As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin McLeod. Justin is Founder and CEO at Hinge, the dating app designed to be deleted. He grew up in Louisville, KY and studied at Colgate University. After a few years in management consulting, he attended Harvard Business School and decided to follow his passion for connecting people. Justin founded Hinge in February 2011 with a mission to create real-life connections. As a romantic and the protagonist of a real-life love story, he was upset by the negative hookup culture dating apps had created so in October 2016, he relaunched Hinge to create a culture of thoughtful dating. Justin’s vision for a more thoughtful experience resonated with millennials and led Hinge to become the fastest-growing dating app last year.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Hinge was originally born out of heartbreak. I had broken up with my college girlfriend, Kate, and I was struggling to meet someone new. I never dreamed I would operate a dating company, but I have to say it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything else. Choosing our partners is one of the most important, if not the most important decision we make in our lives — and it’s an absolute privilege to be able to help so many people find the person that’s right for them. (Kate ended up being the right person for me. We eventually got back together and are now married — but that’s a longer story that is now also an episode on Amazon’s recently released Modern Love series!)
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
One of the biggest challenges early on was getting discouraging feedback (and no money) from potential investors. In 2011, dating apps were not yet a thing. I believed Hinge, by creating a simple mobile dating app experience that tied to our existing social media accounts, could make dating accessible to people in their twenties. Investors were convinced that the online dating market was saturated.
Part of the art of entrepreneurship is knowing “am I crazy, or is everyone else crazy?”. I learned from this experience that sometimes everyone else is crazy. It’s because most investors, and indeed most people, assess new opportunities by comparing them to past patterns. This sometimes works, but it truly misses the great opportunities because these often introduce new paradigms. Instead of noticing the past trend of “young people don’t use dating products,” it was important to ask “why don’t young people use dating products” and solve against that — which is what we were doing at Hinge.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The most important factor leading to my and Hinge’s success is most definitely surrounding myself with brave, kind, loyal, smart people who stuck with Hinge through ups and downs, learned from mistakes, and evolved into incredible operators, managers and leaders.
Also critical to our success has been the ability to admit when we’re off track, and do what needs to be done to correct course. The most significant example is Hinge’s reboot in 2016, in which we completely rebuilt Hinge from the ground up because we felt we weren’t living up to our mission of helping people find and build meaningful relationships.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
- It’s not the idea that counts. It’s the people and the market. I originally thought my “friends of friends on Facebook” idea would be key to Hinge’s success. However, what really drove our success was the group of smart, creative, loyal, gritty people I recruited along the way, and the fact we were in a market that was hugely undervalued at the time. (In 2011, “online dating” was ripe for disruption thanks to the changes underway in mobile, social and big data.) The original idea was a great rallying cry, but ultimately virtually none of my original ideas about how the product would work ended up surviving. As entrepreneurs, we always think our “idea” is our precious key to success, but ideas are a dime a dozen. What I’ve found actually determines success is, first, do you have the right people? And second, are you in the right market? If you have strong players and a winnable game, you’ll figure out the strategy later.
- Be a coach, not a commander. In order for Hinge to scale past a handful of employees, I had to learn to stop directing people, and start coaching them. That means setting clear objectives, then asking how I can help them get there (and, most importantly, showing that I believe they can do it!) And it means refraining from telling them myself how to get there — which is not only ineffective, but disempowering. Lots of entrepreneurs are smart, dynamic people who can find some initial success based on the force of their personalities and intellect. The ones that scale know how to teach others how to be successful.
- Focus on the customer, not the competition. In the face of competition from apps with the Swipe feature, I made the mistake of paying too much attention to our competitor’s features and not enough attention to what our customers truly wanted — which was great dates. As a result, we became more and more similar to our bigger, better resourced competitors, and we lost momentum as we lost our differentiation and, more importantly, our effectiveness. Ultimately, we had to pivot away from how other dating apps operated, and find a new way that was engineered not around “beating the competition” but around helping our customers succeed.
- Spend less time debating, more time experimenting. Hinge often got stalled in our early days by falling into “analysis paralysis.” We would argue over the next right product feature for months, and when we finally did choose one, we were often wrong. We made decisions based on who was the best or loudest arguer, without much data. As we evolved, we learned to stop debates early and instead start collecting data through surveys, or when possible, prototypes and tests. When we made an effort to experiment and collect data first, we were almost always able to align around the right answer as a team.
- Routines and rules are the key to sanity. I’ve faced an incredible amount of stress building Hinge as a sole founder. The ups and downs have been dramatic and intense, and over time my personal identity has really become interwoven with Hinge so that it feels we’re almost one in the same. Extended down periods have led me to pretty severe depression and burnout. It’s no secret that maintaining perspective and work-life balance are key to mental health — but that’s hard to remember when you’re in the middle of a crisis. What I’ve learned is that routines are absolutely critical — both morning and weekly. My morning routine of yoga (to physically move stress out of my body), meditation (to let go of repetitive, stress-inducing thoughts in my mind), and journaling (to zoom out and get perspective) allows me to approach my day from a calmer, less-reactive state and to be far less susceptible to the effects of stress. My weekly routine of a date with myself (usually ecstatic dance) and a date with my wife ensure I retain some semblance of work-life balance.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
For me, burnout occurs when I don’t switch off. I don’t use social media, and it’s important for me to ensure I’m taking breaks from Slack and email. I don’t keep those apps on my phone, and Kate and I have a deal where neither of us spend time on our computers or devices from 8pm to 8am — every day!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My wife, Kate, is the person I’m most grateful towards when it comes to helping me get to where I am now. We met in 2003, and she has been my rock through so many different ups and downs — both personal and professional. She is one of the bravest people I know, and she’s a constant inspiration for me.
Beyond that, she’s really been the muse for Hinge. I originally started it because we had broken up and I wanted to find someone as great as her (which proved futile in the end!) More importantly, her teaching me that the path to connection is vulnerability — not perfectionism — is really what inspired the 2016 reboot of Hinge into the app designed to be deleted.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally, only half my dream is realized when it comes to Hinge. It’s great that we built an excellent platform where people can meet one another — but I don’t think that’s enough. There is literally no decision more important to our happiness in life than who we choose as our life partner — yet almost none of us are educated about how to do this well. My vision is for Hinge to not just be a dating platform, but a trusted expert that guides our members through the process of connecting with the person best for them. Hinge Labs is launching at the beginning of 2020 to address this.
Personally, I’m trying to learn all of Elton John’s greatest hits on the piano. And learn how to be a dad! Kate and I had a boy in August.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to create a business model that others in social media will replicate in their respective industries. It’s a model in which products are engineered around our deepest needs rather than our most exploitable vulnerabilities. Social media companies that claim to make the world more connected should actually make us feel more connected — ideally by bringing us together in real life. But instead, they seem most interested in keeping us glued to their apps. We as entrepreneurs should succeed with, not at the expense of our customers.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can’t, of course! I don’t use social media.