VP and Head of Global Communications at Grindr and long-time tech veteran, Patrick Lenihan, joins Niki remotely to talk about the iconic dating app. The company is both a “start-up” and one of the first-ever geospatial social networking applications…and now it’s preparing to go public. The conversation ranges from Grindr itself to the company’s business, mission, and current work to bring public health information to the LGBTQ+ community.
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Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up.
This week I’m talking to Patrick Lenihan about Grindr, the world’s largest social networking app for LGBTQ people. Founded in 2009, the iconic start-up is finding itself in the mainstream business press as they’ve announced intentions to go public. We talk about the business and the mission of the company.
One quick note: Patrick and I discuss a feature that will be added into Grindr soon, but it’s not going live for another couple of weeks. Look, this isn’t 60 Minutes but we do try to be accurate on the pod.
On with the show!
Niki: Today on the podcast, we have Patrick Lenahan calling in from Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Patrick: Thank you. How are you, Niki?
Niki: I'm doing well. And I have to say, I love all of my guests equally, but I think I love you a little bit more because we go way back.
Patrick: [laughs] Way back. You hired me.
Niki: I hired you at Google, what, a decade ago?
Patrick: Like, probably. Around that [Niki: a long time ago], you hired me. You hired me from the Mountain View office to come out to D.C. You brought me to the swamp!
Niki: I brought you to the swamp. I brought you to Washington. And then you left us from Google. You went to Goldman Sachs, which is an unusual move for someone in tech but is gonna be relevant to what we talk about today.
Patrick: Yes, indeed.
Niki: Which is your new job.
Patrick: I'm at Grindr. Which is not something I ever thought I'd say, but actually makes sense in a, in a bizarre way. I run, I run communications at Grindr and that just means, y'know, media relations, internal comms. I do investor relations. I do some policy. I help out the marketing team. I do partnership stuff.
Niki: We should tell people what Grindr is.
Patrick: Grindr is the largest social networking app for gay, BI, lesbian, and transgender people. It’s a dating app, casual dating, hookup, sex. As with all things relating to the LGBTQ community, it sort of has a core of sexuality. So I'm just gonna address that up front, cuz some people are like, “You're dancing around the fact that sex is involved in Grindr.”
And I wanna be very clear that no, we're not. Or at least I'm not! [Niki: chuckles] There's, like, no question. Have you seen any of our marketing? Like, we know what's going on here. Yeah. And we care about gay people because they're our entire user base, and it's about sex. [Niki: yeah] But it's about a lot more than sex.
And to just, just try and boil it down to sex is like very, very, frankly like a little, uh, it's a narrow-minded view.
Niki: But for our listeners who are not on gay dating apps or dating apps at all, give it a google because it is clear that sex is part of it. But I will say, my closest friend from college met his husband on Grindr.
Patrick: You wouldn't believe…people come out of the woodwork.
A little more background for any uninitiated. [Niki: Yes!] It was founded in 2009. This is an app from 2009. It's really one of, if not the first geospatial social network ever, right? We effectively invented this construct, and it's what it is, is it's not, it's not swiping. We're not; this is not Tinder or match or Bumble or whatever this is, which are all great, wonderful apps, like fantastic. We love them, I love, y'know, my, my counterparts over there. But Grindr doesn't do the, the stack of cards and swiping. What we are is it's just a grid of profile pictures in decreasing proximity from you, right? [Niki: Ohhhh!] So, it’s the closest people to you. And then you scroll and the farther you scroll, the farther away you get. Right? But it's literally just like the people around you right now on the app. And you can put up a profile picture, and you can add some profile text, and you can fill out some fields.
You can include as little or as much information as you want.
Niki: [interrupts] So the app is rooted in proximity,
Patrick: Proximity. Yeah. It's a proximity app. It's just who's around you. And that's actually this, the incredible thing about it. Right? And why I get so passionate about it because it is, it, it does, actually, it has the potential to foster incredible local community. It's literally the people around at the time.
And you can go traveling. And actually one of the biggest use cases we've got is people using it to sort of jump ahead to where they're gonna be this coming weekend
It's literally just about connecting people. It's really very simple technology. There's not a whole lot, y’know, to it. It's not overcomplicated, and it has stayed more or less the same since 2009. Our current ownership group bought it in 2020. Took control of the company in June, 2020. Installed sort of some, a transitional leadership team who were these amazing guys from Catapult Capital and in San Francisco, and, and minority investors.
They came in they're ex, they're all ex-Yahoo and have founded companies before. And they'd basically just dealt with a ton of tech debt that we had from previous ownership who hadn't invested in the way you needed to, retooled the whole backend of the app. And then in 2021, really started to like take it forward and make it much more modern. And, and anyone who's been using the app will, will have noticed that the user experience and all of that has increased or has improved significantly in the last couple of years. And we intend to continue to make it better.
Niki: Actually I mentioned to someone that you were coming on the podcast last night, and he said, “Oh, isn't Grindr owned by a Chinese investor.? And I said, “No, they divested,” because people are really freaked out, by “people” I mean, “me,” information being shared with the CCP in China and actually that was divested. So, you're not owned by a Chinese investor.
Patrick: So the company was founded by a guy named Joel Simkhai in 2009. And he ran it until pretty much up until 2018. At which point, he sold it to a Chinese gaming company called Kunlun. Who, pretty much after the transaction closed, the CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which is a department of the Treasury. And I feel like your listenership will actually know who they are. [Niki: Yes!] They’ve been in the news a lot because of TikTok. But the CFIUS forced a divestment. And as far as I know, it's one of the first sort of instances of that happening, in any event. So the company was sold by Kunlun, and a group of a consortium of American investors bought it.
Funnily enough, my very first day on the job, at the beginning of January, or sort of end of January. Literally, it's like a Monday. I get on my email for the first time, and already I got, I had, I was flooded with inbounds, from the press. They were saying, like they were asking, like, “Why did the, did the Chinese take you off, off of the app store in China? Like, “You're not on the app store in China. Did the Chinese take you off?”
It was, it was the, the Olympics. [Niki: Ohhhh!] And so the narrative sort of built very quickly. It's like, y'know, “China de-lists Grindr from app store”, y'know, and push for, y'know, cleansing ahead of the Olympics. That wasn't true at all, actually. [chuckles] What had happened was the week prior, like the very week before I got there, we had, we had delisted from the Chinese app store because we didn't feel comfortable complying with the new Chinese data privacy laws, which we don't actually think, do a whole lot to protect our users.
Niki: Definitely not. And bravo to you, and more people should!
Patrick: Yeah, that was what we did.
Niki: I definitely, toward the end, wanna talk about what's happening with the business, cuz there is some big news, and you guys are looking at soon, going public, but I also wanna back up a little bit and talk about the app itself.
So I did not know it was proximity based. I actually think that's a great feature because, on other dating apps, you text for a million years and never get together. And it's just this like slow drain, [laughing] draining process. Whereas if you're like, “Oh, someone's 10 feet away,” you're probably gonna meet up very quickly. [chuckles]
Patrick: We, we, we think that it encourages that. There's definitely still these long, drawn-out text conversations. That happens. That's, I think, human nature on that of when we're communicating through the black glass cubes on our, y'know, in our hands. But, but yeah, I do, we do, think it sort of gets people together.
Niki: Yeah, I, which I didn't know. And then I'm gonna now pitch…anybody can take this as an idea...but I have an idea for a dating app, which is just photos and your Uber rating. [Patrick: laughs] Which I actually think is all you need to know!
Patrick: [laughing] That’s it!
Niki: I think it would've saved me a lot of heartaches if I had looked at someone's Uber rating before dating them in my previous life. [chuckling]
Patrick: What low Uber rating people were you dating? We, we, we'll have to, this is a conversation we may .
[crosstalk] [both laughing]
Patrick: Listeners; what do you call your listenership, listenership? Listeners, are you interested in hearing more about Niki's Uber rating? [Niki: laughs]
Niki: The lowest Uber-rated dates I've ever had. I mean, it's really telling [chuckling]
Okay! So back to Grindr. One of the things you're working on that I think is really interesting, especially because our audience is heavily based in Washington, is the monkeypox outbreak and how you're doing work with the government on vaccinations. [Patrick: mm-hmm] How that specifically impacts your users [Patrick: mm-hmm] people who are on the app and what you guys are doing? Cuz I know you are, that's something you're working on.
Patrick: Totally. So, public health is something that has been [pause] top of mind I, I hate to say top of mind, but it, it, it's crucially important to LGBTQ people. One, because it's really tough to access really good healthcare. And huge shout out to the Walter Whitman clinic in D.C., like phenomenal work. That's where I went when I was in D.C.; they really do great stuff. Callen-Lorde in New York is the same, just absolutely wonderful work. But, but public health is a real issue for LGBTQ people.
When monkeypox first broke it was, I wanna say it was the beginning of May. We Grindr, we were immediately aware. I have a colleague whose name is Jack Harrison-Quintana, who is based in D.C. He founded and runs a group at Grindr called Grindr for Equality, and they are Grindr's social good arm. They do incredible work in public health and, y'know, supporting grassroots LGBTQ activists around the world, particularly in the Middle East, and in places where, y'know, where it's basically harder to get money is as gay groups, right?
The U.S. is flooded with gay money. A lot of other places in the world not, not quite as much. So, so, Jack does amazing work and is incredibly plugged in. And I think within like a week of the monkeypox story breaking, he was already talking to the European CDC. And it was, I think, just a few weeks after that, sort of late May, we started sending messages to our users in the U.K. and Europe. And then very shortly thereafter to the users in the U.S. in concert with public health groups.
So in the U.K., it was the U.K. Health and Safety Administration. And in Europe, it was the European CDCs. And in the U.S., it was a group called “Building Healthy Online Communities,” which was formerly part of the San Francisco Aids Foundation and now is independent.
We started working with those groups to send messages to our users. Warning them about the risks of monkeypox and directing them to resources.
We're a social network app, right? Like what can we really do other than connect people with our user base? And so we, we worked really closely with all of these groups. We started working groups in Canada, the U.S. CDC, others. And it was then in, late June or early July. And we were just realizing like, “There's, there's no access to vaccines.”
Patrick: Like they are not on enough vaccines. People are freaking out. The, the case count is going way up, particularly in the U.S. I was sitting in Provincetown, up here in Provincetown, with a friend of mine, State Senator Julian Cyr, who is absolutely phenomenal. You'll have seen him in the news this past week, after Ron DeSantis sent about, y'know, two planes full of migrants to Martha's Vineyard. He represents Martha's Vineyard.
He jumped, Julian jumped on that right away. He is, he's doing incredible work to, to organize, to organize help for those people. So, great guy. So anyway, we're sitting on a park on a bench in Provincetown, and we're just like, “We have to do something about this.” Massachusetts was already doing a phenomenal job of getting vaccines to Provincetown where tons of gay men were and getting those, y'know, getting people, their shots.
But we were hearing from people all over the country, like, “This just isn't happening fast enough.” So we talked to, so we made a couple of calls. We called Dan Baer. Who, y'know who's [Niki: Oh, I do!! Yes! ] at Carnegie Endowment. [Niki: Yeah, absolutely.] And Dan is joining Grindr’s board.
Niki: Oh, Dan and I went to college together. [Patrick: Oh yeah] Here we are just name-dropping.
Patrick: I, I was gonna say like, I hope it's okay. Cuz I love to just talk about the amazing stuff that people are doing. [Niki: Do it!] Great. [Niki: Yeah] Dropping names like left and right.
Niki: Yeah, Hype people. These are people who need to be hyped. Dan and I went to college together, and I'm good friends with his sister. Who's a cybersecurity expert at Amazon.
[Patrick: gasps in amazement] Cyber. [Niki: Yeah, we love it.] We love cyber. That's awesome. So anyway, Dan, Dan starts texting people, connects us. I mean, I think it was within a week. y'know, after, after we started just like saying like we have to do more, we have to do more within, I think, a week of that Jack Harrison-Quintana and I on a phone call with the National Security Council, with their Director of Biohazard and Public Health Safety talking about, “Oh, well, what's going on? What's happening? And how can we help.”
The end of the, the story is like, y'know, this isn't rocket science. It's like, get people, vaccines, get people access to testing and get people the information. And Grindr can really help with that last mile of getting people information, getting information, getting information they need.
Niki: [interrupts] One other thing I would add. And you tell me if this is right, but I think it's, to me, it's obviously not at the scale certainly of the HIV epidemic, but it is not different in the sense that I do think it's got stigma.
Patrick: Oh yeah!
Niki: I think the name monkeypox needs a rebrand. [Patrick: Yeah] Who wants to get that? And I also think it's something where people are thinking “Well, because it's starting first in this community, maybe it's not gonna affect me,” but hi, this is like how public health works. It eventually becomes broader.
Patrick: [big breath] What I will say is that it has not seen; I'm not [interrupts self] Disclaimer, not a public health expert. I am a comms person. Right? So, like, first and foremost [chuckling], don't, don't think of this as any sort of health advice.
But from what I understand, talking to the experts, it, it hasn't seemed to have jumped significantly outside of men who have sex with men. And it does seem primarily to have stayed within that population; case counts right now are going down. And I would defer to, y'know, Dr. Dimitre Daskalakis over at, at the CDC.
He's currently the, the Deputy Coordinator on the monkeypox issue is appointed by, by President Biden. Amazing, amazing guy. But he's probably the person you wanna ask about, like, the why this is happening. I think it's because we've got access to vaccines, but case counts are going down. They never seemed to jump out of men who have sex with men.
So y'know, there, but there was a lot of consternation right in July. And even in August, we did not; we really didn't know what was happening now. We weren't sure what, how it was gonna go. We didn't know if it was gonna get worse. All we knew was right. This is continuing to really, y'know, to, to really spread among men who have sex with men, we have to get them, e have to get them vaccinations, and we have to get them vaccines, and we have to, [interrupts self] right-
And we only have a limited number of vaccines. So it was this whole like fascinating thing where like they ended up instead of doing intramuscular shots, they did intradermal shots for which you need to use less of the actual vaccines. So you could spread it out of many more people. Really, really smart, cool stuff.
Niki: Yes. I know. And here I am as, like, the Debbie Downer, who I also am not a public health expert, but we have bungled the national strategic stockpile in like a terrible way, because we used to have 20 million smallpox vaccines [Patrick: mm-hmm] on hand. And then the FDA spent 10 years sort of like, I don't know, taking (this is so rude) taking smoke breaks [Patrick: tutting] [both chuckle] and like, just like looking at their hands and did not approve a new, better freeze-dried vaccine that would last longer. So those doses expired. [Patrick: mmmh!] And so they're currently testing them to see if they can use them. So we have enough. And then I guess we have raw elements of the vaccine that we need, but it's in Copenhagen?
Anyway. I'm just like, this is, I'm not a public health expert to, but to me it seems.
Patrick: it's been fascinating. It's so fascinating!
Niki: It is. And, and in the defense of the people doing this, they were more worried about smallpox. And at the time this was starting, when we thought about these stockpiles, 9/11, which we just passed the anniversary of, anthrax. [Patrick: Yeah] And so it's like, you can't think about everything at once, and then monkeypox came out of nowhere.
So anyway, I just say that because I think it's important to have the context of sort of public health and these pandemics and how they evolve or epidemics and how they jump and getting on top of it right away is so critical. And I think the work you're doing, which is getting to the population that's most impacted, quickly and getting information. That's how you get on top of this. [Patrick: Yeah] So it doesn't become a bigger issue.
Patrick: And what our, I think what just my personal perspective was like, I was very frustrated. Like I am hearing from all of these people. They're really concerned. They're worried. They're, there's, there's palpable fear. And, and, and a dearth of information and what we found, I was like, but I got, I gotta think that the gays in government are on this, and we're just not getting the word out effectively.
And that's why Jack and I, and a bunch of, we were just like, we gotta talk to some people and start to get, start to disseminate this because that will de-escalate, get, make people a little bit less concerned and know that help is on the way. And lo and behold, that has been, y'know, I, I, I believe pretty true.
Now, I haven't seen numbers recently. The last time I looked, it looked as if white men were getting this vaccine at much higher rates than black and brown people around the country. So there's a great deal more to do to make sure that everybody gets vaccinated and everybody is safe and taken care of. And I think Grindr is still, is doing a lot of work to help get information in that last mile to people about where can you get vaccinated and why should you get vaccinated?
Niki: You have an in-app feature [Patrick: Oh yeah!] that you’ve just announced.
Patrick: Yes. Literally, I think it should be rolling out this week, and for a long time, as I said, public health is top of mind. Again, I hate that phrase, but it's top of mind for LGBTQ people, particularly gay men, after the AIDS crisis.
HIV status is an important question, right? It's something that we communicate about. We are encouraged to, and I encourage people to ask their sexual partners, new sexual partners about HIV status before they have sex, and to get tested regularly. It's super important.
Good sexual health is crucial to encourage that we'v,e for a long time, had a profile feel that lets people disclose their HIV status on, on Grindr. And that's just been, been helpful for the conversation. It's something that the community’s needed. We are making a change such that now you will, instead of just HIV status, we're now actually going to have a profile field that allows people to communicate their vaccination status on meningitis, monkeypox and it and, and COVID-19.
Niki: So you're getting information out to people. This isn't necessarily activism but getting people information they need. Helping them make more informed decisions. And also just allowing quickly, “Oh, I'm 10 feet away from someone. And I know. That they're being as cautious as I am by using a vaccine.” [Patrick: Yeah] So I think this is great.
Patrick: Yeah. And it's something that it, y'know, you do not have to fill out this field. You do not have to disclose. It's totally up to you, but it's something that people are talking about. We actually, our approach to product development and AJ Balance, who's our Chief Product Officer, is super thoughtful about this is you, the app, because it's so flexible, often users are telling us how they wanna use the app with adaptations they're making. So in the profile text field, we, we're just seeing people saying, y'know, “Oh, I have 3X monkeypox, or I have, you have 3 X COVID, 19 and two X monkeypox shots.” And like all of that. So we're like, all right, well maybe we should just build a, a profile field so people can do this really easily. And that's what we're doing and just and just simplify it.
Niki: That's great. [Patrick: Just simplifying] Yes. Now just add their, yeah. Add their Uber rating and you'll be all set!
Patrick: I honestly, I'm gonna bring that back to people and ask if we should put that in.
Niki: I'm telling you it's an indicator of people’s character.
Patrick: I think I'm gonna have to call Uber. We can do a little, and then maybe, maybe we can do a product partnership [Niki: chuckles] whereby like, [Niki: And Lyft and Lyft!] you can call an Uber or a Lyft, right, to take you to your date.
Niki: Okay. Let's shift and end on you guys have big business news happening. [Patrick: [chuckling] Big Business News] You just announced a new, big business. It's big business news. it's true.
Patrick: It's totally true! [Niki: It's true!] It's the, the best part is it can be fun because it's Grindr. It should be fun. I mean, the amazing thing about Grindr is that it is sort of this, like, it is like a, it's an important and historically relevant thing, but. and it's important for the community and we need to take it seriously, but like authentically speaking, like it also has to be fun because it's Grindr.
So we're, so we announced in May that we're going public via SPAC. That deal is sort of expected to close before the end of the year. We're really excited about it. I am thinking about, y'know, sort of how many drag queens we can get at the bell ringing. And, and ahead of that, y'know, so the, the current management team, the CEO, COO, and CFO are straight and they've always wanted, the ownership group of the management team have always wanted to pass it on to, have an, a member of the community who was the CEO and running the company. [Niki: mm-hmm]
And we found the, the person, the name is George Arison. He is formerly the CEO of Shift Technologies, which is which is an end-to-end car trading technology platform. And, he's he's just, y'know, he's stepped back from his duties there, and he's gonna be joining us as the CEO of Grindr at the end of October, which is absolutely amazing.
We also announced a new CFO, Vanna Krantz, who comes to us most recently from Passport. She was the CFO of Masterclass. She was the CFO of Disney Streaming Services. I mean, we are, like, ready to go here.
It's a great business. It's got an amazing social mission. We've got awesome people. And, and I mean, oof, I could go on for hours and hours about all of the care we take to keep our users safe and to protect their privacy, which are two things that people don't think of when it comes to Grindr. But there's tons of misinformation out there. So anyway, I, I just, I get super stoked about this thing, but it's my job to get super stoked about it.
Niki: It absolutely is. And I, I'm actually, I know I said “Big Business News” like that [Patrick: chuckles], but I, it is because to your point. So, last year, 2021, a ton of companies went public that had no path to profitability. You could not understand their business model. [chucklling] Some of them, because of the macroeconomics, it was a huge IPO, but then a drop off once, y'know, you sort of faced reality [Patrick: mm-hmm] and not like a consensual hallucination about their financials [chuckles], but you have a business model. It's clear how you make money. It's clear that you're growing.
And I know you can't talk numbers because you guys are probably in a quiet period, but we're talking a $2 billion potential IPO. It's a big step for Grindr, and we've got Match Group has gone public, and Bumble has gone public. And I think this is, this is one to watch.
Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have those two clear comps in the market. We think that some, we know our margins are best in class, and yeah, we're again, we're a profitable company, a significantly profitable company. We are growing, our EBITDA margins are great. Yeah, it's, it's, it is just a, it's a very good and healthy business.
We have a clear path to growth over the next several years. We're so psyched just to work really, really hard for our users, which is the most important thing.
The user base that we serve are going to be; people are gonna be talking about 'em, right? LGBT people are talked about quite a bit. Uh, used as, unfortunately, used as a wedge issue a lot in politics and, and so, and we're gonna stand by them every chance that we get and just stand up for them and, and do what we can to make sure that we're protecting LGBTQ rights.
Niki: I love it. I love the idea of having some drag queens there at the bell ringing.
Niki: And also I'm, I'm grateful for you coming on because I think a lot of our listeners unless they're in this world, they're gonna start seeing more and more headlines about Grindr. They now know what it is and what the backstory is.
And so, even though this is an app that's been around since 2009, I think it's having a breakthrough moment. And I think, y'know, someone who was at Google and then Goldman Sachs and then startups, and now doing this, you're like perfectly positioned. So I'm delighted for you! And I'm sending you lots of luck with a big and successful IPO.
Patrick: Niki, thank you so much. You're such a; you're such a wonder. Thank you for having me on. Yeah, the, the only consistency in my career, honestly, has been that I, I work for companies that start with a letter G. George- [Niki: laughing] Georgetown, Google, Golden Sachs, Grindr. What's next? I'm gonna be at Grindr for a while.
Niki: Okay, good. Thank you for coming on, Patrick.
Patrick: Thank you, Niki
Niki: Thanks so much for listening. In our next episode, we’re back to digital assets in a conversation with the General Counsel of Ripple. It’s another company you’ve probably seen in the headlines but are about to see a lot more as their lawsuit with the U.S. Government is picking up steam.
Finally, if you have a moment and you like this podcast, please give the show a rating or a review. It helps other people discover Tech’ed Up.