Portrait Tech

Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe: the dating world’s Queen Bee

Stung by her previous company but not stopped, Whitney Wolfe is deploying her trademark marketing tactics to sign up students to her dating app, Bumble.

9 Jan 2017

In 2014, when the buzz around Tinder was at its peak, one of the dating app’s earliest team members left and promptly sued the company $1m for sexual harassment. For some, the case confirmed their preconceptions of the app, and the company’s culture, as shallow and misogynistic. Media outlets eagerly delved into the backstory in detail, publishing streams of texts between the claimant and her boss (also her ex-boyfriend, and the CEO’s best friend). The plaintiff, Whitney Wolfe, claimed she had also been stripped of her co-founder status and her role in the company’s success had been downplayed. The media either lambasted Tinder’s male founders as sexist bullies, or pictured Wolfe as a bitter, glory-seeking has-been. The case was settled out of court, Tinder continued to attract millions of worldwide users, and Wolfe moved home to Texas.

‘I was this bad girl in the media. I was chopped up and looked at under a microscope,’ says Wolfe, who was 24 at the time. ‘It was really quite bizarre.’

Lone star

Fast-forward two years and on the morning Courier called, Wolfe is still in Texas, and still in the business of matchmaking, but enjoying media attention of a different kind. She is now founder and CEO of Bumble, a dating app held up as the ‘feminist Tinder’ by the press. Bumble shares its predecessor’s swipe feature, and also pairs users by location but, crucially, makes women message their male matches first, within 24-hours.

This female-first gambit has been touted as a stroke of genius; although the core product is not so different from Tinder, Bumble has made the most of its unique angle.

Sorority smarts

Wolfe starting working for Hatch Labs, a startup incubator in LA, in 2012, before moving to the fledgling Tinder as vice president of marketing. During her two years at Tinder, the app gained more than 10 million users and a valuation of $500m.

‘We sent her all over the country,’ Wolfe’s ex-colleague at Tinder, developer Joe Munoz told Bloomberg. ‘Her pitch was pretty genius. She would go to chapters of her sorority, do her presentation, and have all the girls at the meetings install the app. Then she’d go to the corresponding brother fraternity — they’d open the app and see all these cute
girls they knew.’

To understand Wolfe’s marketing masterstroke, it’s important to remember that in 2012, phone dating apps were a novelty and dating sites were aimed at a middle-aged market. Students were not the target audience.

Tinder changed that. Tapping into the nationwide network of university sororities and fraternities – societies that live and party together, and dominate the social scene on campus – Tinder made digital dating cool. Having been a member of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority at her college, Southern Methodist University, Wolfe knew how to use the society system to market the app. Most importantly, it meant she could get hundreds of young people on board at once, creating the large pool of potential dates that all dating apps need.

It’s a tactic she has re-employed – and ramped up – at Bumble.

Creating a buzz

Alongside Bumble’s core team of around 30, it has a built a network of ‘Bumble Honeys’; app ambassadors at universities across the US and the UK. Tasked with encouraging their fellow students to download the app and post about it on Instagram, sponsoring club nights and house parties, they keep Bumble buzzing with new users. It’s as good as it gets in building a modern digital marketplace (which is, in effect, what a dating app is): no-one wants to be the first to the party, but Bumble has come up with a powerful way to stoke usage with speed and scale.

Honeys, who are paid per task and are (unsurprisingly) attractive, undergo a selective application process. ‘Bumble were particularly interested in whether I had any previous marketing experience and were also keen to check out my Instagram account,’ one Honey told Courier.

‘We sat down and said, what can we do to add value to their lives beyond just cash?’ says Wolfe, on the ambassador programme. She recalls being frustrated at the ease with which her friends at university got internships through family connections. ‘I didn’t have that access. It was always tricky for me.’ She adds: ‘It’s a way to give them access and reach to opportunity.’

Although Wolfe’s earnestness to help other young women might, to a cynical observer, seem like just another marketing spin, it’s longstanding. Back in 2013, Annie Lord (now a Bumble ambassador in the UK) got in touch with Wolfe and received friendly career advice.

Fan base

Bumble Honeys speak enthusiastically about the app. ‘It cuts out the creepy guy situation,’ says one ambassador. (57% of women report feeling harassed through online dating; Tinder tops the list.) ‘The layout is fantastic; it’s very friendly, very inviting, easy to navigate,’ adds another. ‘And because the girl has to message within 24 hours of matching, it adds excitement.’

Making things exciting seems to be another thing Wolfe specialises in. ‘With these marketing tactics, I always just try to find the happiness, joy and excitement in it,’ says Wolfe. ‘How can we make this fun? You have to thoughtfully and psychologically put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and say, what would make me want to have this app on my phone?’

Bumble, which has a friend-finding feature too, seems to have thrived because it has created a confidence-boosting space for women. While portraying the app as a champion of ‘female empowerment’ (the line trotted out by one too many magazines, and eagerly discussed by team Bumble) seems overly enthusiastic and a touch superficial, it has triumphed in creating a dating app that users appear to be proud to be a part of. Its Instagram account, for example, which has over 280,000 followers (Tinder’s has 74,000), posts funny, light-hearted and witty quotes and memes that pack more punch than the typical social media content aimed at women. When Olympic hype peaked in idolisation of the US gymnastics team, Bumble posted a cheesy video on its blog asking them to join the app.

This feel-good spirit is all Wolfe; chatting to her about her team is goofily uplifting, like making friends with the cast of the Gilmore Girls.

‘I don’t believe in resumé first, I believe in potential first,’ says Wolfe, who has recently promoted her ex-assistant, and first hire, Caroline Ellis, to chief operating officer. It was her potential, she believes, that made Andrey Andreev – founder of social network Badoo and Bumble’s primary investor, with a 79% stake of the company – get in touch with her after she left Tinder to partner on a new dating app.

‘I didn’t want to go back into the dating world,’ Wolfe claims. ‘That was the last thing I wanted to do.’ After ignoring Andreev’s email for a while, she flew to London to meet him. ‘We brainstormed and I told him how passionate I was about helping change the conversation digitally with young girls.’ Bumble fully took shape when Wolfe invited designers Sarah Mick and Chris Gulczynski, both ex-colleagues from Tinder, to join.

‘It’s my vision and it’s under my wing,’ says Wolfe, who owns 20% of the company. ‘But [Andreev] is always there to listen and give advice.’

Bossing it

Wolfe set up Bumble not in Silicon Valley, but Austin, Texas. She hired a primarily female team; not, she insists, deliberately, but because those were ‘the people who walked through the door beaming and passionate and begging to work on this project’.

Intentional or not, Wolfe has created a business that bears little resemblance to its peers. A product of its founder, its location and staff, it’s difficult not to notice the contrast between its can-do culture and identity with Silicon Valley brogrammers and alpha CEOs.

‘There’s no politics,’ adds Wolfe. ‘That stuff is called bullshit, and we don’t allow that. If I hear it start, I sit them down immediately, and I make them realise that this is their sports team. And if you don’t get along with your team you’re going to lose.’

Her assuredness is impressive not just because she’s only 27, but because this is the first company she’s run. ‘Whitney is indefatigable, and she’s not afraid of anything,’ says her colleague Jennifer Stith, previously the Kardashians’ business director. ‘She encourages big thinking and autonomy from every member of the team.’

The fact that she is also a woman shouldn’t, in 2016, be cause for celebration. But it is noteworthy, especially given that at a recent networking event for high profile CEOs, Wolfe was told: ‘You’re going to have to work extra hard to prove yourself as a real business person and prove yourself as a good girl, given your industry and your past’.

Wolfe’s app may not be the start of a feminist revolution, but the company she has built might just well be.