Before Tinder turned the online dating world upside-down and later became synonymous with hookups, people tapped a green heart to say ‘yes’ to a would-be match and pressed a red X for ‘no.’ In the wake of a swipe culture it helped unleash, Tinder’s early prototype now seems almost quaint; the relic of a very recent age of innocence. As a co-founder of Tinder, Whitney Wolfe Herd was VP of Marketing when the innovation of swiping left to reject a profile and swiping right to like one supercharged the app’s popularity. But there were consequences no one had foreseen.
“I think what I learned from my time at Tinder was the minute you encourage someone to use a piece of technology, you are inherently responsible,” Wolfe Herd told Reid Hoffman. “And I think what we’ve seen with this explosion of tech dating or tech meetups is there is a dark side to it.”
That dark side includes sexual harassment, misogyny, body shaming, and abetting a lifestyle curated by laziness and desire. One Australian study found that male Tinder users scored higher on measures of narcissism and psychopathy than non-users. For Wolfe Herd, these were not abstract dangers after she filed a claim of sexual harassment against Tinder in 2014, which she later settled for a reported $1 million plus stock, and was subsequently subjected to an online attack.
“When I was being bullied online, I just couldn’t understand why this was the place that young girls and women were meant to be all day long,” she said. “And I think that was really what started to shape the next thing for me.”
Making the First Move
Wolfe Herd, 33, believed that good online behavior could become attractive if encouraged and rewarded. After her Tinder exit, she turned to the idea of socially engineering more kindness through a women’s networking app called Merci that would only allow positive commentary. But Russian billionaire and founder of the European dating app Badoo, Andrey Andreev, convinced Wolfe Herd that her ideas could be incorporated into what would become Tinder’s biggest rival. She eventually agreed, on one major condition: Women must be given control.
“[S]o many of the smart, wonderful women in my life were still waiting around for men to ask them out,” she wrote in an open letter to users. “I thought, what if I could flip that on its head? What if women made the first move, and sent the first message?”
Wolfe Herd’s brainchild, Bumble, was launched in late 2014 and has been billed the first feminist dating app. In heterosexual match-ups, only women can make first contact and have 24 hours to send a message after swiping right, while men have 24 hours to respond to a message. When same-sex people are matched, either person can send a message first.
Andreev invested $10 million into the business and received 79% ownership, while Wolfe Herd became founder, CEO, and 20% owner. Bumble used Badoo’s infrastructure to get off the ground and Wolfe Herd began marketing Bumble with buzzy, bold yellow merchandise before the app had been built. But investors were less convinced of the Bumble premise, arguing that women wouldn’t ask men out.
“I think I’ve trained myself to be motivated by people who say ‘no’ and create energy from that,” she said. A month after the app was launched, Wolfe Herd was working with three others out of a two-bedroom apartment and it had been downloaded 100,000 times.
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Adapting to User Preferences
Building the infrastructure for Bumble turned out to be the easy part. Reversing gender roles in 2015 was met with resistance by the early women adopters but Wolfe Herd was able to position this new approach as beneficial to everyone. Traditional dating dynamics were toxic, she said, and rejection tended to fuel aggressive male behavior.
“[S]o the whole effort is to take some of that pressure and that aggressive nature away from the man and to infuse confidence, respect, empowerment, equality, accountability — and this lifts the woman up. And it really balances it out.”
From the outset, Wolfe Herd has seen Bumble as a constantly evolving brand more than an app, tech company, or social media platform. Keeping the brand relevant has meant ensuring that women’s empowerment is not just an empty slogan and adapting to changing consumer preferences. When Wolfe Herd found that users were “hijacking” the platform for making friends and business connections, the Bumble team added a BFF mode to meet platonic friends and then a BIZZ mode to form business connections.
As it has scaled, Bumble has also steadily increased safety measures and content moderation to prevent predatory behavior. Explaining its ban on shirtless bathroom-mirror selfies and gun photos, Bumble said it was trying to close the gap between what is deemed acceptable online and what is tolerated face-to-face. “Imagine Bumble being a restaurant where you can introduce yourself to people who pique your interest,” a Bumble blog post reads. “Would you wear only your underwear?”
Creating a Legacy
After Andreev sold his shares in Bumble and Bardoo to investment firm the Blackstone Group in 2019, Wolfe Herd was made CEO of the parent company of the two apps, MagicLab. She then became the youngest woman to ever take a company public when shares in Bumble surged from a $43 valuation to $76 on its opening day on the Nasdaq in February 2021. As of mid-April, Bumble was valued at $3.22 billion. The occasion prompted some of her previous detractors to send Wolfe Herd “profound notes” of appreciation and apologies for underestimating her women-centric approach.
With the Bumble of 2023 now resembling Wolfe Herd’s original idea of a kinder social network, she appears to have come full circle. “Do I think by a woman making the first move on Bumble we’re going to solve every women’s issue around the world? No,” Wolfe Herd told Time’s Charlotte Alter. “Do I think it’s a good first step to recalibrate an age-old system that sets us all up for failure, men and women? Yes. Because the Internet has megapower to shift behavior — if you use it for good.”