“Cool shirt, by the way,” breezes Sean Rad, on meeting at the softly lit Dean Street Townhouse restaurant in central London. “It’s totally the kind of place I’d go for a first date,” he schmoozes, seamlessly rolling his assured small talk into how he needs something to wear for tonight’s TV appearance.
Rad’s confident. You’d expect that from the man behind the app that matches perfect strangers. If you’re not familiar with how Tinder works, users scroll through people’s profiles, swiping right to like a picture or left to reject. If two people swipe right on each other’s profiles, Tinder matches them and a private chat opens where the pair can converse and set up a real-life, intimate rendezvous.
The app removes the laboriousness of creating an account on a traditional dating site. “The difference between Tinder and dating sites like Match.com is that the latter is for people who are looking for something very specific and Tinder is for the rest of the world who don’t know what the hell they want,” emphasizes a nonchalant-looking Rad, wearing skinny jeans and a sweater.
Apparently, that’s a lot of us, with over nine billion connections being made through Tinder to-date. Even celebs like Hilary Duff and Leonardo DiCaprio are on it.
Just don’t call it a hook-up app – a taboo term in Tinder-town. Both Rad and his L.A.-based team want to move away from the sleaze associated with sex apps. Instead, they band around words such as “social network”, “relationships” and “connections” – more LinkedIn than Grindr. Nor, to the 29-year-old is it a “dating app” (blame the media for branding it that).
But no one is naïve enough to be fooled by carefully chosen marketing speak. Tinder has taken the cringe away from saying, “I like you” by distancing, and, to an extent, dehumanizing potential partners through technology. It means that men (yes, it is mostly men) are able to use the lecherous language reserved only for a ‘blokes’ night out’ to any woman generous enough to tap out some vapid text talk.
Indeed, Tinder itself isn’t clean of controversy. In 2014, Whitney Wolfe, the only female co-founder of the startup, filed a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against boyfriend and fellow co-founder Justin Mateen. It saw CEO Rad repositioned as President, while best friend Mateen became a part-time consultant. However, positions at the top of Tinder seem to last as long as the app’s average relationship. Since this interview took place, the new CEO Chris Payne, who was pinched from eBay in March, stepped down in August, while Rad reclaimed his original title. Surprising, considering that in Rad’s words, “he was overwhelmed running the business”, adding: “It took a very long time to find the right person… about eight months but eventually we did – we have a great partnership.” The PR cuts in: “That’s all we can say on the matter.”
The app has also been at the end of a media smear campaign, with claims ranging from its responsibility for a rise in chlamydia to almost one in three of its users being married. Both of which Tinder proved to be untrue and Rad describes as “bullshit”.
However, get beyond the internal politics, anti-Tinder fallacies and squalid thought of men smuttily thumbing through pictures, and, as the entrepreneur says, “it levels the playing field”. Of course, it’s a picture-based app, so by nature, it’s superficial and favors the good-looking – and add the ability to converse like a relatively civilized human being, rather than a Neanderthal, and you’re onto a winner. But it does give the timid amongst us the chance to play for a partner.
“It’s different in the sense that it solves a real problem: it removes the rejection out of dating,” explains Rad. “Even if you’re one of the more social guys, it simplifies the situation; sometimes it’s the wrong time to approach a person.” It’s no bad thing; after all, most of us have to be sozzled before we can get social with the hottie by the bar.
So what about Rad himself? “I’m not a shy person. I never had trouble connecting with people but I always felt that it was awkward just walking up to somebody – I felt like I was invading their space,” he explains.
Rad even used Tinder to meet his girlfriend Alexa Dell, the daughter of Michael Dell, the billionaire entrepreneur behind the computer company that bears his name. Not that Rad is by any means a poor relation; he made several million after selling his stake in Adly, a social media advertising service, and holds a ten percent stake in Tinder, which is valued at approximately one billion dollars.
Rad and Dell – it’s a match made in tech heaven, but how did he do it? “I think she was on a beach in one of her photos and I thought I recognized the beach, so I asked her which beach it was, and that started a long conversation,” the master matchmaker reveals. “The environment for your photos says more about you than anything else” – a top tip for Tinder players but his summary-come-sales pitch for his app verges on the libertine: “It’s a 24-hour party at your office, in your cubicle…” or in the bedroom. When asked if Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, has thanked him for the conversion rate from Tinder to the time-limited image-viewing app, he gives a knowing smirk, before bridging into more favorable PR territory: “I don’t know what the data is on that but I can imagine that Tinder generates lift to all social media.”
Tinder is clearly the Alpha male in the ‘meet-up’ world, but it does have competition from young pretenders, such as location-based site Happn, which matches you with people in a local proximity. Rad shrugs off this rival, scoffing, “We’re leading from the front because we’re sitting on such a wealth of information from our users. I’m actually excited to learn something from the competition but they haven’t taught me anything yet.”
One of the biggest cyber battlefields for Rad is the spam – i.e. sex bots – which plague users’ feeds. “Oh man, it’s a constant cat and mouse chase but 95 per cent of what comes in the door gets weeded out right away,” he says. It’s also “weeding out” the trans community who are wrongfully reported by intolerant users and subsequently have their accounts suspended. “We’re working on offering broader gender types. We have to figure how to do it properly within the ecosystem for the transgender community right now,” the entrepreneur confides. “We’re in the research phase, but pretty soon we’ll implement something to prevent the transgender community from being blocked.”
Rad believes unequivocally that no blip will hinder his vision for the app. The latest part of his grand plan saw him roll out the Super Like, a feature that makes for more meaningful matches by sending a “powerful signal, conveying an especially high level of interest”. Other developments are less emotionally invasive, including providing users with additional login options aside from Facebook, as well as a search engine that will find matches based on common friends. For Rad, the app’s more than a bit of fun, it’s an unstoppable revolution: “Tinder’s a social phenomenon and it’s helping shake society.”