It’s not easy to rebuild an entire company—especially when things are going well. But that’s exactly what Justin McLeod did with his dating app, Hinge.
After Hinge first launched in 2012, it saw exponential growth. Despite this, McLeod made the risky decision to rebuild his app from scratch in 2016. Why? He felt that the company had strayed too from its original vision or helping people find and build meaningful connections. So instead of remaining the brand that connects “friends with friends” it rebranded to become “the dating app designed to be deleted.”
McLeod’s decision paid off. Today, Hinge is a subsidiary under Match.com, has seen huge growth on a global scale, and is setting up a date every three seconds globally. In this podcast episode, McLeod shares exactly what it took to get through this challenging transition and what’s in store for this beloved dating app in the near future.
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Justin: Well, my current job at Hinge, I created so I started it when I was coming out of business school back in 2011. And it really didn’t feel like a job at first, in fact I had another job, work at a consulting firm, McKenzie. And started working on this side project, which was a way for people to list their crushes on Facebook and find out if two people like each other.
Nathan: And I know you have an incredible story about how you met your partner, maybe you could share that? That’s crazy, man.
Justin: Yeah it was a really crazy story. So yeah, so there’s quite a lead-in to me wanting to create an app for people to list their crushes and that is, I had a girlfriend in college, Kate, who I met one of the first days of college and we dated all through school. And at the very end, went our own ways. I always just thought I would end up with her eventually, and a few years later, when I had gotten into business school and gotten my life together, I reached out to her, to try to get her back. And she said, “No,” because she was living in London at the time and was with another man, and I was just heartbroken.
And was having trouble meeting new people because I used to be this big party kid in college and the day I graduated, I just stopped drinking, stopped partying. And when I… I’m sorry, sorry, had something that happened here,
So anyway, so when I graduated, I stopped drinking, I stopped partying and then I tried to get my life together. I reached out to her and she said, “No,” and at the time because I wasn’t drinking and partying I just didn’t know how to meet new people. I wasn’t going to bars, I wasn’t going to parties and there were really just not a good option… So like these old-fashioned dating websites, but there was nothing at the time that really resonated with me.
So, that’s when I started working on this crush finder model at business school, which very quickly evolved into Hinge, which was a really simple, fun, easy way to meet people using your phone and your existing social network. And that was the first version of Hinge back in 2011.
Nathan: Yeah, I see, interesting. Because, I have a fiance, so I’m recently engaged but I have friends that are single, and they’re all trying Hinge now and I’ve seen a lot of your ads because friends have shown me, they’re really good marketing in that sense that a lot of the message, the underlying message is an app that’s meant to be deleted.
So I’m curious, what has changed in the past few years that have really helped you guys rise to prominence, do you think?
Justin: So yeah, it’s been a pretty crazy ride. We had a few years of success and then we were starting to become popular in the US, especially on the East Coast. We got to this point where I just felt like a lot of other dating apps had started and it just didn’t feel like ultimately we were really living up to our mission of helping people find their person. And it is in fact Apple’s design for that, it was just fun and easy but I don’t think it was really helping people create good, deep connections.
And so, I went to my board, I went to my employees and I said we should really tear this thing down, restart from scratch and really build this dating app that’s designed to be deleted. And we changed a lot at that time, we changed up a lot of the numbers of the team and we changed our whole approach to the market.
Because before we’d been so obsessed with growth and engagement, how do we get more people on, and ironically we changed our tact to just think about how do we get more people out on great dates and we started measuring that, first of all. We’re the only dating app that measures actually, did our users go on dates? Did they enjoy those dates? And so we take that information and every feature that we release, or everything that we do, we look at does it create more great dates, or fewer great dates? And we lost the focus on growth and retention and engagement. It was a slower growth strategy, but people, when they used Hinge, really it was just successful for them and they were going on great dates. In fact, three out of four times, when someone goes on a date they say it’s a person that they want to go on a second date with.
And as a result, it just started spreading by word of mouth and we really started to grow quickly in 2017/2018, 2019 especially was a really big year for us. And it’s just because of that word of mouth, I mean even right now… in 2019 and then in 2020, we had our presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg in the US who met his husband on Hinge and was telling everyone. So that’s the scale that we’ve gotten to, it’s just success stories are really out there.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. That’s fascinating. So you started in 2011, did you officially launch the first version in 2011?
Justin: Yeah, it launched in 2012. Yeah, so I started working on 2011, the first version got launched in 2012, and it was in 2016 when we really did the reboot and started over from scratch.
Nathan: Yeah, so you shut it all down in 2016, started all over from scratch and then relaunched in 2017? So it took about a year to rebuild the product?
Justin: Yeah, end of 2016. Basically the very end of 2015 until October of 2016.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. So it took about a year to rebuild the whole product?
Justin: Yeah, about nine months.
Nathan: Yeah wow, that would have been tough, because a lot of people would have so much pride, so much ego. You have traction, like you said, you guys were getting big in the US, how did you come to that realisation and that courage that you needed to scrap it and start from scratch again, rework the team, just go back and work with your customers or users and just go really iterative?
Justin: It was two forces, I think that really did it, one was that while growth was great, we were starting to get our leading indicator metrics, our Net Promoter score which is a measure of how favourably people view our product and our brand, was really starting to tank. There were some articles that came out, one in particular about the dating apocalypse that featured us pretty heavily. And as I stepped back I just realised this really isn’t the company I set out to build and we were just another app. Just another…
Nathan: Me too product.
Justin: Yeah sort of, at that point. Even though we were very early and in fact first, at that point, there had been so many others that were really well funded and grown really fast and it just felt if Hinge disappeared tomorrow, no one would really care. We didn’t feel like we were offering something that was really that different into the market, so that was one piece of it. I didn’t really set out to build that from an ethos perspective or to build something that was just another me too product.
Then on top of that, what was really clearly emerging was that people wanted something different, there was this opportunity for… because these apps are originally designed for people who are 18, 19, 20, 21, college-age kids but now we’re five years into the world of dating apps and people who’d started on these products were now ageing to the point where they’re in their mid 20s, their late 20s and they’re really looking for their person and there just wasn’t something that was well-designed for finding your person.
There was a lot of stuff that was designed for living your best single life and having lots of fun and meeting lots of people and seeing where it goes, but there wasn’t something that was really helping you key in on the right person for you. And that’s what we wanted to build.
Nathan: Interesting so you said that, yeah you’ve just come to this realisation that the product wasn’t what you’ve originally envisioned. How did your investors, your board, your team take when you said this news?
Justin: I definitely got the buy-in of the board and there was definitely a discussion from a lot of my investors whether to just double down on our existing product or take this big risk and restart it from scratch. But generally the board was really supportive of the concept and the team was a really tough conversation in a way, because I let go about half the team and then immediately had to turn around and convince the rest of the people that stayed there that we were going to do something really exciting and this wasn’t a scary time, this was a really big, great opportunity.
But at the time, we were about 25 or 30 employees and there was just no way to start from scratch with 30 employees. That’s too many people, focused around too small a problem. When you start over from scratch like that, having more than around 15 people in the room is just too much and we also had to cut our burn rate to make sure we didn’t run out of money before we could find the solution. And so that was definitely really hard, and I got some really great advice from some other entrepreneurs who had been through similar reboots and so I did it all in one day.
Let go of half the team in the morning and in the second half of the day, got the rest of the team in, got them pumped up. We went on a retreat after that to really envision what this new product would be. This was around Christmas of 2015, and then everyone went on break for a week and then when everyone came back in January, we just started building.
Nathan: And talk to me around, what do you think it takes the second time round? What did you do differently to build a better… It sounds like a far superior product than the first version?
Justin: Yeah definitely, having a second life as an entrepreneur is such a blessing, I can’t tell you because I really got to correct all the mistakes that I made the first time. One was just clarity of mission and vision and learning how to stick with that and not falling prey to focusing on the competition because I think that was a big mistake we made. We sort of morphed into a product that looked very much like the competition because we were so threatened by it, that every time that someone would release something, like a new feature or an interface design, we would be jealous and like okay, well we have to release that too so that we don’t fall behind. And what happened over time is we just morphed and looked like the other products and the other products were bigger and better funded and had more momentum than us and so that was clearly a mistake.
And so part of that was again focusing on the customer and focusing on this clarity of mission and vision which is to get people out on great dates which did lead to a very different product. Other things I learned is just the critical importance of the people you surround yourself with as a leader when you’re growing a company like this. I know people always say, “People are the most important thing,” but as you mature in your entrepreneurial journey, you really realise that’s almost the only thing. It’s the market you’re in and the people you surround yourself with, and I think I had an immaturity as a first-time entrepreneur that it was my vision and my clarity and my genius that was going to get us there.
And that clearly the way that you really scale and grow and learn as an entrepreneur is get great people and point the direction and inspire and coach and motivate and challenge them but ultimately get out of their way and let them do their thing, and that was absolutely critical to my success the second time around. And then there’s just like a whole host of operational things, we are looking to brand or design our product that I’ve made mistakes before, even how to develop a tech stack and that didn’t lead to technical debt and constant rewriting of the code and slowing you down. So there’s so many pieces that I got to learn the second time around.
Nathan: Tell us about what do you mean by how to develop a tech stack?
Justin: Oh sorry, what I mean by that is, one the technology choices that you make but more importantly the way that you structure your code base in the way that you build it, so that it is modular and flexible and scalable because if you’ve worked in tech then there’s this constant echo among engineers that every time you release a new feature, it’s like oh, well we have to go back and rewrite this thing and there’s this term of technical debt meaning essentially we were moving really fast before and because we were moving so fast, we didn’t structure this in a really good way and so if we’re going to make this change it’s going to be really messy. If we push on this part of the code, it’s going to break that part of the codes, so we’re going to have to rewrite it. And that really slows you down, and when you have the discipline and this is a huge testament to our technical leader, Ben, that really thought deeply about how to structure for this for the long term, so that we can continually move fast and not face technical debt in the future, so that you can continually release new features and respond to customer needs, without getting dragged down into having to rewrite your code base.
Nathan: Yeah I see, that makes sense. So talk to me around… because you guys have now been acquired by Match, correct?
Justin: Yes, that’s right.
Nathan: So when did they come into play and why did you bring them on?
Justin: Match is a global player who just has a tonne of expertise in this space. And it was, after we relaunched the new version and we started to get some traction, we had the opportunity to have them in invest in us. And so it started as an investment that then they levelled up their investment over time and eventually bought the whole company, but it just became clear that they were really great operating partners, they had a great culture and it just seemed like the right home for us eventually.
And they’ve really just helped us scale globally as you’re now experiencing, because we were able to scale first in the US and now in the UK and Australia and Canada and they’ve really been big believers and big investors in us.
Nathan: Yeah no, I see that’s amazing and I’m curious now that you have sold the company, they’ve bought 100%, has your role changed as CEO?
Justin: It really hasn’t changed very much, the way that Match operates is they have a portfolio of a few different dating apps but each one operates independently and we still have our own office. I still retain title of CEO and really the day-to-day doesn’t change very much.
Nathan: Okay, interesting. So what’s next for you guys? What’s exciting for you right now with Hinge?
Justin: Well I really think that we’re in the beginning stages of what dating apps can offer people. I mean, it’s great to be a tool that you can introduce people to each other but when you really step back and think about it, this is one of the most important decisions that people make in their lives, it contributes more to their happiness or detracts from it, than almost any decision that you will ever make and yet so many of us make it without really an education on how to choose your right partner. And just many of us are not born good at… obviously we’re not born good at app dating or online dating much less even real dating in that so-called real dating in the real world or whatever.
Right now we’re launching something called Hinge Labs which is a team of researchers that are going to spend time really figuring out people who have succeeded on Hinge and found great relationships, what were they doing differently than maybe people who are struggling to find someone? And taking those learnings whether they’re sort of the attitudes they bring or the way that they are using the app and then sharing those with the rest of the users. So I think that there’s a really, really big opportunity there to not just make Hinge the platform where people can find each other but really letting it be a guide and a coach through that process to really help you make the best decision.
Nathan: Yeah, I think that’s incredibly smart. I’m sure you’re aware and I don’t know why I get the ads but you do see random ads or YouTube videos of dating coaches and all sorts of crazy stuff, where there is a market for that on the relationship side of learning because it can be so intimidating, right?
Justin: Totally, and those dating coaches can be great but ultimately they’re just giving you their personal theory based on, I’m not exactly sure what it’s based on whereas we will really have the data and experience of millions and millions of users, who have then moved on and found relationships that we can really bring to bear to help everyone. It’ll be really interesting to take those theories and really test them and see what really does work and what doesn’t.
Nathan: Yeah no, that’s fascinating because yeah look as well when you think from a product development perspective, the more that you can spend more time because whatever product or service you have, you’re making a promise, right, and it’s your job to be able to deliver on that promise in any way, shape or form whether it’s making the user onboarding simpler. Whether it’s speeding up that result of that promise you’ve made. You can really build a better product, deliver on your promise faster and build a more sustainable business. So I think that’s really, really smart. I’m curious as well, when you talked about product development, at what level, the second time round, were you doing user testing and what did that look like? Because I just find it quite fascinating.
Justin: So much, I mean we really, again, spent a lot of time, a lot of time. We had users just flowing in and out of our office on a daily basis in the evening to run focus groups, either digging, just trying to research it and get into people’s heads about what they were struggling with in dating and what would make it better, or developing prototypes and having people use them.
So we were really in a rapid prototyping, testing phase where we were constantly in touch with our customers and figuring out what was going to work best for them. And that’s where that emerged for us, the importance of creating likeable content on the profiles and developing the props, not just the photos but the short questions that are designed to lead to conversations. We’re finding what those would look like over time and just that core mechanic of getting people away from the swipe feature of taking people left and right, and it’s making binary decisions on them and actually engaging with them by liking and commenting on something on the profile.
Just make people way more thoughtful, way more selective, really treating each other like real humans on the other side of the screen.
Nathan: Yeah I see, when you said you had so many people coming through every day, how many per day you reckon? What kind of scale are we talking? Thousands over that nine-month period or hundreds?
Justin: I would say probably in the hundreds, we would typically have evenings and people would come in, in groups of three to four groups of eight at a time, and we would again, depending upon what stage of product development we were in, open-ended research or getting their thoughts on the feature that we were developing. Yeah, it really ranged the gamut.
Nathan: You see, and you said there was a team of 30 and you halved it so there was about 15 people, right, during that relaunch phase?
Justin: That’s right.
Nathan: And was it mainly developers?
Justin: No, it wasn’t just developers, at that point it was probably about half engineers but it was also product, it was user research and customer service. It was marketing and branding and during this whole relaunch, we were really digging into how we were going to reintroduce Hinge to the world as the dating app designed to be deleted, and we completely redid our cut like the brand and the colours and the language that we would use. Everything to really pivot Hinge away from what we used to be known as, we had a very entrenched brand as the friends of friends dating app. So we were the one that you’d join and it would connect you to friends of friends and we really wanted to let go of that and focus as the dating app that’s designed to be deleted.
Nathan: Yeah well, it’s crazy that you did that, pretty amazing execution as well to rebuild the whole app from scratch, rebrand, everything all in the space of nine months, that’s amazing.
Justin: Yeah, it was a wild ride. And I’ll tell you it wasn’t linear, right, it wasn’t like oh let’s build this and it’ll be successful. Sometimes I felt like Moses leading people around the desert. I think as late as June, we were still sitting there being like, oh man I’m not sure if we’re going to figure this out, because we’re doing a lot of moving in different directions, where should we have an app where you can’t even like people, you just have to message. Should it be a group experience? We were really zooming way out to think about how we can reimagine what this process was, and even at various times, we thought about pivoting away completely from the dating app model.
We were wide open in the beginning and it was scary because at certain times it didn’t feel like I believed that there was this market there, but at some point, it felt sometimes like we weren’t going to figure out a meaningfully different product to introduce that would really solve the problem. It really took a while for us to break out of the thought process because it was just like all the other dating apps started to look very, very similar and for us to break our mindset to look different was really something that, it was scary and it took a lot of time to figure out.
Nathan: So I’m curious as well, when you relaunched, did it launch with a bang and then it’s just been a rocket ship since and then Match came in-
Nathan: -and acquired 51%?
Justin: Definitely not. Yeah, no, it launched it with a whimper for sure. That was another really, really scary time because we launched initially and as you said it took a lot of execution to get all those moving pieces right. I’d say that we got the launch marketing right for sure, we got the brand but the execution on some of the tweaks of how the interface worked, the business model, even the algorithm we discovered later had a pretty fundamental flaw in it, where it was essentially random for the first couple of months. So, no, it looked actually like the whole thing was going to collapse for the first few months but I have to hand it to my team, who were just really incredible, smart, loyal people and we just sat in there and we just blocked and tackled each problem.
We just fixed it, fixed it, fixed it and then you could see the metrics starting to turn, starting to turn until they became really, really interesting. And even though our growth wasn’t explosive yet, the Match group, I think had the experience to identify that the metrics they were seeing even in those early stages, where we only had a couple hundred thousand users, was really starting to turn and become interesting and that’s when they came in as an investor.
Nathan: Got you, I see, so even though you said you guys were quite popular when you launched in 2012 in the US, what about that existing database? You would have thought that when you relaunch, you would just go to them and it would blow up, right? [crosstalk].
Justin: Yeah, you would think so. We changed positioning and that was to become stale and people don’t really check their emails, and so I thought that too but what happened over those nine months is we really had made the decision, because we debated, while that existing product sits out there for nine months, are we going to continue to update it and maintain it or are we going to let it whither, right? Because we’re constantly as a company providing updates and staying on top of our game and improving the product constantly and when you let a product sit stale for 10 months on the App Store, it really just started to tank towards the end, and we really lost a lot of our momentum and it was hard to convince people to come back and try the new product, and so it was not easy at first, for sure.
Nathan: So did you leave it on the App Store, or you shut it down?
Justin: We did leave it on the App Store just totally but we weren’t maintaining it, we just weren’t really doing anything around it, and the app just started to shrink over time and in terms of the user base.
Nathan: But it was generating revenue?
Justin: No, actually up until that point, we had never tried to monetize the app.
Nathan: Oh wow, so you were just pure off just burn?
Justin: Just burn, yeah just burning. We just raised a bunch of money before. We’d raised like $16 million or something like that, and we’d only gone through maybe four to five of that when we decided to do the reboot, and we saw we had quite a lot of money in the bank and I just said, listen we have enough fire power here to give us the runway to refigure this out and that’s what we did.
Nathan: Yeah, got you, okay, interesting. Right now, I’ve been with my partner for eight years now so I’ve never used any of these apps, but I’m curious when it comes to the business model now, how do you know when it’s a user play? If you monetize too early, it actually hurts growth, I assume you’ve turned on those mechanics now but how do you know when to?
Justin: It’s definitely different by business but Hinge, I don’t think we offer anything that really hindered growth, in fact it’s almost helpful for growth because all the features that we released that are paid or additive to the experience and yet, they’re not things that we could give to everyone because they would actually hurt the experience if everyone had them. So it really hasn’t been a trade-off in the sense that it hurts growth, only in the sense that it takes resources to devote time to spending time thinking about money versus thinking about just continuing to improve the core product experience.
Nathan: Gotcha, I see, so we have to work towards wrapping up and I’m mindful of your time. So when it comes to Hinge and traction you’ve got thus far, would you able to share how far you’ve taken it since the relaunch?
Justin: It’s definitely way, way, way bigger than it was before we decided to do the reboot at this time. We grew about 4X last year in, I think specifically in the UK and Australia. We’re now setting up a date about every three seconds globally, and so that’s the kind of scale that we’ve gotten to at this point.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, would you be able to share how many users or not allowed?
Justin: Because of the Match group, yeah unfortunately I can’t share.
Nathan: That’s fair, that’s totally fine.
Justin: Yeah. It’s a SCC thing and they don’t report those numbers publicly so it’s not public information.
Nathan: Yeah no, that’s cool, all good. Well look, thank you so much for your time, Justin. Just two last questions, one, our audience is mainly early stage startup founders, either just about to launch something or have recently launched something or have recently hit product market fit. What is any parting words of wisdom that you’d like to share and then lastly, where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?
Justin: On the first, entrepreneurship is such a tough game. I’ve been through so many ups and so many downs and it’s really the art of figuring out and riding that line, of figuring out when you’re crazy and everyone else is crazy, right? Because you have to have this contrarian belief as an entrepreneur to build something big, that you’ve got to see an opportunity that other people don’t. And so many people get wrapped up in their original vision of whatever it is and they hold on so tightly to it, and they don’t adapt over time and that’s like when you’re crazy. But then other people will adapt too quickly and they give up, I think too early and too easily because maybe the market’s not giving them the right feedback. And so the real art of it for me, for entrepreneurship is, especially early stage is how to stick to your vision and your direction and your strategy, while being very flexible on your tactics and always answering questions and never having too many sacred cows in the way that you think things are.
Because so many times I was convinced that I made this one assumption, that I just knew had to be true and it turned out it wasn’t true and so you’ve always got to be questioning yourself but also still heading in that direction and entrepreneurship is really that balance. And then I think part of that is just how important it is as an entrepreneur to develop a personal strategy to stay sane because there really is so many ups and downs and I use journaling. Every morning I really have to, no matter what, journal at least half a page, do a few sun salutations in yoga, and sit for at least five minutes in meditation. Usually I try to do more in each of those categories but at the very least I do those three things every day because it just resets my brain and re-grounds me in my body and de-stresses and gives me perspective, and that’s so important when you’re an entrepreneur.
In terms of following me, I don’t actually maintain a social media presence because I don’t really use social media, I think it’s just too addictive a technology frankly, and it’s not designed to be deleted. As we know, it’s designed to keep you there as long as humanly possible. And the only thing I can say is, download Hinge and you can follow Hinge through our website as well, Hinge.co and you can also follow us on Instagram on @Hinge.
Nathan: Awesome, well look, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it and congratulations on all your success thus far.
Justin: Thank you very much, it was great to talk.