At 27 years old, Sean Rad has already been a successful entrepreneur once. In 2009, he scored his first big hit when he founded ad.ly, which helps brands land celebrity endorsements on social media. Now he's on to his second act: Tinder, which has become the App Store's fast-growing mobile dating app. Rad claims that the app has led to 50 million matches and 10 marriages since it launched this fall.
It's a simple concept: Unlike most online dating platforms, there are no profiles or questionnaires to fill out. Instead, users sign up through Facebook, select a couple pictures, and enter their gender, location, and sexual preference. The app then serves up photos of other nearby users. They can swipe left if they're not interested or right if they are. When two people both "like" each other, only then can they send each other messages. In just a few short months, Tinder has already generated 4.7 billion profile ratings and is being downloaded more frequently than all other dating apps.
On Thursday, the Los Angeles-based start-up, backed by IAC, launched a new feature called Matchmaker, that lets users make introductions between their Facebook friends, whether or not they're already on Tinder. It's all part of Rad's mission to reinvent the way people meet.
He recently sat down with Inc. to discuss Tinder's exponential growth, how he plans on making money (someday), and why so many other entrepreneurs are using his product.
What inspired you to start Tinder in the first place?
The idea for Tinder came along when I started thinking about the fact that there are a lot of great platforms that help us communicate with people we already know, but there isn't a way for me to meet new people.
In the real world, you're either a hunter or you're being hunted. If you're a hunter, there's constant rejection. And if you're hunted, you're constantly being bombarded. And the current solutions actually make these problems worse. With other dating apps, I can reach out to more people if I'm a hunter, and I can be hunted more easily. I never used those apps, none of my friends ever used those apps, and I couldn't understand why until that aha! moment happened. None of these apps were solving the fundamental problem.
So, how do you solve it?
On Tinder, you anonymously say if you're interested in somebody, and if that person happens to be interested in you, you can have a conversation. If they're not interested, they never know you liked them anyway, so you don't feel embarrassed. And for the person who's being hunted, we take away that overwhelming experience.
You've grown pretty fast. When did things really take off?
It happened around January. We had been picking up on college campuses, then everyone went home and told their cousins and older brothers and friends about it, and all of a sudden Tinder started growing like a virus. Ad.ly was hot real fast and then kind of slowed down. Tinder got hot real fast, and it's only gotten hotter. Throughout my entire career, I've always heard people say that scalability issues are a luxurious problems to have. Maybe they're luxurious problems, but they're some of the most challenging things I've ever had to deal with.
What was the biggest issue?
We built Tinder as a prototype and anticipated it was going to take off, but we never anticipated it was going to take off this fast. So we really built prototype code. Once we got hit with the demand, our challenge was not only maintaining the current system, but building the new one at the same time. So imagine you're flying at 100 mph and the engine is breaking while you're in midair, and you're fixing that engine while you're building a new one in the air. It's a very challenging and emotional thing.
Where'd the idea for Matchmaker, the new feature, come from?
Our vision is to be the platform that you think about when it comes to meeting somebody new under any context, not just dating. We plan to solve that problem in every way you can approach it. With Matchmaker, you can create a match between any two of your Facebook friends. If they're on Tinder they can talk right there, and if they're not, we'll message them on Facebook and get them to sign up for Tinder and open that dialogue. You can imagine how this could be applied to business or dating, or just about anything.
How are you going to make money on all of this?
We come up with ideas everyday, but we shelve them. It's a function of having time to think about it. Right now, we're prioritizing our product ambitions first. We have 50 million matches and a vast audience. When it gets to a point where we've perfected Matchmaker, too, then we'll start to focus on ways to monetize it. If our goal is to help you meet new people, then our revenue model will help that transaction happen faster through in-app purchases. We can charge for better features and capabilities. One thing we won't do is monetize in a way that takes away from user experience or offer features that are core to the product and gate them behind a pay wall. We want to charge for giving you more value, not for interacting with us in a basic way.
We took Tinder for a test drive and stumbled across a bunch of entrepreneurs, including a Winklevoss twin. Are you seeing a lot of traction among other tech founders?
Oh tons! Actually, both of the Winklevoss twins are on there. There are a lot of celebrities, who I can't name, because I'd get in trouble. There are billionaires using it, a slew of entrepreneurs, and a couple who are CEOs of very big start-ups right now. I face the same problem they do. Everyone thinks since I'm CEO of Tinder I go on dates left and right, but I'm the worst at dating, because I have no time. This just solves so many problems.
Why did you stay in Los Angeles instead of making the predictable move to Silicon Valley?
You hear a lot of, "This is the best place to build a company. No, that place is the best place." I think it's all a crock of shit. You can build a great company anywhere. There's amazing talent everywhere. Your job as an entrepreneur is to find and exploit that talent. L.A.'s an amazing city. Sure, San Francisco has a much deeper DNA in tech, but there are negative attributes, too, because you're in an echo chamber and less connected to the mainstream user.
You've had a lot of success at a young age. Any advice to other founders who are just starting out?
You should only start a company because you can't sleep at night until you solve a certain problem, and I think those problems need to find you. If you're starting a company for the sake of starting a company, you're going to fail. If it's not coming out of this irrational need to see this vision to fruition, when those all-nighters for a month in a row start to take a toll on your body, unless you have this immense will to see it through, it can break you. Start-ups are difficult. And that's when things are going well.