People in New York are constantly brushing into strangers on a daily basis—jostling on the subway, huddled together at crosswalks. But here in WeHo we move in bubbles—mainly the glass and metal chassis of our cars. Or, at least that’s how Joel Simkhai sees it.
You may have heard of Simkhai, who is become something of a fixture on the Boystown scene. More likely you’ve heard of his app, Grindr, the location-based gay dating service that’s taken all the fun out of gaydar, and which has become a sort of shorthand for the anonymous hookups and speed dating that have come to define online dating in the age of the iPhone. (Read WEHOville’s review of Grindr and other gay mobile phone apps here).
The bubbles were one of the first things Simkhai noticed shortly after decamping to Los Angeles five years ago from Manhattan. They let you get close to other people, but, maddeningly, not close enough to interact with. “Los Angeles is a city where you can pretty much be in your own world,” he told WEHOVille recently from Grindr’s glass-and-cement-heavy office on Sunset and Highland, a stone’s throw from WeHo. “It makes it a little harder to meet and interact. It’s very much so a circle—your personal circle, your professional circle. It’s all about circles.” For gay men, WeHo’s a little different, he acknowledged, but still “the effort level to meet someone is a little bit higher than for someone in New York.”
That it’s hard to meet people in L.A. is no original idea, but in Simkhai’s case at least it may have led to one. Although light on technical chops—in New York he worked in finance and marketing—shortly after arriving, he teamed up with co-founder, and former senior vice president of product and design, Scott Lewallen, and Grindr was born, quietly at first, in March 2009 (Lewallen left this past April).
It didn’t stay quiet for long. Buoyed by early praise in gay media and word-of-mouth, Grindr rose fast to become a household name among gay men, first at home, then abroad. Self-financed from the beginning, today the app boasts six million users and counting. To the Israeli-born Simkhai, 37, who’s served as CEO from the start, it’s a point of pride that he has users in nearly all 192 countries around the world, from Africa to Argentina and China to Chile. If you’re discreet enough, you might even score a date in North Korea or Iran.
That level of success “is really a tribute to Joel and his team,” said John Duran, a West Hollywood city councilman who’s known Simkhai for a few years. “I know how difficult it was for him to take the technology that he knew existed and turn it into Grindr.”
Apps like Grindr, said Duran, are an asset to a community like WeHo, in that they let a younger generation of gay men discover the Boystown scene, and each other, in a digital space, where they spend a lot of their time anyway. “It doesn’t mean that it has impacted the number of people that go to the bars,” he said, “but I think this is a way that complements the way in which gay men in West Hollywood and the surrounding areas meet one another.”
If that’s the case, Simkhai may very well be the poster child for his own app. When he’s not working (and even when he is) he’s frequently plugged into Grindr, sporting a profile anchored by a beefy shirtless shot, muscles glinting in the sun. He goes out a lot, too, and can rattle off a list of regular haunts that seems as exhausting as it is exhaustive: Here, Rasputin, Revolver, Saint Felix, the Abbey, Eleven. Of course there’s a suggestion that a lot of useful feedback can be gleaned from an impromptu chat with a regular user over a drink, but, given that his app’s demographic overlaps so totally with his prospective dating pool, is that work or pleasure? “Depends on what you consider work,” he said.
But whereas sliding up to users is a good business—and perhaps a good dating—strategy, Simkhai isn’t much of a joiner overall. Running the day-to-day operations keeps him busy, and employees describe an extreme attention to detail that likely keeps him even busier. “His ability to focus on the smallest details forces you to look at things in a different way,” said Steve Levin, who leads the company’s sales team. “I’ve worked with a lot of people, and I haven’t seen that before.”
For Simkhai, though, work and play seem to leave time for little else. And while he’s quick to identify as apolitical, that’s not to say Simkhai doesn’t have something of an activist streak. He does, and for the causes he cares about, it runs deep. Mainly it’s distilled into Grindr for Equality, a three-year-old pet project that seeks to shore up support for pressing gay rights issues by mobilizing Grindr’s greatest resource—its millions of users—through targeted messaging.
“Grindr for Equality was something the entire team felt very passionate about, especially Joel,” said Serge Gojkovich, Grindr’s former vice president of marketing. “I think the unique thing that Joel pointed out to all of us is that he really understood that there was power in numbers and that we could work with our users around the world to help make positive changes to our community.”
Like everything at Grindr, the Equality program is location specific, which lets Simkhai tap into hot button issues in every city. So far, it’s helped push gay voters to the polls in Maryland to support same-sex marriage and drive donations to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed. But it’s the hope that it could do some good for the gay community abroad, especially in places like Africa or Russia, where the concept of gay rights hardly exists, that really ignites the project. Simkhai serves as keeper for what is, essentially, one of the largest mailing lists of gay men in the world. However, when it comes to the Equality effort, he’s driven more by his personal convictions than by some sense that he has a responsibility to the gay community to harness the power of Grindr.
“I think about it as a desire,” Simkhai said. “I’m a gay man who wants specific rights and specific things. I’m a gay man who’s troubled about the gay men in over 70 countries where it’s essentially illegal for them to be gay. I don’t know that it’s a responsibility, but it’s what I want to see. It’s just what I care about.”
Closer to home, Simkhai’s also been grappling with guiding Grindr though its metamorphosis from novel startup to gay dating mainstay. The real challenge may not have been getting users to join in the first place but keeping them there. While Grindr may have been first on the scene, and has built arguably the strongest brand, the land grab for users’ eyeballs and attention is ramping up. New apps like Scruff and Hornet, some catering to subsets of the gay community, are nipping at its heels. The space has become tighter, and competition is getting stiffer, so to speak. Recently, Scruff, a competitor popular with bears and muscle jocks, announced it had surpassed five million users.
Grindr’s response—part of a sweeping redesign—now lets users filter the guys they see, potentially broadening its appeal across the gay community, into what Grindr calls “Tribes,” which let users sort themselves by any number of personal attributes from race to interests to their HIV status, that can be found by kindred spirits (Simkhai’s profile, for example, has him listed as Clean Cut, Geek, and Rugged).
The goal of Grindr, Simkhai said, has always been about appealing to the entire gay community, and he and other employees, past and present, reject the notion that the app caters to any one subset of the gay community—at least, not on purpose anyway. “I’ve always felt that users defined Grindr, and everyone uses Grindr in their own way,” said Gojkovich.
While the web, and by extension the smartphone, have certainly altered the gay dating landscape over the past few years, the basic courtship rituals haven’t changed. If anything, they’ve been simplified. “Historically, when I first came out in the late 70s/early 80s, when you wanted to meet other gay people you had to get in your car and drive to a gay bar,” Duran recalled. “To my mind, Grindr and all the other social media sites are all doing the same thing but in a very high tech sort of way. They’re gathering gay men to chat. I mean, granted, Grindr is a hookup site. That is part of the profile, but it’s not the only thing they do.”
Maybe not, but if Grindr has a reputation beyond the million-strong coterie of guys who log on every day, it’s certainly not as the gay LinkedIn. But that perception isn’t quite the whole picture, Simkhai said. “I do think that it’s not quite accurate to pigeonhole it like that. For us gay men, sex is certainly a big part of how we interact, but that’s just one aspect of it.”
Really, said Simkhai, it’s no different from how gay men around the world meet and interact in any context. “I would say Grindr is just like real life,” he said. “You run into people, and some of them you have sex with.”