Are you on Tinder? It’s no surprise that’s the most common question of the day among generation Z singles. Remember when it was “are you on Facebook?” and before that “are you on Myspace?” (Myspace…what?) No one understands the 21st century reality of courtship better than Tinder founder and CEO Sean Rad, who has no doubt reinvented dating and the simple notion of the swipe (seriously, who knew you could actually find your husband or bride with just a flourish of a finger?).
Rad also understands the growing pains that come with having a startup explode. In the past year he’s grappled with the realities of going from small to huge, and what that means for a company’s culture. We sat down with the founder of one of the most notorious dating apps around to talk shop about startup success, getting funding, boundaries in the workplace, ignoring company politics and why “The Tinder of…” is the new potato…
From start to finish what would be your ideal food day?
Hardboiled eggs in the morning. I have to have my coffee in the morning – a latte – then some sort of chicken and vegetables for lunch. Then I’d probably go into the fridge and grab a handful of cold peanut m&m’s. Then for dinner, it would be some sort of protein – probably fish – like salmon. Then I’d have chips and guacamole before bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night I’m screwed, because I have to eat something!
Coming off the different things that have happened over the last six months at Tinder, have you found a balance needs to be struck between the freedom we all associate with the young startup and keeping a corporate culture?
When you’re small, it’s all about keeping everyone aligned with what our goals are, and everyone needs to have a clear understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and what their part is in it. The reality is, unfortunately, the bigger you get the more challenging it is to do that, because there are more people that have to hear the message.
So that’s where process comes into place. It’s about giving people the opportunity to be heard, plus making sure they understand what the goals are and what their part in it is. So that’s the first thing that changes from when you’re smaller to when you’re bigger. It becomes increasingly more difficult to get the whole company aligned.
The second thing that changes is that when you’re a small group around a table, you can hold each other accountable. But as we get bigger, and there are more people, and the projects are more massive, your system of accountability and how you hold people accountable becomes a lot more complicated. So I think those are two things that change.
We still have a lot of fun. We’re big now; we’re fifty two people. We still have a lot of fun but – I wouldn’t call them rules – but there are just a few more boxes that we need to check before we act on things. And on the one hand, you lose some of the freedoms but on the other hand you get more shit done and the stakes are higher, which is more exciting.
What have you personally learned from the experience of becoming bigger?
I could probably write ten books on what I’ve learned, so I don’t know where to start. I’d probably say the two things I just told you are definitely things that I’ve learned. I would add to it that: People are everything. Culture really can make all the difference in the world. What I’ve known theoretically – at a smaller size – is that those things (people, culture) matter at scale, and what I know now is that they actually matter. They really impact the organization and impact your ability to get things done.
When you’re starting a company everyone is so close. It doesn’t matter if you’re somebody from a different background, or from a different planet. When you’re in a room; building this thing that you’re passionate about, everyone develops a very close bond, because you’re unified around this common goal that you’re trying to achieve. It’s this problem that we’re solving and this company that’s our baby. And as you grow, it becomes more difficult to maintain those bonds while still having boundaries within the workplace. I’ll say it simply: You’re very close when you’re starting out, but as the organization evolves and gets bigger, the relationships you have with people can sometimes make certain conversations more difficult. For example, it’s very hard to have a conversation with someone you’re close to about their performance and them not hitting deliverables that they said they would. So it makes it more difficult, but it’s also, in a way, necessary. The realization I had was that the nature of your relationship with the people you started the company with has to evolve. It has to evolve and it has to fit the needs of the organization.
So it has to be more than just friendships?
Exactly. You have to hold people accountable. You’ve got to have strict goals for everyone. And sometimes you do things that you believe are in peoples’ best interest but they might not see it. And it’s harder to get your friends to digest that message when they feel there’s a social obligation that you have to them.
Do you have advice for founders at startups that are entering the funding stages?
Number one is: Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Starting a company because you’re chasing some sort of glamorous vision of what that means is not a reason to start a company. Or even starting a company because you don’t want to work for somebody else. It’s not a reason to start a company. You need to solve a problem that you intimately understand, and your success is going to rely on your ability to – not only solve that problem – but also communicate the vision and get everyone else to associate with that problem. Whether it’s people who are joining the company, or whether it’s customers that are facing that problem, your ability to reach out to that group and align everyone is going to be the difference between success and failure. Solving a big problem that you’re passionate about is critical because shit gets tough, and if you’re not really bought into what you’re doing and you don’t love it, you’re going to wake up and be miserable. For me, I’ve gone through some of the hardest times and Justin’s [Mateen] gone through some of the hardest times, but I’ve enjoyed every second of it because I love Tinder. The juice is worth the squeeze, so to speak.
Too many people I think saw the movie Social Network, and got the wrong idea and thought it was cool. They now want to start companies and they might even get some funding because there’s so much money out there. But they end up never accomplishing anything with their companies or with their lives and I think it’s sad. It’s a disservice to them to not force them to think and to really ask themselves questions that – in markets and times when it’s not so hard to get money – investors otherwise would ask at a very early stage.
The second thing I would say is that starting out, everyone shares a common sense of ownership around this problem and this vision. I think you need to be clear with people from day one what their role is, and what you expect from them, or else it could lead to bigger issues down the road, particularly if the company experiences a level of success. I think you find that if those boundaries are not very clear and people don’t understand what their role is then there’s a mismatch between what you expect of them and what they expect of themselves and their roles. It’s important to set clear goals and expectations upfront, or else it becomes impossible to hold people accountable to a common understanding of success and reality. I guess if you’re able to set those boundaries very early and say: “Hey this is the deal, and this is what we’re doing, and this is your role in it.” And treat that with a lot of sensitivity in the beginning, you can prevent a lot of issues down the road.
So creating that foundation early for the company culture…
Yes…company culture, peoples’ roles in the company, responsibilities. When you’re a startup there is so much to get done, and there are so few people, that everyone feels a shared responsibility across everything. To a point that’s healthy, but you also have to create a high sense of accountability and make sure it’s clear that – while we all want to help each other – let’s be very clear on who gets the final call on what.