I’m with her
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
“I WAS USING THIS BAD LESBIAN DATING SITE... I REALISED IT WAS ABSURD NO-ONE HAD TRULY LOOKED AT WHAT WOMEN WANT”
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