How Sean Rad turned the hunt for love into an addictive game

Sean Rad: reinventing dating

In the nearly two years since it was launched, Tinder, the “wildly popular mobile dating app”, has become “something of a cultural phenomenon”, says Time.com. Its user base, mainly comprising 18-24 year-olds, continues to mushroom globally, putting its youthful co-founder, Sean Rad, 27, firmly in the spotlight.

Last year, Forbes included him in its “30 Under 30” list; this year, he was named as one of the Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business”.

Tinder works by showing users a stack of photographs of potential matches, located close by. If you’re interested, you swipe right to “like”; if not, left to say “no”.

If two people express mutual interest, the app will connect them, allowing them to send each other messages. Rad and his co-founder, Justin Mateen – whose paths first crossed while at private high schools in Los Angeles – both use the app. Indeed, Rad found his current girlfriend, Alexa Dell (daughter of Michael) on it.

The company boasts that it now notches up “more than a million matches a day”, taking the total overall to more than a billion. The app has an addictive quality: users open it seven times a day on average.

So Tinder looks to be winning the red-hot smartphone dating game – not that it cares to admit it. The company insists that it isn’t in the business of dating, but in the rather more demure “social discovery” sector.

The distinction might sound trivial (and, anecdotally at least, users are in no doubt as to the app’s basic function), but Tinder is keen on defining terms, because they could have a crucial bearing on its valuation (see below).

Rad hates the word ‘entrepreneur’, because “these days everyone calls themselves one”, says Entrepreneur.com. But he certainly fits the mould. Before he dreamed up Tinder with Mateen, he already had two start-ups under his belt: Orgoo, a communications platform for consumers launched in 2005 and Ad.ly, which helps brands land celebrity endorsements on social media.

When the duo hatched Tinder, they decided to follow the Facebook route and seed the app on college campuses, paving the way for a viral smash hit. In fact, the story’s slightly more complicated than that, says BusinessWeek.

Tinder is actually majority-owned by IAC/InterActive Corp, which also owns America’s top dating site, Match.com – although this is rarely mentioned in Tinder’s publicity. It is, after all, “a lot less sexy to have been born in a corporate research and development session than in a dorm room”.

Still, Rad clearly has dedication in spades. “You should only start a company, because you can’t sleep at night until you solve a certain problem,” he told Inc.com last year. “Unless you have this immense will to see it through, it can break you. Start-ups are difficult. And that’s when things are going well.” An old head on young shoulders, perhaps. But he’s certainly lit a fire with Tinder.

A dating app or a social network?

“No. No. No. No. Definitely not. No. No. No. Oh…hello…” That, says Dave Lee on BBC.co.uk, is “the unmistakable sound” of someone using Tinder. Other players include Down (formerly the delicately named Bang With Friends) and the gay site Grindr.

They all use two relatively recent technological developments: location awareness – so an app knows where you are – and social networking data, so the search for potential matches is informed by what you’ve already put online.

Tinder requires you to log in with your Facebook account, and shows if you have friends in common with a potential match. “That is either reassuring – friends of friends can’t be that awful right? – or a concern for any who worry they will be judged for going online to get a date,” says Sarah Mishkin in the FT.

Few of Tinder’s core users seem to care about that, says Laura Stampler on Time.com. Indeed, the founders’ “biggest trick” was to turn the app “into a game that you would want to play even if you weren’t looking for a date”.

People join because they want to have fun, says Rad. “It doesn’t even matter if you match, because swiping is so fun.” Celebrity users including Lily Allen – who is happily married – have said they use it for its fun factor.

Still, Rad is keen to see the app evolve beyond romance – hence the emphasis on “social discovery”. The company hints of a big new development in its next release.

Tinder is certainly “maintaining momentum in a crowded market”, ranked ahead of free apps from Plenty of Fish and another IAC property, OkCupid, says Nick Summers in
BusinessWeek – although Hot Or Not! (which gives users a “hotness” score and statistics on who has rated them) is proving a formidable challenger.

So, is Tinder a dating app or a social network? “An enormous amount of paper money” is staked on the answer. Social networks routinely “carry ten-and-11-figure valuations… Dating services are worth a fraction of that”. Time will tell which category it finally falls into.

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