Hinge CEO Justin McLeod is not afraid of making big bets.
When the dating startup was floundering in 2012, McLeod spent $25,000 on a huge 2,000-person launch party to kick-start its growth. The company only had $32,000 left in the bank at the time.
Hinge built substantial buzz as an alternative to Tinder that promised less-random matches, and in 2014, McLeod made Business Insider’s list of the coolest people in New York City tech (at No. 39).
Now McLeod hopes another big bet can save Hinge.
The app is bleeding users and has plummeted to a 1.5-star rating as McLeod and his team have devoted nearly all their time in the last nine months to building something totally new. We’ve learned that the fruit of McLeod’s labor will likely be unveiled on September 21.
Finding the pivot
Around December 2015, McLeod says he realized Hinge needed to radically reimagine itself.
“We were not living up to our mission,” he told Business Insider.
Hinge was supposed to be a dating app for people who were over the “game” of other apps like Tinder, he says. While Hinge has a swiping interface similar to Tinder, it shows you only matches you are connected to socially – for example, “friends of friends.”
That was meant to bake in a bit more seriousness and accountability. Hinge was supposed to have a community.
But McLeod says people had begun to view it as just another interchangeable brand.
Though Hinge was still growing 20% month-to-month and had raised over $20 million from investors, McLeod says he knew the company had to shift direction.
“We had to make a big change,” he said. But he didn’t know what that would be. “When we started, anything was on the table. We had no fixed idea.”
The startup created “Hinge Labs,” a community of around 8,000 users who had said they were looking for long-term relationships. It held events, invited some of those people to the New York office, and asked them to try out prototypes.
Eventually, Hinge found the right “pivot” – McLeod will say only that it’s still in the dating-app sphere and focused on people who want to be in relationships.
Hinge’s competitors “do one thing, and it’s not what everyone is looking for,” he said. That’s hookups and entertainment. “There’s nothing for people who are growing up.”
The old product
In the time Hinge has been building its new product, its current app has languished. If Hinge was indeed seeing month-to-month growth at the start of 2016, it isn’t anymore.
Recent reviews in the app store are abysmal. “App is unusable, time drain, nobody using seriously anymore,” one reviewer wrote. “Never gets updates. It’s dead. Now I see why this app has 1 star.”
McLeod says his team simply spent no time maintaining the current product.
Around the time of the secret pivot, McLeod also began to clean house. He says he was unhappy with the progress on the engineering side, so he rebuilt the team. There were cuts, but he says his 24-person team is now essentially as large as it has ever been.
Still, it’s not enough to fill Hinge’s office space. Hinge is subleasing one of its two floors to another startup.
McLeod doesn’t characterize this as a bad thing. He says Hinge took the adjacent floor in its building because the opportunity came up, and that the other startup only occupies 60% of it.
The posting for that sublease listed 40 seats as available to rent. Hinge eventually plans to fill both floors, according to the company.
Whether Hinge will be able to fill the rest of that space seems to rest on the success of its pivot. We’ll see whether McLeod’s latest bet will pull Hinge out of the doldrums.
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