Wednesday 21 August 2019

Meet the dating app founder whose life is destined for the screen

Justin McLeod almost lost the love of his life. But he took a bold risk that paid off. The Hinge creator spoke to Adrian Weckler about online safety, digital addiction and his own brush with Hollywood

Setting a date: Justin McLeod, founder of the Hinge app
Setting a date: Justin McLeod, founder of the Hinge app
Hinge app

Adrian Weckler technology editor

For the business he is in, Justin McLeod's own love story seems a little too picture-perfect. But the creator of the fastest-growing dating app has one of the most TV-friendly romantic tales seen in the tech industry. So much so that there is an actual TV episode currently being planned about it.

Our interview was supposed to be about how Hinge - the rival to well-known apps such as Tinder, Bumble and PlentyOfFish - uses things such as algorithms, artificial intelligence and safety measures in its dating app.

We got to that, eventually. But his own back story of how he met, lost and regained his partner Kate was worth confirming first.

"It's a long story and I'll try to give you the short version," he says in a quiet voice. "Kate and I dated in college, on and off. We broke up at the end of college because I was just a total mess at the time. I told her she should go on without me. So we went our separate ways."

But the flame, he said, was never really extinguished. "A few years later, I was in business school and I reached back out to her and wanted to get back together. I had put my life back together. But she had moved over to London since then and was with another guy. So she turned me down. I was totally heartbroken," he recalls.

That was in 2011, a pre-Tinder age. Even had 'hook-up' apps been available, they would not have suited McLeod, a shy type. He turned to the internet to try other dating avenues. But all he found was Facebook and a handful of clunky online courtship services.

A few years passed. McLeod started Hinge and was promoting it. He was interviewed by a journalist called Deborah Copaken in late 2014, who was writing a column on dating apps. Suddenly, the conversation turned very personal when she asked him a particularly sensitive question. The prompt made him cry.

"She asked me whether I had ever been in love before," McLeod says. "I asked her to stop the tape recorder. Then I told her yes, once, a long time ago, but I hadn't realised it until it was too late. And I told her the story of Kate."

In that moment, Copaken became a friend and, it turned out, a pivotal figure in McLeod's life.

Copaken asked more about Kate, who had become engaged to a man and was then living in Switzerland. She then told her own tragic story, about a simple missed connection in Paris which led to the journalist pursuing a different life to the one she might really have wanted.

"Deborah told me that she had to tell me a story," he says. "Then she told me that she had a very similar story to my own. They hadn't ended up together either. Then they did find each other, 20 years later. And they realised they should have been together the whole time. And that's actually when she left her marriage."

Copaken's advice to McLeod was simple. "She said, 'you cannot make the same mistake I did, you have to do something because she's not married yet'," he recalls.

"That inspired me to take one last chance. I was actually going over for a launch party in Europe for Hinge anyway. So I reached out to her and she said that she would talk to me on the phone. And I was like, well, this is my chance. So I got on the next plane. And I surprised her and landed in Switzerland where she was living at the time. And I asked if she would come back to New York with me."

There are few times when people, in the course of their lifetime, put themselves on the line. I mean, really, really set themselves up for triumph or utter rejection.

But McLeod took the risk, knowing full well how it could otherwise be perceived. He asked a woman who was engaged to another man to leave him and come back to the US because he felt he had changed. "And she did."

This was in 2015. Now they are married. "We've actually got a little boy on the way next month," he says.

I can't resist asking McLeod about the alternative take on a bloke unexpectedly turning up on a woman's doorstep in another country to ask her to leave her fiancé. Wasn't there a fear of being tagged as a stalker?

"Yeah," he says. "I think it's a fine line. I took a big risk. But she took a bigger risk. I mean, she left behind the life that she had. One that she had known and built over the last eight years. To take a chance with her college boyfriend. But when we saw each other, there was just no question that this is what we both wanted to do. It's worked out; we were married in 2017."

A few months after their reunion, McLeod invited Copaken to lunch where he surprised the journalist with the appearance of Kate (Stern).

Copaken then penned a brilliant piece in the New York Times' Modern Love column about it ('When Cupid is a Prying Journalist').

And now, a TV adaptation is on the cards thanks to a partnership between Amazon and the New York Times.

"That's going to be a series and our story is the pilot," he says. "There has also been a screenplay written and they're talking to some actors now about creating a film out of it."

Who would he like to play him? He looks a little like a bookish Bradley Cooper. "Oh, yeah, I'll take Bradley Cooper," he says. "If he wants to play me. I'm not sure Bradley Cooper can play a 19-year-old me. But fair enough. I'd be very flattered."

McLeod is now getting on with his main work: Hinge.

He has some useful allies. The US Democratic presidential contender, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, says he met his husband through the Hinge app.

It differs a little from other dating apps. There is no swiping, like Tinder. And there is a slightly more detailed sign-up process.

Users are asked whether they want to identify themselves on the political spectrum, for example. Or whether they take recreational drugs.

The whole approach is supposed to encourage more realistic signals between potential matches.

And yet it is still a phone app with photos of people who are looking to date or 'hook up', sometimes in a soulless way.

Arguably, the best summary of the downside to dating apps was contained in a 2015 Vanity Fair article, called 'Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse'.

In it, a series of 20-somethings described how dating had evolved from relationships to ordering a takeaway for the night.

What does McLeod think of the characterisation of such apps as contributing to the commoditisation of dates and sex?

"I think a lot of those points are valid," he says. "The Vanity Fair article you just mentioned is a big reason why, in 2016, we rebooted the whole experience at Hinge. We basically threw out our code and started over from scratch. Because that's not the world that we want to create.

"But, ultimately, I don't think that the technology in itself, or dating apps, are good or bad. It's ultimately how we use them. These issues of commodification really relate to the bigger issue of digital addiction. It's a really big problem and it's not just dating apps; it's social media, it's shopping, it's pornography, it's across all these different dimensions.

"We keep people over-stimulated and keep them hooked to their phones. I think we're taking a very different approach at Hinge, engineering it to not keep people hooked into the app, but rather getting out on great dates.

"It's why the profiles are about humanising people and making them three-dimensional so that they've got a personality and a background. They're not just like a little card that you toss to the left or to the right."

The issue of digital addiction is one that McLeod himself acts on. He refuses to have any social media app on his phone, nor will he even include work-related apps such as Slack or email. "It's just too easy to get sucked into that all day," he says.

How on Earth, I ask, does he run a company with no Slack or email on his phone?

"Honestly, I don't know how people run big companies and keep that stuff on their phone," he says.

"For me to be a leader, I can't have days where I get sucked into just responding to emails and Slack messages all day.

"I end up doing no leadership at all. I'm just sitting there, micro-managing and responding to random tasks.

"And I'm not thinking bigger about where the future of dating is going, or how to coach the people around me. Those big ideas never occur to me when I'm, like, plugged in all day."

Lastly, I ask McLeod about dating apps and safety. This year alone has seen high-profile sexual assault cases in Ireland related to predators using dating apps. Is the technology making it too easy for violent predators?

"Not a day goes by that we don't have conversations about our user safety," he says. "I do think that Hinge is one of the safest ways that you could meet people, But, obviously, when you have millions and millions of people using your app and going out on millions of dates, sometimes things do happen."

Thankfully for McLeod, most of what's happening right now is going to plan.

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