Sat on the stage alongside Farrah Storr, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, in front of a nearly full theatre at Advertising Week Europe yesterday, the controversial CEO of dating app Tinder, Sean Rad, finally came to life.
When asked if it makes him angry when Tinder is referred to as a hook-up app he sat forward: “Not angry, but it’s incorrect. What Tinder is doing is making an introduction. It is a platform to me. What our users decide to do is completely up to them.”
Tinder’s largest demographic is the millennial, or more specifically 18-25 year olds, who Rad admits may be more prone to “hook-up” culture than others. He adds: “I don’t think 18-25 year olds anywhere are looking to get married, unless it kind of finds you.”
Dressed in the very definition of business casual attire: chinos, smart shirt with two buttons undone, nice shoes; Rad looked relaxed but spoke with the reserve of a man that has had some bad press in his time.
The problem is, he is really good at it. Rad’s pauses to reconsider what he is saying, or to restrain his natural inclination towards frankness, are almost imperceptible because he never stops talking. He changes tack midway through sentences, or even words, as if he is constantly fighting over what he can and cannot say.
His last word on the hook-up subject is a perfect example: “I think we make it very black and white but fail to recognise that relationships form into marriages and Tinder encompasses the entire in-between. I just don’t like it when people kind of judg…” he changes word mid-stream without missing a beat, “define it as a hook-up.”
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A recent profile of Rad in The California Sunday Magazine shows him being lightly media trained by his communications director Rosette Pambakian. The profile also shows Rad in his more natural habitat, be it the Tinder offices, or his mum’s house. This is when he says things like: “Yes, I sext on Snapchat,” and “there’s a stereotype that people want to corner me in.”
Today Rad is on his best behaviour. He dodges questions about if Leonardo Di Caprio is on the platform, and when it comes to the well-worn narrative that Tinder is driving up promiscuity amongst young people, he has a go-to move: Tinder is a platform for facilitating “meaningful relationships.”
Going back to the 18-25 demographic, Rad says: “Naturally they’re using Tinder in ways where they are looking for meaningful relationships. We survey our users and the majority of our users say that they want a meaningful connection.”
The problem is that the term is vague and inherently positive: of course people want to find “meaningful connections”, and that could mean a whole range of things depending on the point of view of the person you are asking.
Rad is much more comfortable talking about the technical aspects of Tinder, from how much data they collect (a lot) to introducing new features. Some of which worked (Tinder Plus), some which didn’t. One that didn’t see the light of day was a feature called Matchmaker.
Rad explained: “You could take two of your friends and force them to match with each other. So introduce two people that may not know each other. It was popular among a smaller group of our audience but we decided to take it out of our app because our internal policy is: if the majority of our user base doesn’t get value out of something, then we didn’t do something right.”
When it comes to the data, Rad still prefers the traditional method of talking to customers. “I use Tinder to talk to our users because I get to know their problems with our app,” says Rad. “All the data in the world, and we generate billions of data points a day, doesn’t compare to actually talking to our users.”
It’s easy to forget, because of its social ubiquity, that Tinder is just three years old, and Rad admits that it is still a platform in progress. Rad is still looking at ways to use data in a way that drives more “meaningful relationships”.
His engineers are tweaking the algorithms to give people that aren’t getting many matches (the bottom ten percent) “a little boost, because we want them to get extra love and extra attention and hopefully end up meeting someone."
One of the more interesting sections of the conversation was around Rad’s short exile from the company he built.
Talking to Storr, he said: “It was a surprise. The company was doing incredibly well, we were growing really fast. I think the board had some fears that at a young age [Rad was 28 at the time] I wouldn’t be able to manage that growth. I had fears. I didn’t know if I could manage this growth. So we brought in a new CEO.”
However, it is widely reported, and court documents attest, that Rad wasn’t forced out simply because of his age or lack of leadership experience, rather he became entangled in a nasty case of office-based sexual harassment.
Storr didn’t push him on the subject, but it is interesting coming from a man that ten minutes earlier had spoken about the importance of being open about your mistakes when it comes to running a brand: “Tinder is a very transparent brand, a very transparent company,” he said.
“We make mistakes, everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes we build products that work, sometimes we build products that don’t work but its about that iteration and learning and moving forward.”
Regardless, the board asked Rad to return as CEO just a few months later, and he maintains that: “Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Rad says that he has learned that: “Being the leader doesn’t mean you’re good at everything. In fact it’s quite the opposite. It means you can chart a course and define a destination.”
Despite being on his best behaviour Rad couldn’t resist a dig at the competition. Tinder is operating in a highly competitive marketplace for dating apps, with rivals like Happn, Hinge and Bumble. The latter of which was set up by former Tinder employee Whitney Wolfe, who sued her former employer on the grounds of sexual harassment.
When asked if he is worried about these rivals, Rad said: “No, not at all. We’re in an amazing spot. We’ve built this tremendous platform, we have users all over the world, we’re a global brand, with tens of millions actively using Tinder. For us it’s not about the competition.
“There’s a lot of smaller, niche apps that are incrementally improving under the principles that Tinder created, and I think that’s great, it’s wonderful. For us it’s about leveraging this massive audience and changing the game again, not because we have to, but because we want to.”