The Genius of Whitney Wolfe Herd
How the Tech Visionary Built Bumble
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Whitney Wolfe Herd
Whitney Wolfe Herd, Founder and CEO of Bumble, is the youngest woman ever to take her company public.
She did so in 2021 at the age of 31, about 7 years after going through one of the darkest periods of her life.
Her story, fueled by ambition and a mission to help women, shows what’s possible when you take a different view of the world, intimately understand your customer, and relentlessly execute to make your vision a reality.
Let’s get to it.
Whitney was born in 1989 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
After moving to Paris with her family at the age of 11, she moved back to Utah to finish high school.
By the time she went to college at Southern Methodist University, she had decided to get into marketing and advertising but was rejected because she failed an entrance exam.
If you already know anything about her story today, you’d see the hilarity in this.
More on that shortly.
Instead, she would major in international studies and become a member of one of the sororities, an important piece for later in her story.
While in college, Whitney showcased her desire to make an impact through entrepreneurship by starting a couple of businesses.
One of them, started in response to the BP oil spill, was a non-profit that sold bamboo totes, with proceeds going to the Ocean Futures Society.
The other, an experiment of sorts started during her senior year, was a clothing line meant to raise awareness of human trafficking and fair trade.
She also had a passion for photography, exploring this for a few months after graduating from SMU, and planting some of the very early seeds for the idea of Bumble:
That was my dream, I wanted to be a Nat Geo photographer and so I went traveling through Southeast Asia and took a lot of photos and I remember on my travels thinking, “Gosh, there's such a disconnect for someone trying to explore a new country or place. It's only TripAdvisor and if you follow TripAdvisor you end up eating a hamburger in Laos at some version of a Hard Rock and this is not really the experience… I thought why can't I get to know a local?”
I want to ride around on the back of a moped in Laos and I want to go understand what do they do here, like, where do the 18 year olds go? What was their life like? What does their day look like?
And I thought, “Why is there not an app that does this? Why is there not something on my phone that can put me in touch with these people?” But then, of course, that idea fell by the wayside, went into the back of my brain somewhere and by chance one day I would end up in this wild world of connecting people on the internet so some of these things were already brewing and already starting to bubble up in ways that wouldn't totally expose themselves yet.
After her trip to Southeast Asia, Whitney would find herself at a serendipitous dinner in Los Angeles, which led to her taking a job at an LA-based startup incubator, Hatch Labs, started by IAC in 2011.
This would turn into two unforgettable years.
In 2012, Whitney worked at the startup Cardify, one of the companies in the Hatch Labs incubator.
This project, led by Sean Rad, would ultimately end up being abandoned, but it led to Whitney working on a dating app called MatchBox which would become Tinder.
Whitney was the co-founder and VP of Marketing for Tinder and, although she never did get that marketing degree, she found creative ways to acquire Tinder’s early users:
With Tinder, I essentially went back to my alma mater at SMU, I just graduated so a lot of my best friends were still in school so I got access to the campus, and I would start at the sororities and then go to the fraternity so I'd essentially have all the young women download it and then run to the fraternity and then they would download it and then everyone would start connecting.
But this wasn’t all she did.
She continually found ingenious ways to signup new users:
I'll never forget I took the photo of one of my guy friends back then who all the young women had a mega crush on, and then I took the photo of my best friend Danielle, who was very well liked on campus, and I went into Dani's journalism class because she was still a student and I basically snuck into her journalism class and used Photoshop and I took the Tinder screens and I put the guy's face on one and her face on the other and said, “Find out who likes you on campus.”
And then I saved it to a file, because this is the olden days at this point, and I went to FedEx, which is like the office supply store across the street, and I printed a thousand copies and I quite literally handed different students on campus twenty dollars to go distribute them under dorm doors and put them on windshields and to put them in their different social clubs and to essentially distribute these flyers everywhere…
That was that was just one of the tactics. I used to go and put it all over campus and then I had a few t-shirts printed up that said, “Don't ask for my number, find me on Tinder,” and I had my girlfriends wear the t-shirts and we went to the bar and so I gave them a couple hundred bucks and they would go around and buy drinks and then when people would ask for their number they'd essentially say you have to download Tinder.
As I’ve written about previously with Sara Blakely and numerous other entrepreneurs, they’re all relentlessly resourceful - Whitney is clearly no different.
I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s insightful essay on this repeatedly when thinking about the world’s best founders.
And with Whitney, she was so close to the customer that it was easy for her to market to them. She knew them. She was in the target market herself.
The timing was also important:
There was a superpower in the timing of it all because I just graduated and I knew all of these people so if some random startup founder knocks on a sorority door the police are coming, you know? Like, you can't do that, so I felt like I had this insider hook because I was technically an extension of that by proxy because I had just been on the college campus and all my girlfriends were still there so they were part of these sororities and all my guy friends were there they were part of these fraternities.
And this contributed to Tinder’s insane early growth.
In the first two years, they had one billion matches and were getting 800 million swipes per day on the app.
But, it would be a tumultuous time for Whitney, and she’d leave the company in a very public way.
Without getting into all the details because I don’t think it’s worth resurfacing, Whitney filed a lawsuit against Tinder for sexual harassment on June 30, 2014, two months after resigning.
She ultimately reached a settlement in September 2014, but the lawsuit was very public, and, to put things bluntly, it was an absolute shitstorm for Whitney.
She’d describe it as one of the darkest times of her life, saying, “I was literally broken.”
But from the darkness, she found light.
After originally having the idea for a company called Merci, a female-only social network where “You could only be kind to one another,” she was convinced to start another dating company by the now multi-billionaire Andrey Andreev.
But first, Andrey tried to hire Whitney as the CMO of his dating company.
She described the start after Andrey’s attempt failed attempt:
But he wanted me to go run marketing at his dating company, and I thought he had lost his mind.
And so, I told him what I was going to do. I’m going to start this new age of social media. And he was like no, you’re not. You’re going to do that in dating with me.
And I was like you lost your mind. But we actually ended up talking through it, and the more thought I gave to this new concept of a dating app that could be engineered for women by women, the need became more apparent.
And so, that’s how I shifted from this concept of Merci into what is now Bumble, which was very much the similar concept, if you think about it. Creating a brand rooted in kindness, a product rooted in good behavior, and really putting women in charge of that, creating the female internet. And that was really the beginning of Bumble.
She went further talking about the idea for Bumble in another interview, describing how she rebuffed Andrey’s attempts to become CMO of his company:
First of all, I'm not for hire. I'm starting my own company. I must be founder and CEO of whatever I do next. I cannot work for someone, I just I have to be my own boss and you know I got to give him a lot of credit because he trusted that and he said, “Okay do whatever you want to do but my one stipulation is it has to be in dating because I know dating and I want to get behind a dating product.”
So when I was sitting there we had kind of agreed to okay we're going to do this dating app what's it going to be… what about Merci? I want it to be Merci. I want it to be about women and I want it to be women-only. I want safety and kindness and accountability. There's no internet spaces for women. Nothing's been built for women. We have to do this for women.
And then it kind of just all clicked and I sat there and within literally minutes it all just wrote itself. I said, “Wait a second, I know the problem, women don't go first, men do. Men message as many women as they can, women are getting inundated, they never respond, the lack of response is causing a rejection, and the rejection is triggering an aggression, and that aggression is now translating into harassment and this is why women are being abused on the dating apps because if only they would go first the man wouldn't feel rejected, they'd feel empowered, it would totally calibrate this whole experience.”
And I said, “Okay great, I know what we're gonna do. Women have to talk first on this product and they only have 24 hours to do it.” I knew nobody else could conceptualize the way I would explain it so I was like, “Thanks, Cinderella, the pumpkin, and the carriage, and men can send one extend one time a day to capture their attention if they want to.”
And the original name for Bumble was going to be Moxie, but Whitney couldn’t trademark it because others had already done so in a number of domains.
How did she land on Bumble as a name?
Someone on the early team came up with the name Bumble, Whitney hated it at first, but then it all clicked:
It was not until all of these really cute catch phrases started coming up, people on our team and friends were asking what do you think about this name or this name or this name.
And all of a sudden, these catch phrases were coming up like be the queen bee of Bumble. Find your honey on Bumble. And it was in that moment that we said, okay, this is it. This is brandability. This is how you brand something. And that was it. Off to the races we went.
And she was obsessed with the details:
I was obsessed with every little detail of the branding on day one because that stuff matters, it’s like the code of its existence for the next however many, hopefully, dozens and dozens of years to follow.
Of course, Whitney wasn’t alone.
When asked about early hiring at Bumble, she offered up this:
I really just tried to look for good humans that had potential.
So actually, it’s interesting, a lot of the folks that I hired early on, they would not have gotten jobs off of LinkedIn, like, no one would have hired them based on a series of just random criteria, but my god when you spoke to them and when you just got in their mind for two minutes, you’re like, “You have so much potential.”
The team is everything.
And that team executed more great marketing ideas, fueled by a deep understanding of the customer:
If you understand what moves people and what motivates people then you have this opportunity to connect with them on a real leve.
I mean we've done things that are ridiculous. So I remember we would make these signs that had the big X's, you know like you're not allowed to and they said, “No Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat, no Bumble.” This was like week three of bumble and we would post those all over the universities so there was this association where it was like, “Wait, I can't do the things I really want to do. I want to sit in class and Snapchat. I want to sit in class and Instagram. What the hell is Bumble?” and so we were essentially seeding this psychological curiosity.
And then we were actually sending young women wearing Bumble shirts into classes 10 or 15 minutes late interrupting a class of 300 people and saying, “Oh sorry, wrong room,” but everyone's looking at this young woman or young man whoever it was wearing a Bumble t-shirt, so we were seeding curiosity in this like, “Why is Bumble everywhere?” type of thing.
And so a lot of people think, “I can just go start an app and I'll just buy some Instagram ads and I'll just be successful,” but if people only knew the fraction of the insane everyday little hacks that I did and our team did to bring this to life.
We were the first people, certainly the first tech brand, to do humor accounts to pay for the humor memes… way back years and years ago I remember reaching out to one of these meme accounts and they're like, “Wait, you want to pay us to… I'm confused how does that work?” and we're like, “Okay here's the deal, we'll give you 100 bucks,” or whatever it was, we turn around a year later that same account is charging a hundred thousand dollars a post so there's also something about luck and timing being just right before something.
Luck and timing. Definitely the underappreciated aspects of a successful business.
The other critical part of Bumble’s story that I just want to highlight again is the simple key differentiator that Whitney came up with: women go first.
It’s the whole premise that Bumble was built on.
And it seems so simple, maybe obvious in hindsight, but we have to remember - nobody was doing this.
My oh my did that pay off for them!
Bumble launched in December 2014, about 6 months after Whitney filed the lawsuit with Tinder.
By May 2015, they have 500k users, 200k messages being sent per day, and 15% week-over-week growth.
Bumble is a team of six people at this time.
By the end of 2015, Whitney would have a team of 13 and more than 15 million unique conversations had taken place on the platform, with 80 million matches made.
In March 2016, Bumble launches Bumble BFF, a feature in the app that helps people make new friends. This is at a time when they were still growing like crazy, having added 1.5 million Bumble users in the first couple of months of 2016. By the end of 2021, 15% of Bumble users had also tried BFF.
2016 was also the year they began monetizing via in-app purchases, charging $9.99 per month for three additional features:
The first feature, Beeline, will pre-populate a queue of users who have already “liked” you, so you can skip the swiping and match with them by just tapping yes. While this takes away the mystery of traditional swipe-based dating (will my suitor also swipe yes?), it makes the process much more efficient.
Rematch is exactly what it sounds like – it keeps expired matches in your queue (Bumble matches expire in 24 hours if no conversation is started), so you can try again to get their attention.
The last one, Busy Bee, lets you extend the 24-hour window so you can have another day to try to match with someone. This was previously available for men in the form of “extend”, a feature that was only available on a day. Now paying male users will get unlimited extends, and the feature and will now be available to (paying) female users for the first time.
For context, Tinder at this time had amassed 46 million registered users but had only a 10% annual growth rate.
Whitney also reportedly turned down a massive $450 million offer from Match Group to acquire Bumble in early 2017 and again later in 2017 for more than $1 billion. At this point, Whitney owns about 20% of Bumble.
And in October 2017 they launch Bumble Bizz, similar to Bumble BFF but with a focus on professional networking.
By November 2017, Bumble had gained 22+ million registered users since its launch, achieving 70% year-over-year growth. They’d do about $100 million in sales that year.
It’s clear Bumble Bizz and Bumble BFF were investments in the future, and given how well the Bumble product itself was doing, they didn’t necessarily need to expand, but did so in ways that seem to make sense.
In their 2022 annual report, this is mentioned:
We have also invested, and expect to continue to invest, significant resources in growing our products to support increasing usage as well as new lines of business, new products, new product extensions and other initiatives to generate revenue. The launch of our Bumble BFF product extension in 2016 and our Bumble Bizz product extension in 2017, which have not yet generated significant revenue for us, are examples.
This was obviously years after they had launched the products, and while Bizz and BFF aren’t significant revenue for Bumble yet, they very well could be in the not-too-distant future.
But my friends, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves.
Let’s go back to 2018.
Business Success, Personal Struggles
By June 2018, 3+ years in, Bumble has 29 million registrations and is approaching 100 employees.
Bumble, by all accounts, is crushing it.
And yet, things weren’t always rosy for Whitney:
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard that either at points – tell me – it’s the internet. So, who knows if this is true or not? But, at some points, you were waking up every two hours to check your email, or you’d wake up at 4:30, check your email, and then, go back to sleep and wake up again at 6:30.
Whitney Wolfe Herd: I did that for years.
Tim Ferriss: You did that for years?
Whitney Wolfe Herd: Actually, that has just now started to slow down. And I still do it sometimes.
Whitney is clearly incredibly mission-driven and in that interview with Tim Ferriss, she showcases her level of commitment to that mission.
But you can also see the toll the company has at times taken on her.
She’s very open about it all, which I really appreciate, and if you watch some of her interviews, you’ll see her talk about how she’s dealt with her anxiety over time, something I’ve included at the end of this piece in the “Whitney’s Wisdom” section.
Even with her personal challenges, Bumble continues to thrive, and in 2019 there would be a big change.
By 2019, Bumble did $240 million in revenue.
In November 2019, Andrey Andreev, who was instrumental in pushing Whitney to get back into the dating app world with Bumble, sold his entire stake in MagicLab to Blackstone.
MagicLab was the main backer of Bumble, and owned stakes in Bumble, Badoo, and other dating apps.
In the process, Whitney became CEO of the whole company, with her stake being around 19%.
Blackstone also made an additional investment in the company with the deal and valued the entire company, which included Bumble, at $3 billion.
And here was Whitney’s quote in the announcement:
This transaction is an incredibly important and exciting moment for Bumble and the MagicLab group of brands and team members.
Blackstone is world-class at maximizing the success of entrepreneur-led companies, which presents a tremendous opportunity. We are very excited to build the next chapter with them.
I am honored to take on the role of CEO of the group. I will strive to lead the group with a continued values-based and mission-first focus, the same one that has been core to Bumble since I founded the company five years ago. We will keep working towards our goal of recalibrating gender norms and empowering people to connect globally, and now at a much faster pace with our new partner.
Not long after, Whitney would take another big step for the company - going public.
The Bumble IPO in February 2021 raised $2.2 billion from investors and with it, Whitney became the youngest female founder to take a company public, at only 31 years old.
The stock debuted at $76 and has struggled since, but the stock price isn’t Whitney’s main concern:
I’m not obsessed with the stock.
I’m obsessed with the customer, the team, the innovation we’re planning for the future.
It’s a sentiment you hear from a lot of CEOs - they’re trying to build great companies, not worry about stock price, because, if you build a great company, the rest will take care of itself.
Being a public company has its positives and negatives with one drawback being it takes focus away:
Ramping up for earnings calls every 90 days, it’s just a week of your life you don’t get to focus on the company.
And with the level of scale Bumble is at, the importance is in what they choose NOT to do:
When we have this type of scale, the world is literally your oyster, you can work with anyone, you can team up with any brand, you have access beyond, you know, our early founding wildest imagination, and so I think when you’re starting your company it’s like, “What can we do? We’ll do anything. We’ll take anything that we can get.” And now it’s really about being extremely protective and very precise about what not to do.
And to even get to this point is remarkable.
There are thousands of dating apps and websites, and yet only a few are used prominently.
Bumble is one of them.
And Whitney is the driving force behind that.
In 2021, Bumble did $765 million in revenue. The next year they did more than $900 million in revenue.
And in 2023, Whitney’s big focus, among other things, is Bumble BFF.
Given how prevalent the issue of loneliness has become in today’s society, it makes perfect sense.
It’s also a massive opportunity for growth.
But there’s a big challenge ahead too: AI.
Specifically, keeping AI from being harmful to their users.
More recently, Bumble acquired Official, an app that helps couples form stronger relationships, a continued effort of expansion for Bumble:
We’re really trying to build the entire relationship journey and take care of the entire relationship from start to finish.
Overall, Whitney is looking at 3 major buckets for growing Bumble and their relationship ecosystem:
Bumble Date, Fruitz, and Badoo - The core of their business
Build or Buy Strategy - What extends the user lifecycle
Forray Beyond Love - Bumble BFF, Bumble Bizz, and more broadly, Kind Connections, but platonically
But why does Whitney continue to build Bumble?
She offers her thoughts in the perfect closing to this piece:
I just I feel very passionate about what I'm doing and when I stop feeling passionate I'll go have a piña colada and then I'll go do something different but this feels like my life's work.
I try to be a good mom and I try to be a good wife and I try to be a good to myself and take those times and I think anyone that sits around and tells you like, “Oh it's all about balance,” and I mean maybe they're right, maybe they've got some secret that I don't know about, but my god I don't know, I don't think any day is fully balanced. I don't think any of us go to sleep every night feeling like wow I just got a 10 out of 10 on every single category today. I think you just do your best.
For me, I get joy out of pushing this brand forward. I get joy out of the women that come up to me and tell me that they were in an abusive marriage for 20 years and read a story about Bumble and left their spouse and got on Bumble and are happy in healthy relationships. That's what this is all about for me.
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.
On dealing with anxiety:
Well, it definitely has become a handicap, at points. But I would say 85 percent of the time, it’s a fuel. And, actually, back to the doctor talk, my doctor said something really interesting to me. And it’s something that stuck with me. I said to him one day, I was like I don’t know if I can deal with this anymore. My anxiety is just so extreme. It’s paralyzing me, at certain points. Do I need to get on a medicine? Do I need to be medicated for this? And he responded, “Just keep doing good work. It will recalibrate the way you feel.”
And when I thought through that, and I was like if I can channel this energy and this anxiety and channel it into doing good work, meaning work that affects others in a positive way, it genuinely works.
On starting to take her health more seriously in 2018:
Here, you go to work, and you can create as much success as you’re able to. But you have nothing without your health. You have nothing without your mental health. You have nothing without your physical health. And so, that’s why I’m kind of getting into these books because I think it’s important to have that type of balance.
On her best investment:
The best thing I’ve ever invested into is time and dedication into my team at Bumble. That’s 100 percent the best thing I’ve ever invested in. And it’s been such a dedicated effort over the last 3.5 years, but really investing that extra hour or that extra day or that extra thought or that extra get to know someone. That’s the stuff that counts the most because, when you do that, you instill more than just a job opportunity.
You give more than just an opening at a company. You really leave them with the same values and the mission becomes engrained in them. And they’re able to do their job in a way that is almost immune to competition because they’re so on the same page with why you started the company to begin with.
On helping her team solve problems:
So, what I’ve told the team, and what the team has really learned, and they do it on their own, which is amazing, if you have a problem, please don’t come talk to me about it, unless you have a suggested solution.
I can’t just listen to problems. Come with two potential solutions. Like, hey, Whitney, we’ve got a huge issue. This situation has completely crumbled, and we’re committed to this or whatever happened. My suggested solution is either A) we do X, Y, and Z, or B) we could do this. And here are the consequences of both. And this is what is going to happen in each scenario.
And then, we can talk through that. And it goes to show that someone has actually thought through the other side of the fire. How do we get out of here? What’s the exit strategy? Not just oh, we were in a fire.
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