How Bumble built a new way to date -- and hopes to create the new LinkedIn

Bumble
Credit: Bumble

Before this morning, all I knew about Bumble was that it's a dating app, one where women get exclusive right to make the first move on a match, and that I know many people who use it, though I'd never even seen it on a screen. I also knew who CEO and founder Whitney Wolfe is, albeit more for the awful things she's experienced than what she's done.

But as an inactive user of such apps, I was still intrigued, which is why I attented today's Washington Ideas Forum session hosted by The Atlantic and moderated by Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson. For one, starting an app -- a platform, really -- seems a daunting task today, especially in a crowded marketplace of free and paid dating sites. The dating industry, in particular, is a tricky one. You need scale to get going (who is going to download a dating app unless they know potential matches are on it?) and yet success is defined as losing a customer, often for good. So, how do you scale without spending all your money on unfocused marketing, and how do you justify that investment if most people leave as soon as they've found a steady partner?

The other problem with dating apps is the unpleasant social structure. There's a lot of message-sending and -receiving, much of it unsolicited. In a straight-couple setup, there is pressure on men to play the "numbers game," crafting many witty messages with the hope that you're using "perfect grammar," as Thompson described it. Women, meanwhile, get bombarded with messages and a high likelihood that many of those messages are lewd or pushy or violent or something else horrible. How do you create a safer, less burdensome environment without making it too awkward or creating too many barriers to meeting up?

Wolfe and Thompson (a successful Bumble alumnus, as it turns out) discussed both of these points at the Ideas Forum. Even if you aren't anywhere near the dating-app game, you might find something valuable in how Wolfe and Bumble create a customer experience, built audience while generating free marketing, and why we one day might be finding love, friends and career opportunities all on the same app.

What is Bumble trying to fix?

Online dating, as Wolfe said, tends to make people (men, mostly) lose their behavioral senses even as they continually face rejection with every message. The setup of dating sites -- message everyone, wait for someone to respond -- further encourages aggressive behavior. This isn't an excuse for the behavior that goes on, of course, but the structure leaves many people wanting more.

Women, too, needed a better system. As Wolfe said in April to The Telegraph of London:

"I wanted to start a network that encouraged positive online behaviour versus bullying, exclusion and all that nasty stuff – I know, I’ve lived through it."

The other unfortunate aspect of online dating, especially in the early days, was what Wolfe today called marketing "to the desperate, to people who were lonely and hopeless." Sure, it was an escape from the bar scene -- "to be pressured to go out every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to try to find something" -- but dating online wasn't always a stigma-free alternative.

Bumble tries to combat both through its simple system: it makes matches, but then puts the ball in the court of the woman. Men can't bombard women with messages, but as Thompson noted, that's kind of a relief. Women get 24 hours to write after a match is declared, which might be looked at as pressure but could also be seen as a stigma-lifter -- "this is important!" This setup also potentuially offers women have a sense of control, of being able to make the initiative.

Connection was a theme Wolfe returned to several times at the Ideas Forum session. She views Bumble, whether used for dating or something else (we're getting to that), is about making connections on your terms. Obviously, you still need to take the relationship offline. "You can still have your meet cue," she said. "This is just a way to connect."

How does Bumble build its audience?

Networks are difficult to build until you can get a tipping point of users. Nobody, as Thompson and Wolfe discussed, wants to be the only person on a dating site. You need many people so that it becomes a marketplace and attractive. Well, that can be difficult in terms of time and money -- unfocused money, at that. It's hard to find "groups with similar intent," as Wolfe put it.

One thing Wolfe does is visit colleges, particularly sororities and fraternities. These visits can reach many target audience people atonce, get them excited, show them how Bumble can be valuable in their life. In return, Bumble not only gains users but also gets free ambassadors -- people who will say, "Hey, look what I just joined!"

What's next? Can we Bumble everything?

People don't always use your app in the way you'd expect. Bumble was always designed to eventually expand beyond dating, Wolfe said, but user feedback got them there faster. This year, the company launched BFF for people to swipe left and right just as before, but for friendship matches.

The company is also belatedly monetizing its product through a freemium model (we can't forget to ask about startup business models). But the biggest thing -- and one I'm simultaneously most intrigued by and skeptical of -- is BumbleBizz. It sounds like LinkedIn, but Wolfe made a distinction between the job-hunting and recruitment common on LinkedIn and the "connections" that could be had, particularly within a small local radius, through Bumble.

Everyone hates Linkedin, but it's a behemoth, an incumbent and also fairly convenient for its core purposes. But what if an app that already had millions of regular users could encroach, sideways, onto LinkedIn's turf? That appears to be the Bumble dream, whether with love, friends or business. Everybody's always wanted to build the universal attention-grabbing platform (see AOL, Facebook and Google), and this is certainly a different way of approaching that goal. 

Maybe we won't Bumble into our next job, but Wolfe and her company are trying to change how fundamental human interactions take place, and that's worth watching.

 

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and original content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneursHR executives and various other industries. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him. He cannot show you how to use Bumble.