Gay entrepreneur Coley Cummiskey launched men’s dating app Growlr in 2010 in Columbus, Ohio. In March, it was revealed he’d sold it in a $12million deal to tech company, The Meet Group (TMG).
The app says it has 10million members and over 200,000 daily users. That puts it in third place in the US market, behind Grindr and Scruff.
Growlr is aimed very much at the ‘bears’ market – men who are bigger, hairer and heftier, plus their admirers. It benefited from being one of the first geo-social dating apps to hit the market and has a loyal following: two factors that made it an attractive proposition for TMG.
What is The Meet Group?
TMG is a publicly owned business headquartered in New Hope, Pennsylvania. TMG was founded in 2005 as MyYearbook, but has grown and changed its name in the intervening years.
It was founded by current CEO, Geoff Cook with his siblings, Catherine and Dave Cook, and specializes in dating apps.
Its other brands include MeetMe, LOVOO, Skout and Tagged. It floated on the NASDAQ Capital Market in 2014. Recently filed reports for the first quarter of 2019 showed total revenue of $49.5million, up 32% year on year.
Video streaming and Growlr
TMG CEO, Geoff Cook, tells Gay Star News via Skype that he was aware of gay ‘bears’ before purchasing Growlr, but can’t pretend to be an expert. For that reason he’s hired a gay marketing manager for the app, Phil Henricks, who joins our call.
Although Cook may be receiving a crash course on the nuances of queer male subculture, one thing he does know about is dating apps and video streaming.
In fact, it’s TMG’s development of video streaming technology that has guided it in acquiring a string of apps. It’s working on embedding its tech know-how within each brand.
‘We’ve been adding live streaming into meeting communities,’ says Cook. ‘We believe live streaming is a very interactive, entertaining way to drive connection among users.
‘We’ve built up a pretty sizeable live streaming business over the past three years, in part by acquiring different dating or meeting communities and improving those communities with respect to their core business but also rolling out live streaming.’
They launched live streaming on MeetMe in April 2017, and have now embedded it into LOVOO, a Germany-based dating app, Tagged, aimed at the African American community, and Skout.
‘What we saw with Growlr was a very active, and a pretty sizeable, community sending many millions of messages every single day. We saw the potential to roll out live streaming video into that community.’
Live video streaming will include one-to-one video, but also wide broadcasts (similar to live videos on Instagram).
App communities and focus
Cook says TMG’s acquisition of apps is influenced by the defined communities they serve.
‘We’ve found dating communities tend to be powerful when they’re particularly narrow, or when they serve a particular need,’ says Cook.
‘We’ve seen that with our German dating community (LOVOO), [and] our Tagged app, serving African Americans. When we look out at the LGBT dating landscape, we happened to connect with the founder of Growlr, Coley, and over the course of time, we found something that we felt would work for the community.’
As is common with such an acquisition, TMG is keeping Coley Cumminskey on for a limited period to oversee the change of ownership runs smoothly.
Broad appeal vs. niche focus
Cook’s observation that dating apps work better when more focussed is interesting. Grindr is the biggest gay hook-up app in the US, but it has long been criticized by some users for the exclusionary behavior of some of those on the app.
Profiles stating ‘no fats, no femmes, no Asians’ led Grindr to launch its Kindr initiative in 2018 to encourage users to… well, behave better.
Does Cook think the broad appeal of some dating apps could be their weakness?
‘Yes, absolutely. If you think about what Tinder and Grindr are serving … Not everybody is well served by these very massive apps.
‘I think the users of Tagged, the users of Growlr, they come back over and over again because there are people there they’ve made connections with over the years. They feel like they’re treated better and the audience is more accepting of them.’
That said, he’s aware most of us don’t put all our eggs in one basket when it comes to dating.
‘If you look at the landscape of dating apps, people tend to use multiple dating apps. It’s never been a winner takes all market like friends-based social networking.’
China, Grindr and data protection
TMG’s acquisition of Growlr’s sale follows the sale of Grindr. Launched by Joel Simkhai in 2009, Grindr is now owned by Beijing Kunlun Tech, a Chinese gaming company. Kunlun Tech bought the Grindr in two portions, snapping up 60% in 2016 for $93million and the remaining 40% for $152million in early 2018.
Following TMG’s acquistion of Growlr, Scruff sent out a press release in April on the ‘Risks of hetero control in queer dating spaces.’ It highlighted recent controversies involving Grindr and the sharing of data around HIV status.
But do most gay and bisexual men care about the sexuality of who owns the apps? The lack of any discernible community outcry over Grindr’s sale to a big, Chinese-owned tech company would suggest not… even if others in the US have other concerns.
In March, the US’s Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) demanded Kunlun Tech sell Grindr back to a US-based company. It expressed concerns about a Chinese company collecting the geo-location data of so many US citizens. The company has reached an agreement that it will find a buyer by June 2020.
‘A massive step’
Was Cook surprised by the CFIUS move?
‘I’m not overly surprised simply because I’ve been following CFIUS movement and in 2016, when Grindr was first purchased, the climate was a little bit different than it was today.
‘At the same time, I was also surprised, because it’s such a massive step to force something like that. But if you look deeper into what sorts of decisions have been made by CFIUS … I don’t look at the Grindr thing as a one-off. The CFIUS committee has been taking various actions, blocking deals either quietly or publicly for the last few years, and I would expect that to continue.’
Cook is keen to point out TMG’s adherence to data standards, including European GDPR compliance (‘We take that responsibility seriously’).
Entering the LGBTI market space
I ask Cook if he had any concerns about TMG dipping its toes into the gay dating app market. He says TMG’s existing apps already have LGBTI users, so it isn’t a wholly uncharted territory for them.
However, until the acquisition of Growlr, ‘we didn’t have a focussed app, and as we thought about that challenge, it’s why we brought in Phil [Henrick’s] to manage the brand, and it’s why we reach out to LGBT leaders and educate ourselves on the space.
‘I would say we are learning how to best address this market, but there’s a lot in common: Improving the product, reducing bugs, adding more photos, rolling out video. A lot of the challenges are similar.’
Henricks has worked with brands including Recon, Gaydar and Manhunt. He says besides rolling out live video, the app will also undergo a slight redesign and revamp.
‘We actually just did a survey and had over 5,000 responses,’ he says. ‘We’re still digging through the results but some of the ones that keep rising to the top are “more photos,” a visual update and design refresh.
‘Those are the top two things that keep appearing and we’ll definitely gonna utilize those results when figuring out the next steps for Growlr.’
There’s no timeline for the refresh and live streaming yet. However, Henricks indicates both might arrive toward the end of this year.
One thing that won’t change is the app’s focus. The team realize that’s its strength.
‘I’ve been in the gay dating world for around 15 years,’ says Henricks, who somewhat fits the Growlr user profile himself.
‘Growlr does have a very distinct sense of community. Our users are very loyal and very engaged. It’s amazing to see, and it’s certainly what helps set Growlr apart.’