Justin McLeod is the CEO of Hinge, the fast growing mobile (as in cell phone) dating company. Hinge pairs you with ‘friends of friends’ within your Facebook social network, to cut through the layers of blind-date awkwardness, while mitigating against the potential of a craigslist-like creeper. Hinge grew out of DC with a talk-of-the-town launch party, and continues to pair their frequently updated app with offline events to create a social scene of connected single city-dwellers. Hinge is now taking their show on the road with the recent launch of the app in Boston & New York City. We spoke to Justin about his philosophy on love, his experience at Harvard, his meditative routine, and more below:
TANR: You founded the successful start-up Hinge in a highly saturated market of dating websites and apps. What sets you apart from the rest?
We’re the easiest way to meet someone great, right now for young professionals in big cities, but one day for everyone! When you sign up for our service, you immediately see the difference: you get matched up with people in your extended friend network you’d actually like to date, without having to do any of the work of filling out a profile, sending awkward introductory messages, or searching through endless catalogs of random singles. Furthermore, having a friend in common with your match allows you to move offline quickly.
Traditional dating sites were all founded in a different era — before Facebook, before the smartphone, and before the big data revolution — and therefore simply aren’t designed for the way we live today. While there are newer apps out there, none of them really address the dating market. They’re for flirting or vanity or hookups.
What was your favorite lesson or case study at Harvard Business School, the one that was a key inflection point in your business thinking?
Definitely “Carter Racing”. You as the owner of a car-racing team have to make a very serious business decision with momentous consequence: whether or not to race that day given the chance of an engine malfunction. Unbeknownst to you, you have incomplete data. When we studied the case, everyone had to come to class with their decision already made (but could change their mind later). As we were debating in class, the professor slowly revealed more and more information. In the end, when you did the math, this new information conclusively proved that if you raced, your engine would explode and it would put you out for the rest of the season — a very bad outcome.
What was interesting was that many members of the class (well over a third) refused to change their position. As new information was revealed that undermined them, they’d recontextualize it, ignore it, or develop new reasonings. While we had learned in our leadership class about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, we couldn’t recognize it in the heat of the moment. Once everyone had made their final decisions, we learned this was disguised data from the Challenger space shuttle accident.
The most important lesson I took from this was that as a type-A person I have a tendency to want to be right rather than figure out the truth. This is very dangerous when leading a start-up, and I find the best way to neutralize this tendency at a 10-person outfit is to run a consensus-driven organization where we’re all informed, all involved in strategic decision-making, and all comfortable questioning and challenging me and one another.
Tell us a little more about your philosophy of love, and your personal take on online dating.
Someone once told me that the number one thing to look for in a partner is being a good conversationalist: “Is this someone you want to talk to and spend time with for the rest of your life?” I think this gets at a deeper truth — that the “in love” feeling we get at the beginning of a relationship only lasts so long. Feelings change, looks change, interests change. But there is a certain chemistry you find with some people where you just click — being with them creates a sense of fulfillment. You have mutual respect for one another, and you share a way of looking at the world. At least for me, it’s rare to find someone I have this chemistry with. And more importantly, I’m very bad at judging based on how someone looks on paper whether or not I’ll find that connection with them.
That’s why I think most online dating sites, where you spend so much time online, are a bit silly. You can do all the research you want one someone’s profile (which mainly relates to their looks, their interests, etc.) but everything changes when you meet them in person. With Hinge, however, we’re all about moving connections offline as soon as possible. The “mutual friend” connection not only provides an indication that you’ll be compatible, but it also lays a foundation of trust and safety that allows people matched to meet in person without spending too much time vetting each other through online messaging.
You’ve done some interesting big data cuts with the demographic information you’ve collected from Hinge users (e.g. DC’s Hottest Workforces). How do you plan to further leverage that information to build the brand?
The hottest workforces piece was fun – we’ll probably do it again in NYC and Boston. But really we’re using that information to make the product better (see this article in The Verge). Using social connections and Facebook’s semantic graph in combination with user behavior, we’re looking for patterns that can continually help us make the best matches among our users.
So far, the Hinge app is free and doesn’t generate revenue. No advertising support yet; just angel investors. Does this keep you up at night?
No. We’re attracting a highly valuable demographic to our app (young professionals in big cities) and we have comps from other apps and dating sites that indicate we can be profitable. But right now we’re focused on growth.
In your experience, is DC a sustainable incubator for start-up companies and the entrepreneurial spirit? Why or why not?
I think what we’re seeing in DC is a reflection of a broader trend of the geographic diffusion of technology startups. I travel a lot, and everywhere I go people are witnessing an inflection of “tech startup” activity: Denver, Boulder, Austin, Nashville, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Chicago and, of course, DC. As a result, each of these communities seems to think its the next start-up hotbed.
While some people in these communities are chasing the dream of creating the next big consumer startup (ourselves included!) most have realized there’s tremendous value in using technology to create small businesses that, while scalable, aren’t necessarily $100M+ exit opportunities. Across the board, though, I doubt we’ll soon be calling any of these businesses “technology” companies. Apps and other internet-enabled tools are simply mediums by which companies can deliver value. I don’t see Hinge as a tech startup. I see it as a dating company.
I think to the extent that each of these communities focuses on their existing industry clusters they will be successful. For DC, that is education, local media, defense, and government.
What are the benefits (as an individual and as a company) to working in a non-traditional cooperative space like your office in 1776?
1776 provides a great forum in which to interact with other entrepreneurs, whether it’s sharing resources, knowledge, or just camaraderie. As an individual, it’s great to come into such a lively environment every day.(While Hinge is now big enough to be lively on it’s own, this was really helpful when we were only 3 people!) As a company, it’s great to have a flexible space where we can grow, and where we can have access to companies who are both ahead of us and behind us in the startup lifecycle.
What’s the culture like at a company like Hinge, and what attributes do you look for when recruiting new employees? How come?
We have a lot of fun, in fact not a week goes by when we’re not reprimanded at 1776 for excessive rowdiness! But we’re also very serious about creating a category-killing dating app. We’re a very flat, open, consensus-driven organization. We discuss strategy and other big issues as a team, and everyone feels empowered to speak up and challenge one another.
I look for two things when I hire a new employee: ambition and humility. Without a proven track record of initiative and ambition, it’s likely the person becomes a drain rather than a contributor to the company –
even the really smart. talented ones. They’ll ask what’s next instead of tell me what’s next; or worse they’ll do nothing until given instruction. This just doesn’t work at a small start-up.
On the other hand, without a track record of self-awareness and humility, they’ll likely create two problems. One is interpersonal conflict. And the other is a resistance to the inevitable pivots and strategy changes that are part of any start-up.
Looks like you’re expanding Hinge to cities like New York and Boston. What’s the one thing any emerging company should look out for when expanding to a new metropolitan market?
I’d love to say that one shouldn’t take for granted home-court advantage. But we’ve found expansion for Hinge to be pretty seamless.
What daily habits — personal or professional — keep you on top of your game?
I try to meditate 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night, and do at least an hour of yoga daily. That may sound crazy, but it makes me dramatically more effective throughout my day. I’m more sensitive, more aware, more creative, and more focused when I stick with my practice. My brother Angus introduced me to yoga in 2007 while vacationing in Tulum, Mexico. I’ve been meditating regularly since 2009 when I went off to do a 10-day silent meditation in Thailand, where we meditated 12 hours a day (that’s a whole other story!)
We heard through the grapevine you have an affinity for the outdoors. How does your connection with nature drive your self-improvement?
Well, I get dragged on a lot of outdoor trips if that’s what you mean! The latest was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro over New Years. That turned out to be a pretty tough experience — it rained / hailed / stormed almost the entire way up, we had someone in our group break his leg, and the guide in the group next to ours was hit by lightning. That said, getting outdoors helps me put my life in perspective. I’m reminded when I stare out over the world at 19,000 feet that the greatest things in the world money can’t buy.
We’ve been to your events. They’re outrageously awesome. What’s up with the nu-disco obsession? (Don’t worry, we’re absolutely not opposed.)
Dating apps traditionally have some stigma to them. We’re trying to create the first social dating app – one where you want to tell your friends about it. Throwing super cool events helps us solidify our brand as social, fun, and something you can (and should) be talking about with your friends.
As for nu-disco, I can’t take credit for that – it’s all Bennett Richardson. He’s on a mission to bring back disco disguised as house music. But I do think this style of music (along with our neon + formal dress codes) creates an almost oxymoronic juxtaposition that reflects our brand: young and sophisticated; cool and useful.
Thanks to Justin for his insightful answers, and be sure to check out/download Hinge here: Hinge.co