Miranda Levitt was gushing about her new guy. His name was Todd, she told a girlfriend one day this summer, and he was so great—a director, older, established. The 26-year-old New York actress kept enthusing until her friend, with a dawning sense of recognition, cut her off: What’s his name again? The same “great guy” had been asking her out for a week on Tinder.
“My first reaction is like, ‘What the f--- is Tinder?’ ” Levitt says. “So of course I downloaded it and proceeded to play on it like it was a video game for weeks.”
Tinder, as Levitt learned, is not a website. It’s a pathologically addictive flirting-dating-hookup app. The first step in using it is to sign in with your Facebook (FB) ID, which gives Tinder your name, age, photos, and sexual orientation. There is no second step. You’re immediately shown the face of a person of your preferred sex, and, again, there’s only one thing to do: Swipe right if you like what you see, swipe left if you don’t. Another face instantly appears for appraisal, and then another.
Tinder feels like a game until you remember that the people behind those faces are swiping you back. If, and only if, both parties like each other, a private chat box appears. You could conceivably have a conversation. You could make a date. Or you could simply meet for sex, minutes after Tinder’s algorithms matched your profiles. One year after launching, Tinder’s hordes have swipe-rated each other 13 billion times—3 billion in August alone—and 2 million matches happen each day. It’s the fastest-growing free dating app in the U.S.
The average Tinderer checks the app 11 times per day, seven minutes at a time. The company says it knows of 50 marriage proposals to date. Levitt cannot escape it. “Last night I was out with a friend,” she says. At the bar there was a guy, and things were going well. “I go to the bathroom, and when I come back I look over at his phone and Tinder is up! I was like, ‘Are you kidding?!’ And he was like, ‘No, I mean, someone matched me, and I’m checking it!’ I was like, ‘OK, dude.’ ”
Levitt makes an exasperated noise. “It’s being integrated into my life as a twentysomething a lot more than I thought it would be,” she says.
Like the monster in Alien, Tinder may be a perfectly evolved organism, a predator for your attention built on the DNA of its social networking predecessors. The faces you see on Tinder seem real because they’re tied to Facebook accounts, the gold standard of authenticity. Tinder takes the gay app Grindr’s location function, which pinpoints eager men down to the foot, and tames it for a female audience, rounding distance to the nearest mile. You can chat with Tinder matches, but you can’t send photos or video, so the app avoids Chatroulette’s fate of being overrun by aspiring Anthony Weiners.
What makes Tinder truly killer, though, is that it was designed exclusively for smartphones and the hypersocial millennials who wield them. Although online dating has long since lost its stigma, OkCupid and EHarmony remain sites you browse alone at home, with a fortifying glass of wine and a spreadsheet to track interactions. Tinder is an app you pull up at a bar with friends, passing the iPhone around.
“The way Tinder works is the way people tell us they see the world,” says Chief Executive Officer Sean Rad. “They walk around, they see girls, and they say in their heads, ‘Yes, no, yes, no.’ ” Rad, 27, lives in Los Angeles, where the company is based. He met his girlfriend four months ago, after they both swiped right.
Tinder would check all the boxes of the classic rocketing digital startup success—college dropout founder, colorful offices, young users, and a geometric growth curve—if it weren’t for one minor detail: It’s not actually a startup. Tinder will never have a splashy initial public offering or the thrill of announcing a billion-dollar acquisition by a large corporation, because it’s already owned by a large corporation.
The app was born in a startup lab controlled by IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI), Barry Diller’s portfolio of digital companies, which now has a dominant equity stake. Venture capital firms that would otherwise have bid up funding rounds have approached Tinder and struck out. From an investor’s standpoint, the hottest property in the hookup industry is wearing a chastity belt.
In March 2011, IAC struck a deal with a startup incubator called Hatch Labs to function as a semi-autonomous skunkworks. IAC is an acquisitive company; it had just spent $50 million to buy OkCupid, an upstart challenging its market-leading Match.com unit, which boasts 1.9 million paid subscribers. Why not try to build businesses in-house, before they get pricey? Hatch would operate out of IAC’s offices, and IAC would get first dibs on whatever it dreamed up.
Rad was hired a year later. With two previous startups to his name (Orgoo, a website that consolidated all of a user’s e-mail and chat accounts into one, and Adly, an advertising platform for social media), Rad was a serial entrepreneur. Like others at the incubator, he’d been nursing an idea about dating.
At one of Hatch’s regular “hackathons”—multiday events where employees ditch their normal workloads to prototype an idea—Rad and a team produced a location-based dating app they called Matchbox. His boss put Matchbox on ice to focus on an existing project, but when Apple (AAPL) dragged its feet approving that app for sale in its App Store, Matchbox got the green light. As it developed, the name was changed to Tinder to play down the connection to Match.com and because women responded better to the sound of Tinder in testing.
The app had a crisp design and the irresistible swipe-to-rate gesture, but it might never have caught fire if not for Justin Mateen’s marketing plan. Facebook famously got its start by launching at elite colleges; Tinder did the same, but at elite party schools. When the app went live on Sept. 14, 2012, Mateen targeted the University of Southern California, Playboy’s second-ranked party school of 2012, where he and Rad had become best friends, as well as the University of California at Los Angeles, and colleges in Texas and Boston. Seeding the network with the right kind of users, i.e. attractive women, was critical. “We went after the highly social kids on campus, the people that were looked up to in their peer groups,” Mateen, 27, says. “At first it was challenging—we were going to models, and models were like, ‘I would never use this product.’ And sure enough, a few months later they’re on it, and they’re extremely active.”
Some 300 people, almost all in Mateen’s address book, tried Tinder on the app’s first day, rating each other 3,000 times. There were 1,000 users within a week. Tinder stocked its social media accounts with photos of girls in bikinis and tight tops, along with a few handsome men. By December the numbers had seized the attention of Sam Yagan, Match.com’s CEO. “When I saw the growth, I asked the guys, ‘Are you cheating?’ ” Yagan says. Some apps trick users into spamming links to their entire contact list. “It was nonviral growth,” Yagan says, “true, true word-of-mouth growth.”
Tinder memes popped up as the service took root in Internet culture. In March, Rad and Mateen posted to their personal Instagram feeds a new definition from UrbanDictionary.com: “Tinderslut: A girl that sleeps with men using the popular dating application called Tinder.” Mateen’s caption gave it two emoji thumbs up. (“I’m deleting that now,” Rad says when asked about it. “I don’t think you should delete it!” Mateen responds. “It was an exciting day for us!”) In May, Rad posted a user’s thank-you e-mail: “This man, I have come to realize, is the love of my life. And he is the man that I’m going to marry, one week from tomorrow … I found him, my soul mate, on Tinder.”
“You do start realizing that you’re changing lives,” Rad says.
The New York Post put Nana Meriwether, the 2012 Miss USA, on its front page one day in July after she was discovered on Tinder in her sash. “Even pageant titleholders get lonely,” she said.
IAC is giddy over its investment. “Services like Tinder and OkCupid acclimate new groups of people to meeting online,” CEO Gregory Blatt said on a July 31 earnings call. “Once people have used technology to meet other people, no matter what the service was they initially used, a barrier’s been broken, and they’re more likely to do it again.” Tinder may one day draw revenue of its own, but for now it’s essentially a gateway drug to Match.com, which had operating income of $205 million for 2012. “The more people we can get to try these services, whether we own them or not, the more likely they are to use our other services,” Blatt added. “Of course, it’s better when we own them.”
That’s a subject Rad prefers to avoid. “IAC is sort of our partner in this,” he says when asked about the relationship. “They’re our lead financiers. We’re very happy with that. We are an independent company, we’re a startup, and we do whatever we want here.” Pressed a second and then a third time, he says, “Tinder is essentially a startup that IAC owns the majority of.”
It’s not a semantic distinction. Rad has ambitions of Tinder taking over the world, while IAC is quite content with it as Match.com’s kid sister. This summer, as Tinder grew and grew, Rad talked about expanding the app into business relationships and social discovery of all kinds. “The word ‘dating’ doesn’t even mean s--- to us,” he says one evening in August. “What does that even mean?”
The following day, after a video check-in with Yagan, he’s back on script. “Tinder is always going to be in the dating business,” Rad says. “There was a period of time when we were thinking about going beyond that.” Rad can still get rich from Tinder—he has his own equity stake—but his position illustrates the control a founder loses when his company is nurtured in offices designed by Frank Gehry, as opposed to a garage.
Tinder has plenty to do in the present before addressing its future direction. This golden moment in its growth cycle—when Tinder’s swipe gesture is novel and its users tend to be young, urban, outgoing experimenters—will eventually fade. Users from 18 to 24 have already fallen to 60 percent of the Tinder population, Mateen says, from 80 percent at the beginning of this year.
Rad still talks of finding a strategy that allows Tinder to get gigantic while keeping his and IAC’s interests aligned. “I do think there’s this sort of question mark around whether Tinder gets so successful that it would cannibalize the entire market,” Rad says. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing for IAC. That’s a great thing for IAC. If disruption is going to happen, why not let it happen from within?”