Joel Simkhai is gay, but has always felt like a hidden minority. As he roamed around town, he wondered: Who else is gay? How should he interact with them?
"It was frustrating and I wanted an easier way to meet guys," he said, explaining the inspiration for his fast growing startup Grindr.
Today, with 3 million users in 192 countries, Grindr is the biggest social network for gay guys, with London, Paris, and New York as its biggest cities.
But Simkhai wasn't telling us about Grindr's numbers to brag. He explained that being the largest has its advantages, as it increases that element of serendipity of bumping into a guy who is on Grindr while at the gym or grocery story or wherever you are. Usually, there are about 52,000 users are logged into Grindr at a time.
Before moving to Los Angeles, Simkhai lived in the Upper West Side in Manhattan for ten years. Ironically, even in a city known for its dating scene, he found that technically speaking, online dating was rather limiting because it only narrowed down possible dates by miles. And obviously, even though New Jersey or across Central Park was close, it was still too far for him to have a spontaneous meeting with a potential mate.
"I wanted to know which guys were in my building or neighborhood," he said. That's why on Grindr, guys can see how far away possible matches are ... measured in feet.
Grindr launched in March 2009. For the first year and a half, the founding team worked out of Simkhai's living room. Now situated in a Hollywood with 30 employees, Grindr has been growing fast without no outside funding.
Most of Grindr's money comes from advertising. For instance, when users click on ads via banner ads or broadcast messages, Grindr makes money. There's also a premium version that tells guys where the nearest 300 Grindr members are; the free app is limited to 100.
Grindr also has a sales team that calls bars, hotels, and restaurants -- and works with local businesses to drive traffic to those venues. "That's a growing business for us -- to offer free drinks or a deal with a hotel, based on your proximity," Simkhai said.
Personally, Simkhai likes using it when he's traveling to see who is around, what's good tonight, and see where he should go. One time, while he was out shopping, he saw that one of his favorites (yes, you can star your favorite blokes), was 200 feet away. So he messaged him, and asked him to stop by.
"It wasn't a match, there was no chemistry. But it was easy to get out of because the first meeting wasn't so heavy -- we didn't have to go to dinner and go through a whole date," Simkhai said. Not all meetings were a failure to launch for him though. One relationship lasted 6 months.
At the request of straight users, last year Grindr launched an app called Blendr. As it turns out, some women don't want their exact location broadcasted for all to see, which is why are more privacy controls, like the ability to block other users and control who sees your profile. But privacy is always a concern, which is why the startup doesn't require its users to enter any information other than their birthday.
"Whenever you're meeting someone you don't know, there are always risks. One of those things I always recommend is meeting in a public space. Don't get drunk, talk to them, check out their Facebook, and meet them in a public space," Simkhai said.
He loves connecting people.
"We are still in the early days of Blendr. We are not just focused on dating. We are creating a tool that allow you to meet people. Even if you're not looking to date, can go on Blendr now and find people who share things in common with you," he added.
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