I’m with her

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -

De­spite not be­ing a “tech person”, Robyn Ex­ton has cre­ated an app used by mil­lions – and she says you can do it, too.

Self-de­scribed “non-tech person” turned app de­vel­oper Robyn Ex­ton is mak­ing it eas­ier for LGBTQI women to con­nect amid what she says is “the next sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion”, re­defin­ing mo­bile dat­ing in the process

Robyn Ex­ton was 26 and work­ing at a Lon­don­based brand­ing agency when the idea struck to cre­ate an app. One of her clients had a dat­ing busi­ness. Grindr was out in the mar­ket but Tin­der hadn’t yet reached the UK. “It was great for gay guys, and straight prod­ucts were start­ing to think about how they play in that space,” she says. “At the same time, I was us­ing this bad les­bian dat­ing site that was re­ally an un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence... When I was then look­ing at all the great stuff that was out there and avail­able for gay men and for straight peo­ple, I re­alised it was ab­surd that no-one had truly looked at what women want. Mean­while, I was go­ing to these cool queer East Lon­don [clubs] and think­ing, ‘Why don’t the dat­ing apps look more like this?’” So Ex­ton de­cided to do some­thing about it.

Mov­ing in with her dad, she took on an extra job, sold her pos­ses­sions and man­aged to pull to­gether around $16,000. A night course in cod­ing en­abled her to un­der­stand more about the world she was en­ter­ing and, with sup­port from the Lon­don tech com­mu­nity, she sub­mit­ted an app to Ap­ple’s App Store. “I think it took a good chunk of blind naivety and ig­no­rance. Not know­ing what I was go­ing into had a re­ally pos­i­tive im­pact on do­ing it be­cause I had no idea how hard it was go­ing to be.”

Slowly build­ing a team around her, Ex­ton was ba­si­cally learn­ing on the job for the first few years. “We had to fig­ure out a lot of stuff – we saw a lot of things that did work, lots of things that didn’t, and even­tu­ally it led to us build­ing a new app just over two years ago.”

HER is a tool that helps les­bian, bi­sex­ual and queer peo­ple con­nect with each other. A tech prod­uct de­signed by a sin­gle wo­man for sin­gle women, it recog­nises how we use tech­nol­ogy dif­fer­ently. It’s so­cial in its na­ture, so it has a Face­book-like sec­tion with a con­tent feed in ad­di­tion to a swip­ing func­tion. “We don’t show you the clos­est person to you be­cause, un­like men, women never meet up on the same day,” Ex­ton ex­plains. “Women al­ways plan their dates in ad­vance, so as long as there’s a sen­si­ble travel dis­tance, that works bet­ter. We have pro­files that are more like Pin­ter­est boards, where you up­load pic­tures and kind of show peo­ple your life – what you’re pas­sion­ate about, where you were on va­ca­tion – and we have a ques­tion of the day, which helps the conversa­tion kick off.” Ex­ton says women are just as likely to meet a friend as a part­ner and, most im­por­tantly, it’s a safe space: to join, you have to use Face­book or In­sta­gram, and once in­side there’s heavy com­mu­nity reg­u­la­tion. “Girls tend to be pretty re­spect­ful of each other and pretty con­sid­er­ate. Vag shots are just not a thing!”

To­day, the app has about two mil­lion users, and there are now 30 staffers on the team, head­quar­tered in San Fran­cisco. Af­ter go­ing down the in­vestor route, a path Ex­ton says isn’t al­ways a smooth one for a wo­man, the com­pany has raised about $3.2 mil­lion to date and the app is avail­able in 55 coun­tries, with in­ter­na­tional growth see­ing it trans­lated into French, with Ger­man, Span­ish, Ital­ian and Por­tuguese ver­sions just around the cor­ner. Re­lated events of up to 1,000 women run like mini fes­ti­vals in 21 cities, in­clud­ing Mel­bourne and soon Syd­ney, with a view to help women and queer peo­ple meet.

At a time of chang­ing per­cep­tions to­wards gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, and greater vis­i­bil­ity for the LGBTQI com­mu­nity, Ex­ton says the past two years have had a mon­u­men­tal im­pact on how younger women are see­ing their sex­u­al­ity, as cool young fig­ures like Ellen Page, Cara Delev­ingne and Kris­ten Ste­wart talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences. “The


num­ber of peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing as bi-cu­ri­ous is grow­ing, so peo­ple want to know about their sex­u­al­ity, ex­plore it, not have the pres­sure of say­ing, ‘I am a les­bian,’ pe­riod. It’s like, ‘I’m in­ter­ested in women, I’m in­ter­ested in mak­ing out with a girl, I’m in­ter­ested in go­ing to a queer dance party, I’m in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing part of what makes me me.’”

De­spite the steep and lengthy learn­ing curve Ex­ton em­barked on to en­able her dream to be­come a re­al­ity, in ret­ro­spect, her tim­ing couldn’t have been bet­ter. “At the time, I felt like I was miles be­hind. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Oh my God, we’re too slow, other peo­ple are go­ing to do this.’ And to be fair, there were other prod­ucts that were [try­ing to do] the same thing by tak­ing a gay guy app and mak­ing it pink... I think you al­ways feel be­hind slightly when you’re run­ning a com­pany; you al­ways want to be 10 more steps ahead. But [the app] was needed – that’s the main thing. A whole mar­ket, a huge au­di­ence, was be­ing com­pletely ig­nored and not given a prod­uct that ac­tu­ally works.”

Her ad­vice to other women con­sid­er­ing their own ven­ture: ar­mour up and be­lieve in your­self. “There’s def­i­nitely a pipe­line prob­lem – there aren’t enough women com­ing into [tech], and I think that gen­er­ally when you look at gen­dered be­hav­iours, women are much more risk-averse and weren’t brought up be­ing told to take a risk and do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” she says. “There needs to be the men­tal shift for peo­ple who are in their early to mid-twen­ties. The big thing for me was re­al­is­ing I had to have my backup plan. I had to know what was go­ing on, and if it folded, I agreed with my mum that I could go crash at hers for a bit if I needed to. I had worked at [a] pub, so I knew I al­ways had that as a backup if I needed to get a job. Know­ing those things made me feel com­fort­able tak­ing all the risks that were in­volved with it.

“And then at some point, you’ve got to do this shit for your­self,” she adds. “No-one is go­ing to tell you to run a com­pany, give you money to do it and make your com­pany for you. You’ve got to want to do it your­self. The only thing is tak­ing those steps to make it hap­pen.”

Don’t miss our ELLE Talks pod­cast with Robyn – on itunes now

TECH TRAIL­BLAZER HER app founder Robyn Ex­ton

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