He may be the world’s biggest matchmaker, but Elie Seidman makes for an unlikely cupid. The book-loving chief executive of Tinder, the online dating app, is seated in an armchair overlooking London’s drizzly West End.
“I’ve never used Tinder myself,” he muses. “I mean, I’ve been on Tinder only as a theoretical exercise. I know how it works, but I’m not used to it.”
For a man who spends his days orchestrating a staggering number of hook-ups between strangers, that might seem like a surprising admission.
Just how many one-night stands, casual flings and indeed durable marriages and long-term relationships have sprung from right finger swipes made on Tinder since its creation in 2012 is unknown, he admits.
Since then, however, the app itself has been downloaded more than 300 million times and now has 5.2 million paying subscribers.
“That gives you a sense of the scale,” says Seidman, 45, a keen amateur photographer who is married with two children. A serial entrepreneur who grew up in an academic household in Ithaca in upstate New York, the son of a professor at Cornell University, Seidman retains a vaguely scholarly air — but his passion for the business is obvious.
“I spent all my life working on tech products as an entrepreneur,” he smiles. “This is certainly the most fascinating and I think it has the most noble mission because what can be more important than who you connect with? Who you meet? I think it’s the most important part of life, by far.
More than any other company, Tinder — which pioneered the simple swipe right or left formula to accept or reject an online match — has been at the vanguard of a revolution in the way people form relationships, fuelled by the surging popularity of dating apps and the rise of the smartphone.
In Britain, one in three relationships now starts online and seven million UK residents are registered on online dating sites. In the US, where Tinder began, the figure is even higher. Some 39 percent of US heterosexual couples and 60 percent of same-sex couples met online in 2017 — a figure that exceeds the number who met through friends.
Researchers from the University of Chicago found that more than one third of US marriages between 2005 and 2012 started online.
Despite accusations that the rise of Tinder and other online dating apps have contributed to a promiscuous youth culture of hook-ups and concerns about safety following rapes and violent attacks on users, Seidman says: “We often get asked: What do you think about marriage? I’m married. I think marriage is a great institution, I’m very pro… But [being] single is not this unfortunate situation that you’re in until you get married. It’s its own distinct and special time.”
According to Seidman, online dating is now vastly preferable to traditional ways of meeting new partners via friends, family networks or at work. “I liken it to, you know, a Soviet supermarket versus Amazon. It may not be perfect to have Amazon, but it’s vastly better, and you’re not going back.”
Globally, online dating is now a multi-billion-dollar business and Los Angeles-based Tinder is easily the biggest player, especially among Generation Z, or people born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, who comprise the bulk of users.
“Tinder is quite young — more than half our members are under 25,” he says. “We’re by far the biggest community and we’ve become an iconic youth culture brand.”
There is no doubt online dating has had a seismic impact — enriching the lucky few tycoons who have surfed the wave while also bringing about major social change, including a surge in the number of marriages and other relationships forged between people from different racial and cultural backgrounds. “In seven years, it has become a global phenomenon,”
Seidman says. “It quickly went from 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds on college campuses in the US to Seoul and Tokyo and here.”
“What has fundamentally changed is, the opportunity to meet new people became dramatically easier, and at the same time, you got much more diversity in who you met,” he says. “Historically, you met who was down the street, who your family knew, who your friends knew. And over the past few years, we have surpassed friends as the most common way to get introduced.”
As a business too, Tinder is on fire.
“We did US$400 million ($544 million) in revenue in 2017 and then in 2018, we did US$800 million, so it’s doubled — dramatic growth,” he says. “And that’s happening globally.”
That’s not bad for a business that employs just 400 people worldwide — mainly at its head office in Los Angeles and engineering centre in Palo Alto, California. But it has not all been plain sailing. In fact, Tinder’s stratospheric rise has been marked by patches as rocky as the most torrid of relationships.
It may be a powerful youth brand — but there are plenty of critics who decry it for everything from a culture of excessive promiscuity to the commodification of human relationships — even a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among young people.
Seidman has little time for such prudish views and says these social trends predate online dating by decades. “The traditional norm in a place like the UK is no longer what it was 90 years ago — and it predates Tinder. If you feel Tinder isn’t for you, then you have a very simple choice: don’t use it.”
Then there are the company’s eyewatering internal dramas — and a history of lurid allegations and litigation involving its embittered founders, who left the organisation two years ago.
Seidman, a serial tech entrepreneur who formerly ran a rival dating service called OK Cupid — one of a stable of dating app brands owned by Tinder’s parent company Match Group — was roped in as chief executive in January 2018 to clean things up after a succession of scandals.
They include a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Whitney Wolfe Herd, a female co-founder of Tinder, against other former executives; and a vicious legal spat between Tinder and Bumble, a rival dating app designed to be more female-friendly which Wolfe Herd went off to found.
Unsavoury details emerged about goings-on at the firm, including abusive text messages sent by male colleagues. Although that case was settled, another multi-billion-dollar legal case is rumbling on that pitches the founders and current executives of Tinder against Match Group and its parent company IAC. Tinder co-founder Sean Rad claims the company deliberately undervalued Tinder to avoid having to pay them billions more in equity. Match Group has denied any wrongdoing and has counter-sued.
Seidman refuses to discuss any of this, stressing that it predates his tenure, but is keen to emphasise the changes he has made.
“I can’t talk about it, but I felt like we wanted to approach the next FIve years with the same industriousness you would in the startups that I had built… We are now nearly 50 percent women on the executive team. That’s a very deliberate choice,” he says, adding that successful startups that grow extremely fast often face specific risks that require “humility and intellectual honesty” to overcome.
“There is a risk of becoming very self-impressed… of becoming self-focused versus focused on the singles journey our members are on.”
But Tinder’s problems have not just been internal.
Like other social media firms, the company has also been plagued by accusations of weak oversight and lax privacy standards. Most recently, its parent Match Group (though not Tinder itself) was slapped with a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) action, accusing Match.com of using fake love interest ads to encourage users to shell out for its premium subscription services.
Like Tinder, Match.com operates a “freemium” business model where the bulk of people use the app for free, but a minority pay a subscription fee for extra services.
Again, Seidman declines to comment, stressing that this FTC action “doesn’t apply” to Tinder but to other group companies. He adds that Match has said it intends to “fight vigorously” against the FTC.
As the use of all dating apps has skyrocketed, so have the number of violent incidents associated with them. In the UK, figures published by Sky News showed that in 2011, 140 crimes linked to online dating were recorded, by 2016 that had risen to 676 — a jump of 382 percent.
In the worst cases, people who met on Tinder have been raped and violently attacked.
Seidman clearly understands the gravity of the issue and is eager to emphasise that Tinder views it as a top priority. “Safety is really, really important. It’s right for us to take your personal safety when you’re on Tinder extremely seriously — and we do.”
“We have a large team of engineers who are working to help find bad actors and remove them. We have a large group of human moderators [and] we cooperate with law enforcement.” He admits, however, that Tinder cannot offer a 100-percent guarantee of safety.
“You should be thoughtful about what you do when on Tinder, and that’s true for all digital communities… We do not create an alternate universe and unfortunately, society is not a perfect place.”
Seidman faces another pressing business challenge, however. After seven years of growth, the online dating market is getting more crowded with the entry of Facebook, which is making a big push into online dating. Some fear this could be tough for Tinder although Seidman brushes aside fears that Mark Zuckerberg’s latest foray threatens to crush smaller rivals.
“There’s certainly no evidence so far that it has. They launched in many markets going back now more than a year and we can’t discern an impact.”
In any case, he adds that Facebook’s dating service represents a fundamentally different proposition. “I don’t think our members are remotely confused: Do I use Tinder and meet new people? Or do I use that app which happens to be the place where grandma posts pictures of the grandkids? They’re just different communities with very different purposes.”
What does Seidman do outside of work? For millions of Tinder users who spend their nights partying with people they have just met, Seidman’s answer may be somewhat unexpected. It turns out he likes nothing more than to spend an evening with his family in Los Angeles, reading a good book.
Text by Robin Pagnamenta / The Interview People.
This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A.