If you haven’t heard of Grindr, it’s a nifty little mobile app that helps “gay, bi, and curious” men find each other by showing photos and a few vital stats of the closest users to you at any given time. It has signed up more than 1.5 million users, 56,800 of whom live in New York.
Now Grindr is turning its sights on the straights, and CEO Joel Simkhai is grappling with the difficulties of translating a location-based hookup service for gay men into something that hetero guys — and, most important, hetero ladies — will want to use. His solution involves a few technological tweaks and a major marketing shift: The straight version of Grindr (the company hasn’t named the product yet) won’t be marketed as a way to get it on with conveniently located strangers or figure out if someone is straight, but as a way to fulfill “missed connections.”
When Simkhai launched Grindr two years ago, he says he didn’t intend for the app to create a mobile meat market. “For ten years I lived on 72nd and Columbus. I thought, What about that guy in my building? What about the guy on my block? Who are all these people I’ve never met and I don’t know — and how do I meet them?”
Grindr is especially popular in cities, where urban dwellers are in constant proximity — with people they will probably never meet. Simkhai's hoping this aspect of the app will appeal to straight users, much in the same vein as Craigslist's popular "Missed Connections.” The novelty is in incorporating GPS cell phones. And while that adds immediacy, it can also be a hazard — whether the hot guy you see in the subway car every morning signs up for the app, as opposed to the sketchy guy watching you from the platform bench, remains to be seen.
Other dating apps on the market, like MeetMoi or Zoosk, focus more on matching up members and less on who might be standing near you right now. To help mitigate potential discomfort, Simkhai will offer straight users the option of including their photo in a randomized display so it doesn’t reveal precise location or proximity. Like the original app, the free chat function for the hetero version doesn’t use or even store phone numbers.
Still, safety issues aside, is this something straight women will want? As Simkhai says, “We recognized that two gay men have a lot in common.” But would a woman want to be found on such a service? Would men judge them for it? What about the reverse? If too many concessions are made to the stereotype of a female dater (relationship-seeking, intimacy-craving), does the app lose its purpose? Even if this is something straight women might find useful (especially in XX-heavy New York), what’s to stop the service from being inundated by the bad kind of freaks?
To figure out what women want, Simkhai, who defines Grindr as “a gay company and a gay brand,” enlisted the help of the straight (and lesbian) women on his team. Grindr’s app hasn’t changed much from its early days when membership was too scant to be picky. Aside from a picture-centric profile (“I think men are visual”), the only filter available is by age. The photos tend to be raunchy, although as a friend of ours said, it was common knowledge that “you’re not supposed to post dick pics so Apple doesn’t ban it from the store.” To hetero-up the app, Simkhai says, he'll de-emphasize the photo aspect. “For women I think obviously the visual is less important. They want to know a little about a guy’s history — what does he like to do, where is he from — to see if it’s someone they’re attracted to.” Expect the straight version to feature more text and content in the profile, as well as more filters.
In terms of Grindr’s double-edged dating sword — location — Simkhai acknowledges, “This is somewhat uncharted territory.” But apps like Foursquare, which lets anyone, not just your friends, see where you’ve checked in, have broken down reservations around real-time location. “I think women and men will see there’s a lot of benefit,” says Simkhai. “The guy you made eye contact with, the woman you’ve been seeing at Starbucks for the last four months. There’s a tremendous amount of value."