Joel Simkhai revolutionized gay dating. Now he’s trying to do it again by cutting against the culture created by his success.
Simkhai founded Grindr in 2009, two years after the first iPhone was unveiled. Details magazine memorably introduced the app with the headline, “Is That a Gay Bar in Your Pocket?” Grindr, which shows its queer users who’s closest to them and how recently they’ve been online, became synonymous with gay hookup culture and casual sex, though more than a few users met long-term partners there as well. By 2018, Simkhai had sold it to Beijing Kunlun Tech for a total of $245 million. The app was sold again in 2020 for $608.5 million. The same year, Grindr was reported to have 13 million users.
Now Simkhai has launched a new gay dating app, Motto. The app’s features hew closer to Hinge than Tinder, showing users five to ten profiles per day rather than a geographic glut. Its tagline in the app store, “No more headless torsos,” refers to a common joke about Grindr: Users will often use profile pictures of only their bodies, face not included, giving conversations about sex an eerie lack of corporeal information. On its website, Motto’s motto reads, “Gay and queer matchmaking for hookups and casual dating.” Its first market is New York City.
Gizmodo spoke to Simkhai and Motto cofounder Alex Hostetler, a former Uber product manager, a few days after the app launched in Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gizmodo: Why the name Motto?
Joel Simkhai: A motto is what you stand for. And your profile is meant to be a statement, something that you’re meant to be proud of, and a way for you to put yourself out there. It’s about not hiding. That’s one of the reasons we chose it. We talked to a lot of people, and we wanted to build an experience that allows people to stand for themselves and represent themselves and to be comfortable putting themselves out there.
I saw in the App Store it says, “No more headless torsos.” Why that?
Simkhai: I guess that’s kind of one of our mottos. We certainly want an experience where you see someone’s face. That’s how we meet in real life. We really want to mimic the real life experience of meeting someone at a bar, on the street, or at a party. What’s the first thing you do when you meet them? You look them in the eye. That is so basic to how we interact with someone that we wanted to make sure we had that in our experience. We wanted to make sure that you could quickly evaluate whether you’re interested in someone.
On some of these other apps, you get headless torsos. Sometimes you get worse—you get blank profiles, you get pictures of cats or landscapes. That’s just not the experience that we wanted. We really wanted to streamline the experience. One of the complaints that we heard over and over again is these headless torsos or blank profiles.
Joel, you’ve obviously been in this game before. Why get back into the dating app business?
Simkhai: With Grindr, I think we revolutionized how queer people started meeting again or how they were able to meet using their phones. That was 13 years ago. A lot has changed. We’re responding to those changes.
On the technology side, we’re hoping to use machine learning and some manual matchmaking to help you find the people that you’re interested in. And on the societal side, it’s things like asking that everyone have a face photo. We’re also verifying you and making sure that you’re real and that you are who you say you are and that your photos are recent. Those are some of the shifts that we’re reacting to.
We also found that a lot of folks don’t feel so great about themselves after using these apps. There’s probably two buckets of that. One is folks who spend a lot of time on the apps just scrolling and scrolling. We want to cut back on the time you’re spending on Motto. We hope that you spend no more than 10 minutes a day on the app and that you could find someone that quickly and that you’re not spending the lion’s share of your day searching for someone. The other side of it is that we’re hoping to create a community where people are respectful toward one another, where they’re not being discriminatory in any any fashion. We have no tolerance for that.
You say in your press release that you hope Motto will be “free from the toxicity, catfishing, bots, and scams of other hookup apps.” You’ve mentioned the headless torsos. Those are all memes associated most distinctly with Grindr. Is it not the app that you created that brought all this about?
Simkhai: I certainly did create Grindr. With any aspect of technology, there’s the good and the bad, right? Grindr enables a lot of positive things, but there’s certainly a host of negatives. With Motto, we looked at the current environment. It’s not just about Grindr; it’s really about really about wanting to create a safe space for folks, a space where they can express themselves, a space for folks to find what they’re looking for without a lot of the negatives.
We also expect that Motto will have some negative aspects. My hope is that we will iterate and that we will constantly look at those and address some of these things that are creeping in. How can we address some of the toxicity in our community? For us, part of that will be kicking people out of the community who aren’t willing to behave in a certain way. We’re very much expecting to constantly iterate both with our community and our technology.
So you hope there’ll be enough nudges within the app that will steer people’s behavior away from the negative externalities and outcomes of Grindr and other apps?
Simkhai: We can do that in several different ways. With Motto we’re committed to our users mental health and making sure that they’re not doing harm to themselves.
Alex Hostetler: Another thing to point out is that Grindr is a very open community. It’s very free, and there’s not that many regulations in the product itself. I think it’s fair to point out that Grindr isn’t a toxic piece of technology, but it enabled a lot of toxic behavior from the people who were using it. What we’re trying to do with Motto is take a more proactive role in some of the product decisions to amplify the good parts and encourage the positive aspects of the community and take more of a stance against against some of the negatives. Even having an identity verification and having everything that you do be tied to your face will go a long way in curbing some of that toxic behavior.
We really think matches exist for every single person, so our goal is to be a very inclusive and inviting queer community. The quality comes from sort of a minimum bar of having photos. They have to show face; if the photos are too blurry, we will not allow them. There’s a little bit of subjectivity like ‘Is this photo contributing to helping people get to know you?’ And then there are actually required profile fields that are optional on a lot of other apps. The goal is to encourage people to be a little more open and give give the community a little more data to work with from the get-go. Overall, that creates a very high quality profile relative to Grindr or Scruff or some of the other apps.
It gives you a lot of data to work with as a company, no?
Hostetler: It does. When you think about the data that we have to work with, we’re trying to sort of emulate what happens in real life. Everybody has their own individualistic approach to dating and hookups. A motto is a very individualized thing. One of the those individual things is ‘How do I go about meeting people? What’s important to me?’ So our objective over the long run with motto would be to use the data that we have on people and figure out what is important to each person and match using that.
And how many users do you have now? How long is the wait list?
Simkhai: We’re not we’re not sharing specific user numbers right now. We just launched a few days ago, so we’re just starting out. We’re seeing some folks chatting already and some folks already meeting.
You asked why am I getting back into it. Part of it was societal and technological, but at the end of the day, the real answer is that it’s very personal. It’s kind of my desire to make those matches again and see people meet again. One of my great joys in life is being a matchmaker and seeing people meet and connect. One of the great satisfactions at Grindr was seeing the smiles on people’s faces. Everyone had a Grindr story that they had to share with me. I missed those days. I missed bringing people together. There’s no greater joy for me than matchmaking. We we view ourselves as matchmakers. We use technology, we’re a software company, we’re an app, but the end of the day, we’re really just matchmakers.
With Motto, it’s also about having a commitment to the negatives and looking at some of the bad things that happen with the overuse of technology or the overuse of sex. It’s about trying to figure out how we can minimize so some of those negatives and really lean into the positives.
What can you tell me about the matchmaking algorithm that’s going into Motto?
We’re still in the early days. It’s not super advanced. It’s something that we’re going to be leveraging in the future and building up. We’re excited by the community that we’ve already started to build. We’re excited to have more people join and continue responding to the technology.
You mentioned discrimination and an inclusive community. Why should the broader queer community trust two white gay men to create an inclusive community?
Hostetler: It’s a really good and fair question and one that we have been conscious of since we started. We can’t be the ones who are the only inputs to this process. We’re extremely research driven. We’re talking to Grindr users, to people who don’t use apps at all, and we’re very meticulous to make sure that the people that we talk to are representative of the larger community and not just people who look like us. There’s who we’re talking to [in order] to figure out what to build and there’s who is on our team. That is something that we’re super conscious of.
Simkhai: We’re not diverse enough. We are diverse, we’re just not diverse enough.
Hostetler: That’ll be something that we need to be conscious of as we build up a team. We’ve talked to some diversity and inclusion consultants in the process of of launching New York City about best practices. We will be keeping track of our community and making sure that it is representative of the larger community. If it’s not, then we’ll be making adjustments to how we’re recruiting and how we’re marketing to try to bridge those gaps.