Like many single millennials, Ashley and Connor met cute the modern way: They matched on Bumble, the dating app where people swipe through potential partners but only women are allowed to initiate a conversation, and started texting. But when Ashley asked an innocent question about work, Connor launched into a misogynistic rant in which he called her a “gold-digging whore.” Bumble’s response, a fiery blog post now known as the “Dear Connor” letter, quickly went viral. The company called for a future in which Connor would “engage in everyday conversations with women without being afraid of their power”—and then, in an unusual move, banned him from using the service.
Whitney Wolfe, Bumble’s 28-year-old founder and CEO, understands how it feels to be on the receiving end of such messages. Flanked by a handful of the 30 employees (mostly women) who work out of the company’s Austin office, she explains that she founded Bumble in 2014 “in response to our dating issues, our issues with men, our issues with gender dynamics.” At the time, Wolfe had been reeling from her dramatic exit from the dating app Tinder, where she served as VP of marketing. Following an ugly breakup with cofounder Justin Mateen, Wolfe brought a sexual harassment suit against her former colleagues, accusing them of discrimination and stripping her of her cofounder title—claims Tinder called unfounded. Texts in which Mateen repeatedly bashed Wolfe’s romantic life and threatened her future at the company citing their strained relationship were presented as evidence; the case was settled out of court.
This fall, @bumble CEO @whitwolfe is launching a LinkedIn competitor alongside the feminist dating app: @bumblebizz. With it, she’s expanding her ambitions—for Bumble and for women. Read about her plans to give women greater access to love and career opportunity in our digital cover story on FastCompany.com now. [Photo: @ninebagatelles]
After her painful split from Tinder, the last thing Wolfe wanted to do was start another tech company. She sunk into a deep depression and eventually fled Los Angeles for Austin, where she thought she might open a juice bar. “I read what people were saying about me, and I was sure I was done,” she says. “I felt like a washed-up rag, the dirtiest, grossest person in the world.” But shortly after her move, she got a call from Andrey Andreev, the founder and CEO of social networking site Badoo, who wanted to know her plans. In August of 2014, Andreev and Wolfe met in Greece to discuss partnering on a female-centric dating app.
Three years after that first conversation, Bumble has amassed more than 20 million users, and it continues to add more than 50,000 new ones per day. It’s on track to take in more than $150 million in revenue in 2018. (The basic app is free, but more than 10% of its active users pay up to $9.99 per month for a subscription, which grants access to premium features such as a list of people who have already swiped right on them.) Bumble’s users are emboldened by the app’s impressively low rate of abuse reports; in addition to banning people like Connor, Bumble also blocks those who send unwanted nude photos, and it was the first dating app to initiate photo verification practices, limiting the potential for fake profiles.
Now Bumble is betting that its matchmaking technology can do more than foster romantic or personal connections. After launching its Bumble BFF vertical a year ago, which pairs users with new friends, Wolfe is repositioning the company to make room for BumbleBizz, a professional networking vertical debuting in early October where users can look for work, find a business partner, or hire new talent. The original dating service will be rebranded as Bumble Honey. “Whitney’s vision extended well beyond dating from the beginning,” says Andreev, who owns a majority stake in Bumble.
Giving users more to swipe about than merely romance fits nicely with Bumble’s feminist founding mission. But this approach also taps into a critical cultural zeitgeist as women push back against the subtle and overt harassment they face in business. As companies like Uber and Google struggle to overcome public reports of discrimination, a rising cohort of women, from venture capitalists to finance and tech entrepreneurs, are determined to refashion what is acceptable and what is possible in the workplace. In Wolfe’s case, it starts with a simple question: “Why does it have to be all about love?” she asks. “How do we expand horizons beyond just saying, ‘You’re a female, you have to get married by 30’?”
That Bumble exists to empower women represents something of a transformation for Wolfe. Before she launched the company, she didn’t even identify as a feminist. “Feminism wasn’t really at the top of my vocabulary,” says Wolfe. “I think what’s been interesting for me—let me say this delicately—when I’ve been surrounded by men who don’t believe women are equal, I didn’t think women were equal, including myself.”
During a coffee break at Bumble’s office, more than a dozen members of the staff, who are as loose and casual with one another as longtime friends, crowd around a laptop perched on the kitchen counter. Wolfe pulls up a video of Bumble’s first ad. It features the company’s director of college marketing jumping out of a plane shortly after she started chatting with a match on Bumble (the ad’s closing statement: #taketheleap). Wolfe, who enlisted student ambassadors to make Tinder a hit on college campuses around the country, did the same with Bumble. And now she’s applying a similarly high-energy, wide-net approach to marketing BumbleBizz.
The concept of Bizz is a relatively easy sell for current users: Set up a discrete profile for networking, all while continuing under the principle that anyone can match, but women alone can initiate contact. Unlike many other professional and social networks, which exist to connect you to people you know, Bizz’s mission is to introduce you to new contacts, with added protections like verified profiles. One key to Bizz’s success will be drawing a new demographic of users into Bumble’s ecosystem. The challenge, says Bumble’s director of marketing, Chelsea Cain Maclin, is convincing “someone like my mother, who is married and has three kids and now wants to get back into healthcare work, that we have something to offer her.”
This fall, Bumble is launching a targeted national ad campaign, geared toward women and men of varying ages, that will promote the idea that just one connection can transform your professional life. Bizz will debut with verified brand partners such as Postmates and Outdoor Voices. Hiring managers at those companies will help fill open positions by swiping through candidates they find on Bizz. Bumble has also recruited “Queen Bees”—existing users who are social media influencers and entrepreneurs—to partner with the app on networking and awareness events.
Wolfe believes that Bumble’s mission of empowerment will be as appealing in the professional realm as it is in the personal. “We have women already reaching out saying they’re getting [unwanted solicitations] on LinkedIn, that they need a professional network where they make the first move,” says Wolfe. “Women will always control the experience on Bumble.” Ashley Wright, Bumble’s content manager (whom Wolfe hired after swiping right on her on Bumble BFF), spent seven years working in technology, often at jobs where she says she was dismissed as “the booth girl” at conferences and talked over during staff meetings. “A woman-owned, primarily woman-operated company is mind-blowing in the tech space,” she tells her colleagues. “I’ve worked on the other side, so believe me when I tell you that this is a dream job.”
This isn’t the first time Wolfe has tried to launch BumbleBizz: It was nearly released last summer before Wolfe decided, at the last second, that the timing wasn’t right. “When the masses understand our unique selling point and what we’re trying to do, [that’s when] you’re allowed to innovate,” she says. “We were ahead of ourselves. Now is the moment.”
Still, Wolfe is sanguine about the possibility that Bizz won’t catch on like she hopes. “We’ll watch the analytics, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try again. We’ll fix it,” she says simply. Such unshakable optimism is hard-won, she tells me over a couple of glasses of white wine, and it comes with limitations. She admits that she’s still wary of people from her former life resurfacing, and that misogynists remain a looming specter. Her world was shaken hard four months ago when her fiancé broke his back in a car accident on his way to work at his oil and gas company. Doctors warned her that he would either bleed out on the operating table or be paralyzed for life. “I told the doctor, ‘You better give me another option because we’re getting married in six months,'” says Wolfe. Her fiancé recently asked her what she would have done if he emerged a paraplegic. She told him, “I would’ve pushed you down the aisle.”
Wolfe will recount her history in her own words in her memoir Make the First Move, which will be published next fall. “I think so many women allow themselves to be defined by somebody else’s narrative,” she says. “I was stripped naked, what else could you have taken off of me then? Nothing. So? Let’s just put it back on and go from there.”
Slideshow: Here’s how Bumble Bizz plans to pair users with professional connections.
Back at Bumble’s office, the team works knee to knee on laptops, with the bathroom serving as space for conference calls in a pinch. There’s a scrawled two-week countdown on the wall until the staff moves into its new headquarters, a 5,000-square-foot space done up in Bumble’s signature canary yellow and equipped with a private room Wolfe calls the Mommy Bar, where new mothers can pump in peace and everyone can enjoy weekly blowouts and manicures on the company’s dime. This is a group that hugs and cheerleads and hyper-communicates, like when Wolfe clarifies three times that she was calling something her colleague said “weird,” not the woman herself. The prolonged exchange ended with the two making heart shapes at each other with their hands. “Once a week someone tells me to toughen up, get a sharper edge,” says Wolfe. “I don’t do that.”
She insists that Bumble’s culture of positivity is the engine behind the team’s productivity. In July, Bumble launched SuperSwipe, its most recent monetization effort. For $1.99 a pop, users can reinforce their interest in a match by pressing a heart sign over his or her profile picture (it’s similar to a Tinder feature, Super Like). Overnight, SuperSwipe turned the company into the 29th most-profitable app on iTunes, a 35% increase from its previous position. Next year, Bumble will launch in-app advertising that will be tailored to users. The app will give you the chance to swipe right on pizza, for example, before offering a coupon to the pizzeria around the block.
Even as Bumble expands, it could be a long time before it reaches the scale of its contemporaries. It faces stiff competition from the likes of 22-year-old dating site Match.com and Tinder, which has nearly 2 million paying subscribers. And LinkedIn probably doesn’t consider BumbleBizz a threat. But in giving users a new set of guidelines for how to relate to one another—both socially and professionally—Wolfe is asking us to reset our expectations for such interactions.
On this day, Wolfe’s team is workshopping new billboard ads for Bizz; “
What does your Dad do? What does your Mom do?” is a top contender. Wolfe’s own mom is a brand ambassador who has spent the past six months recruiting the over-50 age group at various events in the Santa Barbara, California, area. As for her dad—Wolfe’s parents divorced when she was 17—she has a story about him. Wolfe tells her team that she called him recently to share news of Bumble’s rising revenue: “And he said, ‘Well, good for you, now why don’t you just leave it be? Get a CEO in there and take care of [your husband] and enjoy your life.'”
The room of women (and three men) groans, as Wolfe laughs and throws her arms up in mock outrage. “We need more users,” she says. “Clearly our job isn’t done yet.”