Sean Rad founded dating app Tinder in 2012, and has since been fired and rehired as chief executive within four months. On day three of Advertising Week Europe in London, he sat down with Cosmopolitan editor Farrah Storr to discuss how the company reached 100 million downloads and 10 billion matches by engaging with Millennials.
According to Rad, the idea for Tinder came from sitting in a bar and glancing at a girl for the hundredth time, before she eventually smiled at him giving him the confidence to walk over – and be rejected. However, the interaction made him realise that a lot of connections don’t happen due to fear of rejection, as well as a lack of context.
Rad claims the app took only 23 days to complete, initially trialled with college students, but three years later the company is still iterating and scaling.
“College students live in a very social environment but what Tinder did was alleviate the problems they had,” said Rad. “They’re a tough crowd and they have a lot of noise coming at them. If you can convince college students, who are generally the most curious but also the most targeted, then that’s a good test.”
Rad also feels that Australia is a good region to test in, as users there tend to be early adopters, and there is little cross pollination due to the distance from other land masses.
Looking at competitor apps, Rad feels there are lots of smaller apps incrementally improving on what Tinder did, and “that’s amazing”, he insists. “We have this vision of how we can revolutionise how people meet and we’ve only just scratched the surface,” he added.
With regards to updates, Rad has a ruthless approach, as demonstrated by the axing of an early product called Matchmaker, despite it being “very popular” amongst a smaller group of the audience.
“If the majority don’t get value then we didn’t do something right,” Rad commented. “I think it is important as a brand to be honest with audience, and if we do something wrong, that’s ok – we take it back and try again.”
More and more matches
Rad credits the exponential growth of the app, which is now at 11 billion matches, up from four billion last year, to a growing audience. “On a per user basis, we’re probably creating the same number of matches but we focus on quality matches,” he said. “The quality keeps increasing as Tinder gets smarter.”
In this context, Rad defines quality matches as those that result in a connection that has impacted someone for a couple of days, and success as real world connections. “Usually long conversations lead to meeting in the real world,” he added. “Even if they don’t meet, there’s something beautiful about being connected. If the connection is strong enough, it will lead to a real world meet up.
“For anyone, if you say there is a platform that can expand your network, that can have a profound effect.”
The algorithm is designed to try to match people it thinks will like each other. It is also programmed to give users who swipe right regularly but get no matches a little boost. “We often forget in this world of social media, it’s about people,” he said. “One relationship can impact the world.”
Tinder is still exploring what can be done with the data it has and, with every swipe, trying to understand why people go right or left algorithmically in order to serve up better potential matches.
“Women swipe right way less than men,” said Rad. “We kind of underestimate the amount of information that our minds can pick up from a photo or a light piece of information.
“Ultimately, you’re able to process so much in your backgrounds and your upbringings, look at sociological nuances. People think photos are superficial – they’re actually not, you’re processing all this subconscious data.”
According to Rad, if someone is being ‘fake’ in their photo, users can figure it out. Group photos and headshots are less effective than shots that show users in an environment that reflects their interests.
Although Tinder is free, and, Rad assures, will always be free, there are a set of premium features or “superpowers” in Tinder Plus, including five super likes a day instead of one. Initially, Tinder Plus cost more for over 30s, which Rad puts down to testing to optimise prices.
Tinder is also funded by advertising, which Rad feels attracts the already “highly engaged audience”. “Users want to discover new things so it’s the perfect place for brands with a story,” he said.
Discussing his dismissal as chief executive officer from the company, Rad felt that the board had some fears that at his age, he might not be able to manage the growth.
“In hindsight, getting fired is one of the best things that has happened to me because I was able to take a step back and really embrace the things I’m good at and admit the things I’m not good at,” said Rad. “Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re good at everything. In fact it’s quite the opposite – it means you can chart a course.”
However, Rad chose to remain at Tinder and, within four months, his older replacement had left and the board had invited him back. “I stayed because I believe in Tinder and I want to contribute in anyway,” he commented.
Rad believes that a lot of the innovation historically comes from people who are not experts in the relevant fields, as experience can set people in their ways. He is also concerned that as he leaves his twenties, he may lose touch with the company’s core 18- to 25-year-old audience.
“I think it’s about embracing the next generation,” said Rad. “Tinder has always been about having diverse points of view at the table.
“Some contributors are very young,” he added, going on to talk about the diversity of ages working for Tinder. “We look for talent everywhere and people who can contribute – I think all organisations need to do that and not judge it. In order to understand Millennials need to understand other generations.”
On the subject of whether Tinder was designed for hook-ups, Rad said that the app was for “creating connections”.
“It’s up to our users what they do,” he said. “Most of our users are 18 to 25 and I don’t think 18 to 25s anywhere around the world are looking to get married.”
However, data shows that most users want a meaningful connection which could lead to marriage. The app is a product of its audience and the audience defines how tools are leveraged.
“We have a vast percentage of the single population of the world,” Rad concluded. “Every individual has different things they are looking for in life.”