Interview: Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai on How the Gay Social App is Taking Over the World

Joel Simkhai is the founder and CEO of Grindr, the leading all-male mobile location-based social network in the world. When asked what his favorite mobile app is (besides his own) he says,

"I have a dog -- so it’s like finding other pet lovers and their pets," he says. "They all have profiles. It’s essentially Grindr for pets. It’s a cool app."

This may be an unlikely choice for a guy who created a gay-based app called "Grindr" -- but it isn't too much of a stretch.

Joel recently hosted a SXSW session titled "What's 'The Next Big Thing' in Social Networking" where he talked about evolving the world of the mobile GPS experience. With Grindr, he has raked in over 3 million users in 192 countries in a mere three years. In addition to that he, along with Scott Lewallen, Grindr's Senior Vice President of Product and Design, launched Blendr, Grindr's heterosexual counterpart.

Needless to say, he has altered the landscape in which gay and straight people meet -- some may even call him one of the early adopters of GPS-based social networking.

While at SXSW, I had a chance to sit down with Joel and Scott to talk more about Grindr, it's rapid growth, and why Grindr goes beyond a mere of a "hook-up" app.

AfterElton: When did you actually launch Grindr?

Joel Simkhai: We launched in March 2009. It came out necessity in my own life. I was like, "How do I meet all these guys?" So as soon after the second generation iPhone was announced, I said this is the technology I've been waiting for. So, I turned to Scott (Lewallen) and I said, "I want to create an app that lets you meet the guys around you," and he's like "Cool, I love it. Let’s do it!" Scott held the branding and the design, the name, and thinking through a lot of the different aspects of the lay-out -- but neither of us were developers.

AE: Did you think Grindr would become as big as it is now? And in just three years?

Scott Lewallen: We were cautiously optimistic. Nothing is for sure. We thought it was a good idea, but as with any idea, people need to get involved and passionate about the product and the service. Our users are our network.

AE: A lot of people refer to Grindr as a reckless hook-up app and nothing more. Did you expect people to approach it this way? How do you feel about that stigma?

SL: I would say that we provide a good tool for people. People are going to use it however they use it. By large, it's a tool for connecting people. We just did a survey on people and asked, "Have you met friends on Grindr?" and "Have you found relationships on Grindr?" I believe it was...

JS: …about 67%.

SL: 67% people responded they had found friends, and 38% said that they found a date as a result of interacting with people in Grindr. So that’s very exciting. It reinforces the notion that people are using this to meet other people and build relationships, build friendships and discover other people.

AE: What made you settle on the name, "Grindr?"

SL: We thought it was a word that has some kind of movement and action to it. We thought of it as an analogy -- like a coffee grinder, a mixing pot or something analogous to bring a bunch of people together and mixing them together. The logo is a mask and we wanted something that sort people back to a primal tribe almost -- like an African mask. We wanted something iconographic that people could attach themselves to.

JS: And you want something that is rough. That is very, you know, masculine and "grinding". There's a roughness to it -- something that was not about being gay.

AE: What made you think the gay community would respond to something like Grindr?

JS: Gay men really embrace their technology and we are the first really to embrace location services in large numbers. There are two issues: one is you don’t know who’s gay all the time. Second of all, when you do know, is how do you approach them? Grindr largely solved that problem -- and then we start seeing a lot of different types of apps like foursquare that came into the mainstream audience and some of them are taking off, some of them haven't.

AE: Since I live in San Francisco, I just assume that everyone is gay.

JS: (laughs) That may be true for a lot of cities in the U.S. (Grindr) is around world -- we're in 192 countries, and it’s not so easy for everyone. There's places where there's no gay bars, there's no gay culture. We're very big in Singapore, in parts of Asia, in parts of Africa -- we're really everywhere.

AE: What kind of reception has Blendr received?

SL: I think any time you’re involved in a wider audience, you’d have to build before the consensus is calculated -- especially bringing the female factor into it. Then there's privacy that has come to the forefront in the media right now. So, we took extra steps to ensure that people will feel even safer on Blendr and that there will be more privacy.

JS: We've been able to help gay men meet, be helped. The feedback we’ve gotten was like, "Hey, you changed my life. I wasn’t able to do this I am now be able to do this. It’s really made a big difference in my life". To limit that experience to one part of population, is unfair.

AE: Can you tell us about "Grindr For Equality"?

SL: We have a very active user base and they're passionate about a lot of things. We’ve leveraged that and created a program called "Grindr For Equality." It let's us reach out to our user base and or activate them to do things like contact politicians, contact companies who may be struggling with interfacing with gay community -- it let's us really get out there and have a stronger voice for the gay community.

JS: From our perspective we have a responsibility. So we’ve got this audience. We got guys who use our service. Gay men don’t have rights similar to everyone else. In the U.S. the difference is not horrible, but there's a difference -- especially the rest of the world, there’s a very big difference between rights of the gay men and the non-gay men. So, Grindr for equality is the effort to kind of address that and to see what we can do. It's really about little things. It's a very easy to call to action.

AE: Do you think the social media market is oversaturated with too many things?

SL: It depends on how you digest it. My mom is a college counselor and one of the things that trend in that community is over-sharing or something you do now that impact your life later. There's a responsibility on the users' part of policing your own activity. We constantly tell our users be intelligent about meeting people.

JS: I think social media is over-saturated -- that’s great! That’s fantastic! I mean people spend a lot of time on Facebook; people spend a lot of time on different networks. It's social. You know, this is not watching TV. This is not going to the movies and not really interacting with anyone else. This is a social interaction. Unfortunately sometimes it’s digital and it’s not in person. That's why I think things like Grindr are great because we’re actually helping you be social and actually meet.

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