approaches to how to tackle the market.
Xtra: Do you see Grindr changing the way gays communicate and socialize? In the last two years, we’ve seen Grindr nights at gay clubs, where guys are encouraged to spend the night chatting away on Grindr rather than meeting face-to-face. And it continues a trend internet dating started of guys not having to go to gay hangouts at all to find other gay guys.
Simkhai: I think I could probably talk about that for hours. I think it mobilizes the gay community again. Ten years before Grindr, there were these [hookup] websites. Those kept guys away from the bars, kept them stationary. With Grindr, you’re now mobile. You’re actually incentivized to go out. If you stay home all the time, you’re not going to get the diversity of people. If you go five blocks, you’ll see a whole diversity of users. We’re getting people out of their houses again.
You can go travel. You can literally almost go to any country in the world and meet someone. The second you land, you can log in and meet users. You can meet people to guide you, find out what’s a good bar or restaurant.
The other point is in terms of helping you meet people around you. You now can go meet your neighbours, and I can try to do this quickly and efficiently. I don’t have to spend weeks and months emailing back and forth, making it a big production. I see someone’s a few hundred feet away from me, I can just say, "Hey, let’s meet at Starbucks."
Xtra: Do you think the Grindr format, or internet dating in general, is dehumanizing at all? Pull up a Grindr cascade and you’ll see dozens of faceless, headless torso pics. It’s not uncommon for guys to send a picture of their junk within the first couple of messages, often before a face picture. Does that make the scene more of a meat market?
Simkhai: I don’t know that that dehumanizes. Some people are comfortable sharing a face photo and some aren’t. It’s a personal choice. I don’t think anyone cares about my opinion on that. As men, body image and what we look like are very important to us. That’s why we chose the design of the app with the cascade of photos. As we look at the new app, straight women and lesbians, they want to know a little bit more.
As men we’re very visual, and the photos very important, the body’s very important. When you go meet someone at a bar, you do see them, you see their face, you see their body, that’s very natural.
I don’t know. I’m always a person who’s very respectful of privacy. I don’t know if that person isn’t showing his face because he’s closeted or just wants to show off his body because his face isn’t as good. I know we could never mandate that everyone has a face in their photo, because of privacy. We don’t tell you to do anything other than follow guidelines – we don’t ask for email address or phone number, we don’t require a photo. That was unheard of three years ago, and is still largely unheard of. I don’t know why some guys don’t show their face; that’s for them to decide.
Xtra: You’re about to launch a straight version of the app. How do you suppose that will affect straight dating?
Simkhai: We’ve heard from women, straight men, lesbians. They’ve all come back to us and said, "I want an easier way to meet people. I’ve got Facebook to help me connect with my friends, but I want something to meet people." It’s not just about dating, but about meeting, making friends. It might be a straight girl who wants to meet another straight girl for any reason. That’s something I think there’s a huge demand for. We’re all looking for people to spend time with.
The approach is different because on Grindr, I’m gay, he’s gay – that’s a strong bond. You’ve got to replace that with something else. How do you narrow that down, figure out how do you meet someone next to you. That’s what we’ve been doing, talking and listening to women and men about how to socialize more efficiently while still being fun. We’ll be providing tools to help you figure out who those people are and sift through those people in your area and meet those you want to meet.
Xtra: Sites like douchebagsofgrindr.com are critical of the way profiles on Grindr often read as racist or superficial. What’s your thought on the backlash, or on racist users?
Simkhai: We do a lot of listening and monitoring. It’s a tough issue. It’s very tough when you open something up and create a community. You want to make everybody comfortable, give them a way to express themselves, but you also want to protect others, those who might be minorities. It’s a tough balance when you take the laissez-faire approach we do at Grindr. Any profile can be reported. Users can also send us emails and report certain things. Overall, it’s very difficult to solve this issue, but we do have guidelines, and if those guidelines aren’t being met they can let us know.
I haven’t spent time on [douchebagsofgrindr.com], but I’m certainly aware of those types of sites. One thing I recommend is if someone’s photo has been posted without their permission, I would recommend that they contact these sites and ask to be removed. If the site doesn’t comply, contact us and let us know. If it is your photo and these sites aren’t taking them down, we’d certainly like to know. I’ll leave it at that.
My personal reaction to these types of sites is that it reminds me of high school or junior high school. Picking on people. Even if it’s in jest, to me it just takes me back to high school when I was teased as a teenager, and certainly that wasn’t a pleasant experience for me personally. I certainly don’t like that. I also don’t like if anyone is profiting under these things. They’ve got rights under the first amendment, but they’re mean spirited and not in the spirit of what Grindr’s about. Ganging up and picking on one person just doesn’t serve any kind of, anything positive. I personally think it’s reprehensible. I don’t think it’s appropriate nor do I condone it.
Xtra: What were you picked on for in high school?
Simkhai: Just probably for being gay and not knowing it. I put those days behind me.
Xtra: Do you use Grindr?
Simkhai: I do. I use it all the time. I’m on right now. I’m on it often. I created it to serve a need in my life. I dreamed of a day I could log on to see who’s around me and meet them. It’s great to live that dream. It’s fantastic, travelling around, being here. It’s just been tremendous for me. I’m on it a lot.
Xtra: Do you have any pet peeves about Grindr users?
Simkhai: One thing, it’s a tough one: if you’re not interested I think it’s nice to express that to someone else. Just to say, "Hey, I don’t think it’s a match," I think is a nice thing to do. If someone else isn’t to your liking, don’t take it personally. I realize I can’t be for everybody.