‘People are looking for something more serious’: the Hinge CEO on the pandemic dating boom

Justin McLeod, boss of the dating app, talks about its massive rise in users, his difficult romantic past – and why people are now ditching their partners and looking for someone new

The whiteboard on the living room wall behind Justin McLeod’s sofa frames his head like a halo. But it is also symbolic of the chasm between good intentions and reality that many of us may have experienced recently. This high-achieving CEO says that, while working from home, he was “going to write a lot on that”, but didn’t. He turns to look at its blank expanse. It’s comforting for those of us who also haven’t used this change of pace for vast plans and self-improvement. Which is not to say that McLeod has had a quiet year – far from it. Isolating at home, without the usual options of meeting people, he saw a 63% rise in the number of people downloading Hinge, his dating app. And revenues tripled.

McLeod seems grounded and realistic – a romantic who doesn’t believe in “the one”, a tech founder with a concern about what tech is doing to us and a husband with a romcom-worthy story about how he met his wife, but who also admits to weekly couples’ counselling. The pandemic has had a big impact on the dating landscape, he says. People switched to video dating, for a start. It was moving that way anyway, he says, but the “pandemic accelerated it”.

But the global catastrophe has also led to a big shift in priorities, and McLeod is expecting an even bigger dating boom. For single people who have missed out on a year of opportunities to find a partner, the “priority around finding a relationship has increased. It’s the No 1 thing, on average, that people say is most important to them, relative to career, family and friends. I don’t think that was the way it was before the pandemic. When we’re faced with big life events such as this, it makes us reflect and realise that maybe we want to be with someone.” And, while many have thought wild decadence would be the reaction to coming out of lockdown, he thinks “people are looking for something more serious. That is what we’re hearing. People are being a little bit more intentional about what they’re looking for coming out of this.”

Is he expecting an influx of people who have spent a huge amount of time with their partner in the past year and now realise they want something different? “Anecdotally, I’ve been hearing that,” he says. “There have also been reports of people being in ‘quarantine relationships’, where it was good enough for the lockdown, but not the person [they were] really looking to be with. And so those relationships are starting to end.” Whatever the cause, McLeod is expecting things to hot up. “April was almost 10% higher in dates per user than March, and we’re seeing that accelerate further in May. It feels as if there’s this release happening now after a pretty hard winter.” (His wife, Kate, brings him a sandwich, slipping in and out of shot on my laptop screen.)

By the middle of the next decade, it is thought more people will meet their partner online than in real life. McLeod dismisses the idea that dating apps, with their checklists and personal branding, have taken the romance out of meeting someone. “I think we over-romanticise the first 0.0001% of our relationship. We’ve all watched too many romcoms,” he says, adding that we can overemphasise the how-we-met story, “when [what’s more important is] all of the relationship that comes after that.”

Still, there is evidence that dating apps may have caused a fair bit of misery. One survey in 2018 found Grindr was the app that made people most unhappy, with Tinder in ninth place. More research found that, while experiences were positive overall, 45% of online dating users said it left them feeling more “frustrated” than “hopeful”, and that more than half of younger women receive unwanted sexually explicit messages or images. And 19% had received messages that made physical threats; LGBTQ+ users were also more likely to experience harassment.

McLeod insists his app is designed in a way to decrease that sort of behaviour. It is positioned as a relationship rather than hook-up app and, he says, has a “more intentioned, thoughtful user base, and we don’t have as many issues as maybe other apps do”. For instance, it has a more arduous profile-building stage, which he says weeds out about a quarter of people, and users are encouraged to engage with each other rather than simply swipe through profiles. But, inevitably, it comes with cumulative rejection, ghosting, all of that. Does he worry about how that affects people? “Definitely. Dating has always been hard. It was hard before dating apps. To pretend it’s always this easy, fun thing is not true.” Some ghosting, where people go silent, can, he says, be dealt with through design – reminding people it’s their turn to message back, for instance. If the volume of rejection is higher through an app than in real life situations, he says that is counterbalanced by its shallower “depth of rejection”. “These aren’t people who really knew you as a human being,” he says.

Can dating apps be damaging to self-esteem? “Depending on the design, yeah,” he says. “Social media in general can be horrible. You’re talking to someone who doesn’t use social media at all – I think it’s really detrimental to mental wellbeing. I think that dating apps are in a different category relative to what Instagram and Facebook are doing to people’s psyches.” McLeod is a recovering drug and alcohol addict and is scathing of the attention economy. “[Apps are] designed to keep you looking at the next thing, getting validation, getting likes, and it’s fundamentally the ad-driven, impression-driven model – they profit from keeping you staring at your phone.” (Hinge, he points out, doesn’t make any money from advertising; it is all from subscriptions.)

But another criticism of dating apps is the “checklist” approach to finding someone, and the fact that you can rule people out based on shallow criteria, such as height or educational achievement, as well as potentially more sinister ones such as ethnicity. The use of race filters have been controversial – after the Black Lives Matter protests last year, many apps dropped it – but McLeod says Hinge kept it because it’s something asked for by their black, Asian and other ethnic minority users. “If you’re in a majority population that’s white, and you’re looking for someone, [it can be] important to you to have some of the shared experience and background as a minority. It’s not easy [to do that] without the ability to narrow the focus a little bit.”

The Hinge algorithm essentially works by learning your tastes in the way that Amazon does book recommendations. But what if your taste isn’t good for you? Could dating apps one day steer you towards making better choices? “‘Oh, you’re anxiously attached; maybe you shouldn’t go after that avoidant-attached person who might create all kinds of long-term strife in your relationship, even though you’re going to feel amazing chemistry in the beginning’?” he laughs. “I’m not sure we have the credibility to be like: ‘I know you think you like this person, but, trust us, you’ll like this person better.’” But he thinks apps could get there one day. He doesn’t believe in the idea of “the one” either. “I don’t want to put too much weight on the ‘right’ person because I think so much of whether you’re going to have a successful relationship or not is about the relationship skills that you have and how good are you at creating and sustaining a relationship, intimacy and love.”

McLeod has been bad at it in the past. He was, he says, “your very typical guy who would date girls and as soon as they liked me, I would move on to the next, and just do that over and over again. I don’t think I had a girlfriend for longer than two months.” As a young teenager, he’d had his heart broken, but even before that, he hadn’t been around healthy adult relationships. He grew up in Kentucky, and when I ask if he had brothers or sisters he says it’s “a long story” (he says he mainly grew up as an only child). His father ran a flooring business, and his mother would later retrain as a lawyer and become a judge, but his parents’ relationship is “another complicated question” (they broke up when McLeod went to university). “I probably didn’t have a lot of healthy role models in relationships as a kid, put it that way,” he says with a laugh. Instead, he thought, if only he could find the “perfect” person, it would all be fine. When relationships didn’t work out, “I was like, I’ll just have to find the next person. The original version of Hinge was very much that – go through as many people as possible and swipe, swipe, swipe until you find your perfect puzzle piece, and then everything goes smoothly from there.”

During his teenage years, McLeod developed addictions to alcohol and drugs. He still had high grades, captained sports teams and, at college, was student president, but getting clean was also part of his condition of returning to Colgate University in New York state. He spent the summer in rehab, went back to university and promptly got drunk and passed out in the stairwell. That is where Kate met him and they had a tumultuous on-off relationship for the next few years. McLeod’s drinking got even more out of control – once, he was hospitalised “with a blood alcohol content that would kill many people. I was finding myself in dangerous situations.” The day he graduated was the day he stopped. “I didn’t get the job I wanted, I lost the girl, and my life was clearly not going in the direction that I wanted,” he says. “I used that moment to start afresh. I remember thinking: ‘I honestly don’t know what the point of living is if it’s not to party, but I’m going to try to find out.’ I just started taking it a day at a time at that point.”

He started working on Hinge in 2011 while at Harvard Business School, partly as a way of meeting people, since he wasn’t going to bars any more, but he wasn’t getting any better at dating. “Dramatic and usually short-lived – that was my relationship style,” he says. He had been messaging Kate, who by then was living in London, each year – she would ignore him, and blocked him on Facebook after he declared he would do anything to see her again. He gave it a rest the next year, then, in 2015, when he was launching Hinge in London, he sent her one last email (spurred on by advice from a New York Times journalist during an early interview) to say it would be nice to meet “to say hi and goodbye”. They chatted, and she said they could talk properly at the weekend.

By then, Kate had moved to Switzerland and was engaged. McLeod immediately booked a plane ticket and flew to Zurich. “I think half of me thought, romantically: ‘We’re going to see each other, and it’s going to be amazing; we’re going to realise there’s this bond’. But a very reasonable half was, like: ‘She’s a month away from getting married. I’ve changed a lot over the last eight years, and I’m sure she’s changed. We’ll see each other, laugh this off and go about our lives.’” Did he worry that he was being selfish? Or stalkerish? He laughs. “It sounds like that from the outside. If you talked to Kate … we just had a special … it wasn’t that weird.” Did he feel bad for her fiance at least? “Yeah, hugely, and she did, too. But it wasn’t like their relationship was amazing, and then I slipped in. I think she realised that it wasn’t what she wanted, and so I think I had good timing.”

‘She was patient enough to stick with me, and we figured it out’ … McLeod with his wife, Kate.
‘She was patient enough to stick with me, and we figured it out’ … McLeod with his wife, Kate. Photograph: Richard Beaven/The Guardian

Although it sounds like the perfect meet-cute, McLeod reveals the less romantic details you’d never get in a romcom – he had been so nervous that he threw up on the plane; she was so nervous on her way to meet him, she threw up in an alleyway. It wasn’t an instant happy-ever-after either. Kate called off her wedding, flew back to the US a week later and moved into McLeod’s apartment, but, a few months in, his old relationship-resistance flared up. This time he was determined not to give in (hence the couples’ therapy, still ongoing; they are married and have a toddler son).

“Kate was patient enough to stick with me, and we figured it out,” he says. “I started to learn what a real relationship is about.” It’s not about the idea that with the perfect person, everything is destined to be fine “and you never have any problems again, and, if you do, then it’s a sign you’re not with the right person. It’s an opportunity for me to learn more about myself, about her and how we can navigate life together, and the constant changes and challenges that come with it.”

This realisation influenced his app. “She came back in February 2015, and it was that December that I decided to tear down Hinge and rebuild it from scratch,” he says. “Here I was, romanticising the perfect person. And then she came back into my life and I realised, when I wanted to leave a few months later again, it was not about going through people until you find the perfect person. If you flatten people to a single image [and swipe left or right], you’re never going to … you have to go deeper than that.” He ditched the swipe function, which gives the impression that there are endless possibilities and an element of human disposability. Does he think that feature, used by other apps, is damaging? He smiles. “I don’t think they’re as effective at getting you into a relationship if that’s what you’re looking for. At the very least.”

If he is cagey about criticising rivals, it may partly be because some of them are Hinge stablemates – at the end of 2018, Match Group, the dating giant that also owns Tinder, bought the app. McLeod remains as CEO. Selling Hinge was good for the app, he says, “[but] I wasn’t sure it was going to be best for me. Generally, though, we have an amazing working relationship, and I still run the company pretty independently.” It must have made him mega-rich too. Has that changed his life much? “Maybe on paper, but not in practice. I’ll let you know in the future,” he says with a laugh, a man who appears to have things if not perfect, then at least fairly sorted: a family, a business and, right now, a half-eaten sandwich on the coffee table waiting to be finished.

Contributor

Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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