Stella Maxwell
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Grindr's New Owners Want to Create a 'Positive Place for Everyone'

Jeff Bonforte and Rick Marini

Grindr officially has new owners.

The popular LGBTQ+ dating app has announced Jeff Bonforte, Rick Marini, and Gary Hsueh as its new CEO, COO, and CFO, respectively.

The trio is part of a group of investors that purchased a 98.59 percent stake in Grindr through San Vicente Acquisition Partners for $608.5 million from Beijing Kunlun Tech, a Chinese company that acquired it in 2016. News of the sale first made headlines in March, and it was made official Monday. The men had originally bid on Grindr about a year ago under the company Catapult Capital. They joined as investors in San Vicente, which ultimately successfully bid on Grindr.

The acquisition occurred after a United States government panel requested Kunlun divest from Grindr following concerns over user data, particularly for users who are members of the U.S. military, as well as rising trade tensions with the foreign power.

Over the past few years, concerns over security — and the safety of its 4.5 million daily users worldwide — have plagued Grindr. In 2018, BuzzFeed reported that the app had been sharing the HIV statuses of its users with two third-party vendors; it has since ceased the practice. Reports of queer people being lured through Grindr to dangerous situations also routinely make headlines. It has since debuted new security features, such as the ability to "unsend" pictures.

Grindr's new owners inherit these concerns, as well as a history of other controversies that include the decimation of the company's Into news team, reports of LGBTQ+ layoffs in favor of straight hiring, and the perception of "sexual racism" and fat-shaming among its user base that has made the app unappealing for many people of color and those with non-muscular body types. (Recently, it removed its ethnicity search filter in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.) Grindr, launched in 2009, also now competes with many other matchmaking apps in a landscape it helped create.

Last week, Bonforte and Marini spoke with The Advocate about Grindr's past as well as its future. Hsueh, cofounder of Catapult Capital and the former vice president and global head of search partnerships at Yahoo!, was not made available.

As background, both Bonforte and Marini identify as straight and boast robust résumés in Silicon Valley. A former member of the executive team at Yahoo!, Bonforte helmed Yahoo! Mail, Messenger, and Flickr, among other key areas of the company. He also founded and ran five startups.

Marini is the former head of Digital Innovation at Hearst Corporation and was the founder & CEO of BranchOut, the Facebook professional networking app. He was also named one of 2018's Top 50 Angel Investors by Forbes; as an angel investor, he has helped grow Snapchat, Reddit, Opendoor, Poshmark, PAX, and OutReach.

So why has a group of straight men turned to Grindr as their next investment? Its resilience and longevity in the digital age were key. To The Advocate, Bonforte praised how the app has "survived and thrived" through tumultuous times, its "loyal" and growing user base, and its ability to be a positive force in the world for the LGBTQ+ community.

"I don't think you have to be gay to want to have a strong, healthy, safe LGBTQ community," Bonforte said. "And so I think we see Grindr's role in that, and we hope we can further it."

Bonforte and Marini, longtime San Francisco residents, identify as allies. Bonforte, who lives in the Castro gayborhood, has "physically close ties to the LGBTQ community." Both marched in the city's 2016 Pride parade and are donors to GLAAD; the pair raised $60,000 for the LGBTQ+ media organization in 2017. And they both affirmed a desire to grow this record of LGBTQ+ philanthropy and activism through their leadership at Grindr.

Since the opportunity to buy Grindr presented itself last year, Bonforte has personally spoken with hundreds of the app's users, as well as former employees and members of management, in order to learn what worked and didn't work and launch "a new chapter for Grindr." As the new CEO, he recognized part of planning forward is identifying and owning the mistakes of the past.

"It won't be a perfectly smooth road, there will be challenges in the future," Bonforte predicted. But the group has a plan. Priority on "day one," they said, is user safety and security. In this area, the company has already conducted a partial audit, and a full audit of these features is now under way. Bonforte also learned a thing or two about security in his past work fortifying Yahoo! against Russian hackers.

"It will be an ongoing process," Bonforte said of boosting security. "These are hundreds and hundreds of small changes that we'll make. There's no magic bullet that will make Grindr a perfect experience." In addition to programming, a part of that process is "to increase people's education on about how to be safe" through an ongoing dialogue with the LGBTQ+ community, particularly since what is safe or legal for members varies substantially around the world.

User safety and security is one part of a three-"bucket" plan. It falls in the "tech stack" bucket, in which Grindr will undergo "a full top to bottom review" of its programming and data architecture, meaning how this information is stored.

The second bucket is product development: enhancing Grindr and adding new features "to try to continue to activate the community," said Bonforte. The possibilities for this activation are many. Grindr, he learned, is about far more than hookups. He reported hearing from users who missed Grindr's sense of community after they found a relationship and left it. There are also users who only open the app for travel purposes, another area he hopes to expand upon.

However, don't expect any sweeping redesign. "You have to be careful not to dabble with the core product," Bonforte said, adding, "We don't want to hurt Grindr. It's so good."

The last bucket is "internal culture," which Bonforte defined as "developing the team, making sure that the employee base does a great job of representing the community, and getting that voice at all levels in business."

To this end, Grindr will "absolutely" be recruiting more LGBTQ+ people as line employees, leaders, and board members, committed Marini. Having LGBTQ+ people in the room is essential for "understanding the needs of the users," he stressed. Bonforte added that LGBTQ+ recruitment is just "good business" because it will lead to a better product.

Summing up his hiring philosophy, Bonforte paraphrased his old boss, former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, about the importance of taking on people who care about a company's mission. "We want to hire missionaries, not mercenaries," he said. "We don't want people that are here for the money. We want people here for the cause."

While there may be three primary buckets of focus, there are about 60 smaller ones for Grindr to explore, said its new CEO. One of these is editorial. Will Grindr's new owners be investing in more content in the vein of Into? Yes and no.

"I think that there are stories out there that should be told and Grindr can be a part of telling that story. I'm not sure I would have done it exactly like Into, but I did like what the interview team was producing, and that was incredibly high-quality content. I think there are ways to accomplish that broader goal that Into had" with user-generated content, he said.

"We could build tools to support the conversation. We don't necessarily have to be the ones writing the conversation," said Bonforte. He cited Reddit and even Instagram as models for user-driven conversations that might inspire a direction for Grindr. But ultimately, the success of any new tools will be decided by the users.

"You give those tools to the users, and you watch, and you listen, and you learn where they're taking you," he said.

In his new role, Bonforte is only just beginning to learn the extent of the diversity of Grindr's user base as well as the LGBTQ+ community in general. This has been one of the biggest insights he's gained from his research. "I think when you're on the outside looking in, you have this streamlined view of how things are. And then as you look closer, you're getting this higher-fidelity picture and everything's coming into focus," he said.

"I could hire 100 percent from the community for the employee base, and I still wouldn't have enough voices to represent the community," he marveled.

Marini was struck how, unlike other matchmaking apps, "so much more happens [on Grindr] than a transactional dating focus." Users are still there for dating, for example, but many also are seeking out a restaurant recommendation or, as Bonforte previously pointed out, a connection with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. As a result, there is a "love for the product" that he has not seen elsewhere in the digital space.

Of course, not everyone shares this love, as Bonforte quickly realized in reviewing Reddit threads full of stories from users who felt shamed on Grindr due to their age, weight, race, or other characteristics. Bonforte, who was formerly "flabby" and in the dating app world, attested that this kind of shaming is not exclusive to queer matchmaking spaces. A part of it is "human nature."

"It's not specific to Grindr, and it's not specific to digital, but it can be amplified in those [spaces]," he said. "And to the extent that it's happening on Grindr, we [are] trying to make sure that our users are having a positive experience."

Online cruelty can have a number of sources, be it anonymity, naivete, or a lack of empathy. And Bonforte has heard many "heart-wrenching" experiences, including a transgender job candidate who had been shamed repeatedly on Grindr. Thus, the company's new owners are committed to figuring out ways, through education or product design, to encourage more empathy and give everyone a better user experience.

"I really want this to be a positive place for everyone, not just the good-looking people that already have an easy enough time in society," Marini concluded. "It's got to work for everyone. Love is love. So we're going to be working on that for sure."

Tags: Business, Grindr

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