I was intrigued to meet Joel Simkhai - born in Tel Aviv, Simkhai has lived most of his life in the US. Now in his mid-30s and residing in Los Angeles, Simkhai is the man who in 2009 launched a new mobile dating service called Grindr.
I’d arranged to meet Simkhai at London’s Strand Palace Hotel where he was saying. I arrived at the scheduled time but reception advised that he wasn’t in his room. He soon sent me a message on Grindr and I tracked him down in a corner of the lobby, wolfing down sushi between appointments.
We sat in the hotel’s bar to talk. Small, dark and intense, Simkhai is clearly driven and focused. We exchanged pleasantries and then got straight into the questions.
What was the process that you followed to bring the concept of Grindr to the market in 2009?
It was a relatively condensed process - it took six months to develop and then one month of beta testing. It was easy because there were no investors involved - just a small group of us and we each put in $5,000 (€4,000). We all still had day jobs, this was just a side project for fun - so there was no business plan or pitching to investors.
The only pressure we felt was that we knew we had to get it out as quickly as possible, knew we had to be first.
I’m not a developer at all, so I didn’t really have much to do with the technical aspects of the platform. We had a developer in Denmark who did all of the development work. I spent a lot of time thinking up use cases and testing different layouts.
One of our big changes was to make your own profile the first profile that you see. I felt that this was important because you’re marketing yourself - you need to see how your profile looks, otherwise it would be like you’ve built a website to promote your business but then you never look at it again.
Also by having your profile as the primary profile, it puts you at the center - that’s one of the most powerful things about a location-based service, nothing else matters except you. In a way it’s kind of how you live - you are the most important to yourself, you are the center of your universe.
How does the business behind Grindr work?
We employ 50 people in Los Angeles and our office is in Hollywood. We employ developers, customer service, marketing, sales, product, and design people - it is now a 'real business', whereas two years ago everything was done out of my house and outsourced and was very much a 'virtual business'. It used to be very personal, we didn’t have to worry about things like HR and performance reviews - it’s a different beast now.
Our office looks pretty much like any other office - there’s no special gayness. We do have a fair amount of gay men working there, as well as lesbians, straight women and straight men.
We tend to attract two types of people - one set who are gay, Grindr users and passionate about it; then a second set who are passionate about the technology and the size of our network.
We have a great team, but the normalcy of our office can be a bit of a drawback - in a way we’re disconnected from our community and the world. Grindr is a global network of real people who use it in different ways. There’s something very powerful when you see people using your product in different cities - it’s exciting and rewarding to meet them, to talk to them, and hear people talking about your product.
What are Grindr’s key income streams?
We currently derive 40% of our revenue from advertising and 60% from subscriptions to our premium service Grindr Xtra.
Our advertising mainly comes from local businesses, using the location-based technology to target local people. This type of advertising is particularly good for social businesses (such as bars or clubs) or local businesses (such as barbers), as it is really the only way of delivering this type of targeted advertising to hit a specific demographic, in that location at a particular time.
For example, I’ve just come from Paris where we promoted an event at the gay bar Freedj - we advertised the event through the platform and 200 people showed up. They were blown away.
Grindr has surpassed 4 million users worldwide in 192 countries, and over a million active daily users, how does that compare to the projections that you made when you launched the product in 2009?
We never had any projections, so it’s still hard to quite make sense of it all and comprehend what we’ve created - that’s why it’s important to get out of the office and see it first hand.
Now we’re starting to see the potential, it’s clear that we’ve still a lot of growth left. We are now working towards answering the other questions or problems that mobile gay men may have: What are they looking to do? Who’s around me? What are they looking to learn about their surroundings and what they’re consuming? It’s a huge opportunity - a fantastic community, and a great market.
Do you feel that Grindr has contributed towards a change in the approach that gay men have to dating and to sex?
It has changed things - at the most basic level it’s made it so much easier. You can meet someone in five to 10 minutes, which is really what I was after. The power of Grindr is that it is faster, fun, the expectations aren’t as high, and the responsibility isn’t as high.
Power of numbers is also very liberating. Not only does it make you realize that you’ve got to up your game and market yourself in order to stand out, it’s also a daily reminder that you are not alone - gay men are everywhere.
The global reach of Grindr is something that always surprises me personally, you’ve announced that London ranks number one as the city with the most users and that the US is the country with most users - what are some of the more surprising locations where you’re seeing a seemingly high uptake of Grindr?
I’m not really surprised by anything anymore - we’ve got a lot of users in Taiwan, and a growing number of users in India. What interests me is some of the experiences of some of our more isolated users. For example what does it mean to be a Kazakh gay man? Or our small number of users in Mongolia - what is life like for those guys?
Personally, in the US I can live openly as a gay man. I worry about users in countries where they’re persecuted and their lives are threatened, where they have no sense of gay community, and they feel alone - I hope that Grindr can help them in their journey. Which is why we’ve begun our Grind for Equality campaign to bring attention to those countries where there are legal restrictions on gay men.
Tell me about Grindr for Equality?
It really was the natural thing for us to do - we have a global engaged audience that doesn’t have equality for the most part. We’re looking at legislation and developments around the world and promoting grass roots activity, ways in which our users can make a difference - not huge commitments, such as donations or time, but asking them to do little things that are easy to do.
For example, last year the New York State senate was reviewing marriage equality - there were five senators undecided. We mobilised our users by encouraging them to call their local senator by promoting a message that said: 'Click the More button and we’ll connect you to your senator - tell them that you want them to support equality.' The legislation passed. I feel we made a difference, and to me this type of activity really illustrates the power of location-based technology the most.
What are some of your specific objectives with Grindr for Equality for the upcoming US election?
We are supporting Obama, both myself personally and the company. We’ll also be supporting politicians who are supportive of gay rights.
We are one issue sensitive, we’ll almost always support the candidate who is more in favor of gay rights, and we’ll be supportive of parties who support gay rights in the majority - in this case that’s the Democrats.
What’s next for Joel Simkhai? Is there life beyond Grindr?
No. I have the best job in the world - I do stuff with technology, the gay community, meet people, get to be on Grindr at work... It’s a lot of fun!