Hinge’s CEO wants you out of his app and back into the real world

Justin McLeod on the state — and future — of digital dating.

Two screenshots of Hinge's app.

Hinge has long tried to go beyond the standard dating app profile.

Photo: Hinge

Even during a pandemic-fueled period of lockdown and social distancing, dating apps have continued to boom. In part because they’re the only game in town; people can’t meet in bars or mingle at work functions, so they’re turning to apps as a way to find love. In fact, technology sits at the center of dating and relationships like never before. What does that mean a dating app should be?

That’s what Justin McLeod, the CEO of Hinge, spends his time thinking about. Hinge has been on a growth tear the last couple of years — McLeod said it’s the fastest-growing dating app on the market — as it tries to help users be more thoughtful, intentional and effective in finding someone to be with. Hinge’s thing has always been that it is “the dating app designed to be deleted,” which feels increasingly unusual in a market crowded with apps trying to steal your every waking second. (A disclaimer: Bennett Richardson, Protocol’s president, was in a former life a co-founder of Hinge.)

For the first episode in Source Code’s monthlong series about how tech is affecting love, dating, sex, relationships and everything else, McLeod joined the show to talk about the role of dating apps, what “dating” even means in an increasingly digital world and what it means to build an app you hope people don’t really use.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Obviously everything about the way people date and socialize has changed the last couple of years. So what does that mean for you? You’re the CEO of Hinge, what’s top of mind for you right now?

I think the pandemic really accelerated a lot of dating trends that we were headed for anyway. It's led to much more usage of dating apps, because people who were still holding out I think finally went and adopted dating apps.

It increased the use of rich media in dating. People who felt really weird about doing anything more than looking at someone's photos and texting with them — all of a sudden, we're doing video calls and FaceTimes before actually meeting up in person. And so that, I think, has changed the dating landscape a lot in terms of what people expect. And then the other thing that we noticed, at least at Hinge, is that people just got a lot more intentional and thoughtful about their dating lives. I think we all just got more intentional and thoughtful about our lives and what we were doing: Is this the right career for me? Is this the right relationship for me? And so I think dating apps were a tool for a lot of people who wanted to hit the reset button.

How does that show up in an app like Hinge?

Hinge has grown really phenomenally during the pandemic. We have a brand as “the dating app designed to be deleted,” for people who are really looking for something more intentional. And in terms of our employees, we were 50 people roughly when the pandemic began, we're 180 right now. Headed towards over 250 by the end of the year. So it's been a really fast period of growth for us.

The “app designed to be deleted” thing is, to me, permanently the most fascinating thing about Hinge. Because it feels like we're in this moment now where I think people are finally realizing, “Oh, my God, 17 hours a day staring at my phone, that’s not great.” But on the flip side, you have TikTok, which is astonishingly good at keeping me looking at it for 17 hours a day.

And increasingly, all the stuff we do in life, even socializing and dating, feels more digital than ever. Does it feel like you’re pushing against this overwhelming tide of the smartphone-ization of everything by saying, “No, please stop using our app?”

It's definitely a zig when everyone else is zagging. For sure. The way that Hinge is differentiated and really stood out is that we've been so focused on effectiveness. We introduced We Met, which is the first feature that actually figured out whether our users were going out on dates or not, and whether those dates were good. And then we started optimizing everything around: Is it leading to good dates? And not: Is it leading to more sessions per day, more minutes per session? Any of those kinds of metrics that I think a lot of other companies will pay attention to, and certain social media companies pay attention to.

Because that ends up where you stop focusing on what your user came to you for, which in the case of social media — or at least social networks as they started — was to feel more belonging and connection with your friends. And it's gone away from that, and it's just like, how do we keep people in here longer and longer.

For us, you know, our business model is we make money from subscriptions. We have no advertising on Hinge. And so we have no interest in keeping you on our app. We only have an interest in helping you find your person, so that you will tell other people that you found your person on Hinge and they'll come and join.

I've spent so much time over the last couple of years talking about how to measure success. Because we have a decade-plus of the tech industry now talking about growth and engagement as the two main ways that you understand if your thing is working, right? “If people keep coming back and more people keep coming, we must be doing something right.” And I'm curious about the process of saying, “OK, we don't want to live by those things. How do we measure success in a way that actually matches the kind of thing we want to be?” How do you even reason through what other metrics of success you could have?

Originally, when Hinge started, we got caught up in those metrics. We were trying to raise VC money, VCs ask the same questions: What's your sessions per day? What’s your WAU over DAU? And we got caught up in that. And what we ended up doing was creating an app that I don't think was very effective, and user sentiment was starting to turn against us — and the category in general.

And that's when we had to really step back and say, "Well, we've got to do something different here." We looked at the market, and we realized that we have this thing which is entertaining. Dating apps can be entertaining for a lot of people, and it can be fun. But there's this whole group of people who are aging into the period of their life where they're actually really going to find their person and settle down. And we need an app that's really designed for that.

We've got to focus on one metric, which is: Is it actually getting people out on great dates?

So in order to really differentiate, we have to stay focused on our customers, not on the competition. And we've got to focus on one metric, which is: Is it actually getting people out on great dates? And if we went on effectiveness, people will tell their friends or go through word of mouth, and we will become the most successful dating app. And it's been sort of a tortoise versus the hare strategy, right? But the miracle of compound growth over time has turned us into now, like, the fastest-growing dating app that's out there.

But what you could have said is, “We want to get people on more dates, period.” And that leads you down one road. Or you could say, “We want people to get more good matches,” which leads you down another road. There are a million ways you could measure that effectiveness. And in a funny way, you picked one that I think has traditionally been really, really hard to measure, which is what happens outside of the app. And it seems like what you landed on is basically just … ask people.

I think that's the simplest way to do it. And the reason that we do it is just because I think there's there's real value in making sure that profiles are high fidelity and representative of people, so that when you end up on the date, you're like, this is the person that I thought I was chatting with on the other end of this. And you're not perpetually disappointed and discouraged and quit, because you're like, “Oh, I go on these dates, and I meet up with this person, and then it's not anything like I thought it was in the app.”

So it felt important not to just to measure whether people were scheduling dates or going on dates, but actually whether when they got on the date, it was like, “Oh yeah, this was an experience like I thought it was going to be, which is why I spent all the time and energy and money to actually go out and meet up with this person.”

What do you do with the fact that it seems like more of the actual experience of dating — and all social interaction — is happening online? Your push has always been to get off the app and into the world and meet each other. But to some extent, that's been impossible for the last couple of years. And that's also just not necessarily where society is now: People spend more of their leisure time hanging out with their friends in Fortnite, and I would argue that qualifies as something like meaningful social interaction! People are spending longer messaging in Hinge before they meet each other in real life, or going on Skype dates. How do you square that with this idea of wanting people to get out in the world to meet each other?

I still very much want to get people, I would say, off Hinge and into more meaningful interactions. And if that's playing Fortnite with someone, then that's playing Fortnite with someone. And if that’s meeting up in real life, it’s meeting up in real life.

So you’re down with the idea of a Fortnite first date.

Why not? What we're optimizing around is initiation, and enough interest that you want to go to the next level. What the next level is, is kind of up to you.

But — I guess I'm old-fashioned — I still believe that nothing can replace, especially when it comes to dating and love, being together in person. It’s just a much higher-fidelity experience. But as these virtual experiences become more and more immersive and realistic, and the opportunity to really engage with people, then getting more comfortable with someone or spending a little bit more time digitally, to make sure before you meet up with someone in real life that this is someone you want to meet, I think is great.

Is there such a thing as the perfect algorithm? Is the Holy Grail that I sign up, and on the first day I join Hinge, it's like, “There. That's your person.”

We may get there one day. But I think the job right now is to get you in the ballpark, and then let you decide, once you get offline with this person, if this is the person for you or not.

This is a dumb comparison, but it makes me think of streaming. I talk to these streaming executives, and my question is always: Is the goal that I open Netflix, and it just sort of knows what I want and plays it for me? Some people say yes to that. And other people say, well, no, because even if I've loaded the thing that is statistically perfect for you, the odds that that is actually the thing you want to watch at that moment are probably pretty low. And I feel like that's even more true with dating.

Yeah, I think that's why I say you can get people into the ballpark. I think we can get better and better at getting people closer and closer to the right ballpark, and maybe a smaller and smaller ballpark, but we're not going to be able to just say, “This is your person and you guys are going to like each other.” Because it's also a two-way street — on Netflix, the movie doesn't have to like you back. On Hinge, we're dealing with the additional complexity that it's a two-way interaction. And that is orders of magnitude more difficult to get right on the first try.

On Netflix, the movie doesn't have to like you back.

If I’m Hinge, I would think it would be tempting to say, "How do we bring you further along in the relationship?" You could build a companion app that's fun things to do with your new partner, or whatever. So as you think about it, especially as this stuff gets more digital throughout the relationship process, where does the job of an app like Hinge end?

Theoretically, it could go forever, right?

Yeah! You could put a marriage tab in the Hinge app.

And go into, like, relationship counseling and therapy.

Honestly, when I think about where Hinge’s trajectory is going and where we would want to go, I think that there's still so much opportunity and so much value in really focusing on romantic relationships.

And I think that if we were to start to expand, like what we do as a business beyond just connecting people in a dating app? I think it's more likely that we would start to see people through to their first, second or third dates, giving people support through that process. Maybe eventually, helping couples connect more deeply once they've decided they’re together. I think that’s a really interesting problem that no one else is really trying to solve.

It feels like there’s a big market for taking all of the people in the known universe, and give me the 25 that you feel like I should hang out with.

Thinking about things outside of dating, I think the world is desperately in need of a service that's about creating a sense of belonging and connection among people that already know each other. I think that's how Facebook started, in theory, but it's really lost that mission over time. It's become much more of a media company and much less of a social company.

I think the world is desperately in need of a service that's about creating a sense of belonging and connection among people that already know each other.

And so I do think about, where's the opportunity? I'm busy with Hinge, but I hope someone goes out and builds it. An app that was really designed around feelings of belonging and connection with the people that matter most to me — I think there's a really big opportunity there for someone to hack that and figure that out.

Have you seen a switch in how people present themselves on apps like Hinge? I'm a millennial, and my generation, we were all trained to filter our photos and put the very best version of ourselves forward. Everything was slightly better than it actually is in real life. But then, among younger people, authenticity is everything. Right? And it's all about being exactly who you are, and that's how you connect. Is that showing up in dating apps? Are people more willing and able to be truly themselves in these places?

Definitely. I mean, we're seeing it with audio and video adoption. And I think if you were really trying to make sure that you were coming off as the most polished version of yourself without being vulnerable at all, you’d probably just do some, like, filtered photos and a little text.

But we’re not seeing that. We're seeing a lot more willingness to be authentic. And when we talk to our users about what features they want, it’s more ability to have more self expression. And so I think that's why I say I think that's very much where the market is going. And where Hinge is going.

Lightning-round question, and then I’ll leave you alone. VR dating as a thing: Interesting? Good idea? Bad idea? What are your thoughts?

I don't know. I think it will eventually be a good idea. I'm not sure [that] where VR is, and the adoption of VR is, leads to a place where VR dates are something that people are going to do in the next, like, one to two to three years. But I can certainly see it in the future. What I can't quite figure out, though, is that so much of what you want to learn on a date is someone's facial expressions and things that are just hard to capture in a VR date.

Maybe people's expectations change. The future keeps changing in ways that I can't predict. But I think that does feel like an important thing, before you’d want to go on a VR date with someone as opposed to just talk on a video call, which I think could give you a much higher-fidelity sense of who someone is.

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