MAKING THE FIRST MOVE
Whitney Wolfe wants to change the way online dating works, on her way to making the digital world a more civil space for everyone.
Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe wants to change the way online dating works.
Over a matcha latte in New York last winter, my clever, attractive, gainfully employed friend gave me the lowdown on the city’s dating scene. Bar etiquette hadn’t improved, and most of the apps on offer hadn’t helped singles. Except for one. “Bumble,” she said between sips of her hot drink. “That’s the only app where the guys are so much better.”
Better? It seemed like a far-fetched statement to make of a simple dating app. But Bumble, as Whitney Wolfe tells me, has an in-built functionality that has changed the behaviour of its user base. “From the get-go, people said it would never work, and that we were crazy, because men are meant to make the first move and that women would never do it,” says Bumble’s 27-yearold co-founder and CEO. “We had to really push our vision and say: ‘Trust us, if it is the woman who makes the first move, it really makes a difference.”
Wolfe, as tech world spectators are likely to be aware, was also the co-founder of Tinder – one of the world’s most prolific apps, which helped introduce the words “swipe left” to the courtship lexicon – and masterminded its university campus-focused marketing strategy. She was forced out of the company amid a sexual discrimination case that included as evidence incriminating text messages from another co-founder whom she was dating. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
Hesitant about returning to the dating app industry because of her past experiences, Wolfe had hoped to start a platform that would “encourage kindness, positivity and accountability in the digital space” for young women, as a response to the negativity found on social media. But a meeting with her now business partner Andrey Andreev, who founded the Russian dating app Badoo, convinced her that the dating world needed a femalecentric approach. “I tried to figure out what was missing in terms of women in that space and what exactly was wrong with connecting as it exists – both digitally and in real life – and it came down to the fact that gender norms do not encourage women to be in control,” Wolfe says over the phone from Austin, where her company is located, away from the hubbub and distraction of Silicon Valley. (“There isn’t a fear of missing out; it’s detached from the expectation of looking over your shoulder to see what the next person is doing,” she says of her choice of headquarters.) “We have to be equal and that’s where changing the roles and putting the women in charge was born.”
Wolfe is active in the female start-up community and has invested in The Wing, a chic all-pink and rose gold women’s only club in New York that is less about breeding and more about career development, and which hosts events that run the gamut of women’s lives, from networking, sex education and style.
“I think women really struggle to get men to understand what their vision is,” she says, “but that can only change by backing more women.”
She is also keen to shed light on the next generation of women moving up the ranks in the world. “It is hard for an 18-year-old girl with a few dollars in her pocket to think she is going to become the next Arianna Huffington. Don’t get me wrong, she is an incredible inspiration, but we need to highlight someone more attainable and useful for women who are at the beginning of their careers, not just the ones at the top.” It seems appropriate then that Bumble has introduced the BumbleBFF function, which allows women to find friends, and is due to launch BumbleBizz, which facilitates contact for business and professional reasons.
For Wolfe, the seemingly small act of building a functionality that forces the woman to initiate conversation was a necessity. She tells me about how she has been regaled with accounts of how it has changed users’ behaviours in the real world. “The golden rule is to treat others well, the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t apply to digital” – one thinks of all that cyber-bullying, where vitriol that could not so easily be expressed in real life gushes online – “so if you want the golden rule to apply, you need to physically build that into your product … you can’t just cross your fingers and hope: you have to guide them forward,” says Wolfe on the powerful impact of making the first move. “And, with a very simple implementation, we have guided them to behave in a certain way, which will have a positive impact in our community.”