“We’re not one of our competitors that’s just trying to hook people up,” says Whitney Wolfe Herd, the 30-year-old CEO of Bumble, the online dating platform where women have to initiate potential interest. “We’re trying to say, ‘Let’s change thousands of years of behavior. Globally.’ Do you see why this is so challenging?”
It’s an early afternoon in late May, and Wolfe Herd is in the posh ski village of Deer Valley, Utah, for Bumble’s annual retreat. A light snow falls outside despite the fact that it’s almost summer, and Wolfe Herd—slim, blond, and dressed in skinny jeans and fur-lined ankle boots—gives off an après-ski vibe. Although she’s prone to bouts of angst—at one point during her state of the company address to Bumble’s employees, she admits, “I have terrible anxiety. I have it right now. I kind of feel like I’m going to faint”—she’s chill when discussing Bumble and her ambitions.
Wolfe Herd, who founded Bumble in 2014, is fueled by a utopian vision of social justice, where women feel empowered to make the first move in all areas of their lives, and it drives virtually every decision at the company. It influences her hiring: 82% of the employees are female, along with almost all of the executive leadership. It affects product: The company has made big bets on non-dating extensions to help women find friends (BFF) and professionally network (Bizz). It informs its policies: Last year, shortly after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, Wolfe Herd banned images that contained guns, even though it led to threats against her own safety. It affects how she deploys her resources, from commissioning a 2019 Super Bowl ad starring Serena Williams to persuading the tennis great to back her Bumble Fund, which invests in a new generation of female-led tech companies. It also spills into political advocacy: Wolfe Herd initiated and successfully lobbied for a Texas bill that makes sending unwanted nude images (i.e., dick pics) illegal in Texas. The law passed in June, the same month Bumble rolled out an AI-powered filter that can remove lewd photos before users see them. “When there are women’s issues that create a lopsided problem in the world [in terms of equality],” she says, “we’re going to lean into that.”
At one point, Wolfe Herd tells me that she wants to build a “female internet,” a provocative counterpoint to the Brotopia that built the (male) internet. At a time when tech platforms are finally being scrutinized for exploiting user data, sowing and rewarding discord, and failing to care for the people who use their services, Bumble’s proactive approach—warning users about salacious content, removing Facebook as a login requirement, advocating for causes before they’re politically popular—raises the question of whether having more women running big tech could produce the kind of egalitarian digital commons Wolfe Herd envisions.
In 2012, Wolfe Herd helped cofound Tinder, the dating app that pioneered swiping photos to indicate interest, but she left in 2014, after an acrimonious breakup with one of the cofounders, Justin Mateen. She filed a sexual harassment and discrimination suit, which was settled.
Tinder had a large head start on Bumble, and as Wolfe Herd is discovering, there may just be more people who want an easy-to-use dating app than want to topple the patriarchy. That’s why this year’s company retreat is much more of a working one than the celebratory atmosphere that characterized 2018’s event. Wolfe Herd admits onstage to her team that she’s frustrated that Bumble’s early “gangbuster growth” has “mellowed out.” One breakout session is devoted to the issue of women not “voting”—Bumble’s term for swiping—as much as they used to. For all of Bumble’s empowerment talk, a lot of women believe that making the first move is just too much work, and they would prefer to open up their dating app and see a bunch of requests.
Although Bumble claims more than 66 million users in 150 countries and reportedly anticipates $300 million in 2019 revenue (from a variety of in-app “boosts,” such as seeing everyone who right-swiped you and rematching with expired connections), Wolfe Herd tells employees that in the next year or so, Bumble needs to establish its international business, “double domestic,” and prove that BFF and Bizz are viable brand extensions. All while fending off Tinder (and its parent company, Match Group) as well as newer apps such as Hinge and Facebook Dating. Bumble is private, but shared with Fast Company that 2018 revenue (minus value-added tax) was $162 million, and the company is profitable. There are rumors that it is eyeing a public offering or accepting a significant capital infusion from a private-equity firm.
As if to underscore the enormity of Wolfe Herd’s mission, in early July a story broke revealing that her primary backer, Andrey Andreev, the founder of the dating app Badoo who owns 79% of Bumble, had presided over a toxic workplace. The headline: “Sex, Drugs, Misogyny, and Sleaze at the HQ of Bumble’s Owner.” Wolfe Herd released a statement saying she was “mortified by the allegations,” though she stood by her benefactor. As she told her team in Deer Valley, “Andrey was the only person, man or woman, when I came out of my last situation [Tinder], that unequivocally believed in me.” If she’d had to start Bumble with a more traditional VC-backed model, and “we had to run the values that we care about across a board of probably 15 to 20 men,” she says, “I don’t think we ever would have gotten here.” Now, everything from Wolfe Herd going solo to taking over MagicLab, the conglomerate Andreev formed in June to house all of his dating apps, could be in play.
When Wolfe Herd left Tinder, she was attacked on the internet and spiraled a bit. “My husband would catch me taking swigs of moonshine before bed,” she says. Now, facing her current obstacles, her eyes light up. “We’re juggling fireballs.”
Two weeks after the retreat, I meet up with Wolfe Herd again in the Hive, her sunshine-suffused, 1960s-style Austin headquarters, where employees spread out on sofas throughout the window-lined lobby tapping away on laptops emblazoned with stickers featuring the omnipresent Bumble logo (a yellow beehive) and phrases like “You Look Good” and “Empowered.” Wolfe Herd is in her office, leaning on a standing desk, devouring a plate of butternut squash lasagna before meeting with her design team, her healthy appetite a by-product of her then-secret pregnancy (she announced the news on Instagram in mid-June).
Bumble’s success thus far is primarily due to Wolfe Herd’s savvy stewardship of the brand, which takes its pro-female message and wraps it in bright, upbeat packaging. Branding is both her superpower and a luxury: Bumble’s London-based engineering resources are a structural difference that have helped the company grow faster than it otherwise might have on its own, just as Tinder has benefited from being part of Match Group.
Wolfe Herd believes that the next frontier for Bumble lies in extending into the real world and combining the digital and physical experience. At Bumble Brew, a café and wine bar opening in New York’s SoHo neighborhood this fall, Bumble users will be able to meet in person, lured in by small plates and pinot noir in a friendly, safe environment. For the company, it’s a way to build awareness of its services.
During a review of logo ideas for Brew, a young man wearing a vintage button-down and loafers with no socks scrolls through a series of fun, artful images. Yet they all veer dramatically from Bumble’s actual logo, and after nodding along and “mm-hmming” for a few minutes, Wolfe Herd weighs in.
“McDonald’s, no matter where you go in the world—I don’t care if you’re at the airport or on Fifth Avenue or in Shanghai or in Laos—it’s McDonald’s. Okay? They don’t change their logo. Not that we’re trying to be [McDonald’s], but I think it’s important to reference this,” she says.
Wolfe Herd frequently mentions brands she admires—Starbucks, Disney, the luggage company Away—and one of her favorite anecdotes is that while the McDonald’s arches never change around the world, Ronald McDonald’s facial expression does, in accordance with cultural mores (in some places, a smile from a stranger is offensive). She’s also very aware of her personal brand and deftly uses it to promote Bumble: Her 30th-birthday party in Capri, Italy, in July, for example, replete with a Slim Aarons–inspired luncheon and showing off her baby bump, presented a vision of the good life awaiting the Bumble Woman. “Her presence is spot-on,” says J. Galen Buckwalter, the former chief scientist at eHarmony, the online matchmaker now owned by a German media brand. “She’s a strong woman and is mature but not too mature. She definitely makes women feel comfortable about signing up. And a truism in dating is, If there are women, there will be men.”
tudying and starting companies has long been an obsession for Wolfe Herd. As an undergrad at Southern Methodist University, she created tote bags to raise money to help clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, selling them at trunk shows at sororities, including her own, Kappa Kappa Gamma. At Tinder in the early 2010s, as the startup’s VP of marketing, she applied a similar strategy to the mobile dating app, generating interest and spurring downloads at SMU and other Southern colleges by tapping student influencers and striking deals with bars—you’d only get in when you signed up. Bumble uses campus directors, but Wolfe Herd’s goal is to make Bumble the Good Housekeeping brand of dating apps (i.e., the one your mother wouldn’t disapprove of you using). This has led to brand deals with such partners as HBO, Netflix, and the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers.
Bumble’s culture is reinforced by the many friends and former sorority sisters that Wolfe Herd recruited to the company, including head of brand Alex Williamson, VP of marketing Chelsea Cain Maclin, chief creative marketing officer Samantha Fulgham, and chief of staff Caroline Ellis Roche. This core group worked feverishly to get Bumble off the ground in 2014. “We were spending pretty much every waking minute together,” says Ellis Roche. “We would sleep over at Whitney’s house.” Adds Williamson: “As this company has grown, there’s comfort in being together.”
These women create a distinctly cozy, Southern atmosphere (there is much “y’all”-ing) and are a refreshing rebuke to the idea that successful startups need to be born out of Stanford. Meetings tend to be casual yet professional, devoid of any grandstanding or posturing—yet it can also make the company at times feel like an extension of Greek life. When I met Wolfe Herd for breakfast and lunch on separate occasions, the SMU gang packed into her Land Rover to come along. Wolfe Herd sees this intermingling of personal and professional as an asset. Working with friends, she says, is “more productive, and you can be really honest with each other.”
In late 2017, the Bollywood star Pri-yanka Chopra was sitting next to Wolfe Herd at the launch party for Bumble Bizz, the company’s business networking product, at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. The locale was chosen ironically: A celebration of female entrepreneurs was taking place where “the men’s power lunch was born,” as Wolfe Herd said that night. After listening to Wolfe Herd speak, Chopra approached her to say: India needs this. The women of India need this tool. Within a year, she had invested in Bumble.
Bumble also needs India (and other international markets), where the opportunity for growth is enormous. India, after all, is the second-largest smartphone market in the world. But there’s a hitch: 90% of marriages in India are still arranged. Which meant that bringing Bumble to India required more than simply “hawking up a billboard,” says Wolfe Herd.
“The last thing we wanted to do was come in and say, ‘We’re this Western brand, we are all about empowering women and ending misogyny. And hey, women of India, we have a solution for you,’ ” says Priti Joshi, Bumble’s global director of strategy, who joined Bumble last year after several years at McKinsey. When I ask her what the difference is between working at a predominantly male consulting firm and Bumble, she says, “Here, I feel confident telling people around the table that I am afraid that I don’t necessarily belong in the conversation. And I feel confident that those people will say, ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ ”
Over the course of several months, Joshi met frequently with Chopra, or “PCJ,” as she’s referred to at Bumble (Chopra married Nick Jonas last December), and her team conducted focus groups in India and studied behavior around dating. Relationship and matrimonial apps aren’t new to India, and Bumble wanted to understand how best to localize its product for cultural sensitivities.
The biggest takeaway was that the stigma around single women searching for mates made them afraid of posting their identities online for fear of being tattled on or, worse, harassed. Hence, in India, Bumble users only give their first initial; if a connection is made, the user can decide to introduce herself.
Master Networker Wolfe Herd Has Attracted A Celebrity Network That Helps Her Amplify Bumble’s Goals
Bumble also adapted its marketing strategy. Rather than slowly building up awareness for the app via a squadron of influencers, Bumble relied on PCJ. The company held a launch party at Jaipur’s City Palace complete with elephants sporting the Bumble logo painted between their eyes. “We took over the palace,” says Joshi. The campaign—dubbed “Equal Not Loose”—culminated in a video spot set to a catchy Lizzo song, in which Chopra plays a strong, independent woman who is seen managing two men at work, finding a date via Bumble, using Bumble Bizz while her family nods approvingly, confidently tossing off her jacket to run in her sports bra at the gym, and then catching up on a little work while her now-boyfriend makes dinner.
Not long after the ad came out, Tinder released its own video in India, causing some eyebrows at Bumble to shoot up. A source close to Tinder says that the campaign had been planned months in advance and points out that Tinder has been aggressively expanding internationally.
So far, Bumble is gaining traction in India—more than a million people signed up in the first four months—but it’s still hitting barriers. At the retreat, one of the challenges that team members were asked to discuss was why only one-third of its Indian users are women. “It’s something I honestly lie awake at night thinking about,” says Joshi. “Numbers and business aside, I think it’s important that we get Bumble to every single woman in India.”
The solution may be to lean more heavily on Bizz, as well as BFF, signaling the strategic importance of Bumble’s non-dating businesses as the company grows internationally. Indeed, of the Indian women who are on Bumble, 60% of them use more than just the dating app. Wolfe Herd is confident her company will prevail, because “ultimately, women everywhere around the world want a voice.”
It’s not just for the sake of feminism that Wolfe Herd needs more users. Although the online dating industry is “a two-horse race” between Bumble and Tinder, says Jefferies analyst Brent Thill, there’s a wide spread between them. Bumble claims $162 million in revenue in 2018 and will reportedly gross $300 million this year. Tinder, meanwhile, according to the two leading analytics firms, App Annie and Sensor Tower, is the top-grossing app that isn’t a game, and its revenue from Apple’s and Google’s app stores was $260.7 million in the first quarter of 2019 alone. “They can both throw mud,” Thill says, referring to the long-standing sniping between the two companies, which has included lawsuits over Tinder’s swiping technology and trade secrets Bumble alleges were stolen during the two times Match Group considered buying Bumble (neither party would comment on the litigation). “But ultimately, the scoreboard doesn’t lie.”
When I ask what other groups of people she needs to tap in order to spur growth, Wolfe Herd says, “We have to go to people who don’t agree with us. We have to convert misogynists. Misogyny is our new market. It’s scary.” This means broadening Bumble’s core audience beyond urban centers like Los Angeles and New York. In August, the company formed the first all-women esports team of professional Fortnite players to appeal to gamers. “A big challenge for us will be when we go wide into Middle America,” Wolfe Herd says, as well as into religious communities like her own hometown of Salt Lake City. “There have been studies that compare the mindset in Utah—the ideologies surrounding men and women and drinking and sex—to the fundamental belief system of Saudi Arabia. Think about that.” The statement is pure Wolfe Herd: bold and sweeping. When I follow up later, though, asking for more information on the study, she can’t produce it.
There’s also a less obvious group: women who believe in Bumble’s message and identify as feminists but who still prefer to have men make the first move. Wolfe Herd is aware of this—and frustrated by it. “They love the brand, they want to wear the T-shirt, but they [also] want archaic love,” she says. “They want a 6-foot-tall guy to make them feel small and make the first move. So it’s a paradox.”
How does she win them?
She answers the question by way of another one of her favorite anecdotes: the origins of the Sadie Hawkins dance—the historical precedent to Bumble—where women asked men to be their date. “No one is saying you can’t still go to the prom. You can have that experience if you want. But just today, go to the Sadie Hawkins dance.” Or Bumble Brew. Or try to find a friend on BFF. There are plenty of ways people can cast a vote for equality, whether it’s overt or not.
It’s midday in Austin, and Wolfe Herd is at the Hive, heading out to lunch. Her coworkers Ellis Roche and Fulgham hop into the Land Rover, and the women speed off.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.