When Joel Simkhai launched the all-guys meetup app Grinder back in 2009, he just wanted to meet gay people in Los Angeles. The app subsequently exploded, with 7 million users in 192 countries–including places like Saudi Arabia where you’re not going to find a gay bar. We talked to Joel about the growing pains of scaling too fast, the subtleties of growing into a manager, and what it’s like to become an unintentional activist. Find an edited version of that conversation below.
It’s better that I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I started this. The technology aspect of this is a huge undertaking. Back when I started, it was an idea: I want to meet the guys around me using my smartphone. At the time I just focused on the iPhone; there was no Android, there was no Blackberry. It seemed pretty straightforward. The real challenge becomes scaling it, allowing millions of users to create accounts and be able to secure it.
Another thing that’s harder than it seems is managing a team. As I sit here as CEO, it was not something I’d done before. I didn’t quite realize that the execution of this idea is much more people intensive and tech intensive than I thought. But we’ve been able to execute and become the business we are today.
The most difficult part for me was to transition from a doer to a delegator. The key part of delegation is finding competent people–and not settling. There’s been a lot of situations where you settle because hey I don’t want to keep looking or this is the best I can find, but in the long run or the medium run, you’re actually worse off. The key thing is the recruiting part, finding someone who has the proven ability to execute.
Once they’re on the job, it’s literally about giving them the ability to give them these projects and the tools to get them done and then trusting in them to do it.
Luckily we started this business in 2009 and not 1999, so we have the cloud. We’ve used Google, now we use Amazon, and those tools allow us to scale on the backend. In terms of payment processing, we use Stripe and Apple iTunes. We use a host of different ad networks. We have billions of impressions a month. Fifteen years ago you wouldn’t have found inventory to fill that.
One aspect of scaling is leveraging third-party providers, the other is simplicity. Keeping the experience simple and straightforward. You’ll notice that we have one photo in the profile, we don’t allow you to send large files in chat. We constrained it to the bare necessities of the experience and that allows us to scale a lot easier and it also allows us to go global in a lot of areas.
Grindr is such a basic experience that you don’t really need to speak English to understand how to do it. So, our simplicity of service allows us allows us to scale globally and not actually have to be localized. This notion of simplicity helps you grow; if we had a very complicated service scaling would be tough from a technological standpoint and a localization standpoint.
It’s not part of who we started out to be. It was all about “Hey, I want to find more guys in L.A.” and it certainly very quickly outgrew my own needs and my own views on how this app should be used and it became something that was very much larger than myself. Very much something that meant different things for different people, especially in different countries. That becomes Grindr for Equality, where we’re formally trying to advance gay rights. We’ve noticed that we do have an impact and can make an impact.
I think back to when I was coming out, when I was 18, 19, 20–or when I first had my inclinations that I was gay, it was very, very helpful to know that I wasn’t the only one, because it’s a very, very lonely process and its a lot easier when you have other people. So I’m proud that Grindr can play a role for guys that are coming out here in the U.S. or abroad who can tap into this community and see that they’re not alone.
The Bottom Line:
If I had to sum up in one sentence why we’ve been successful, I’d say it’s because we solved a very big problem in a very simple manner.