A Conversation with Bumble Founder & CEO, Whitney Wolfe Herd

Whitney Wolfe Herd, Bumble

In 2014, Whitney Wolfe Herd launched Bumble as, “the only dating platform where women make the first move…” Today, Bumble has over 55 million users in 150 countries.  As Whitney notes herself, “Bumble has now grown far beyond a dating app into a networking platform, allowing people of all genders to make empowered connections in all areas of their lives, whether that means you’re seeking a romantic relationship, making new friendships or growing your professional network.”

Like many of the world’s fastest growing entrepreneurial companies, Bumble is rooted around real pain points, faced by millions of people, which are solved elegantly, intuitively and engagingly.

I caught up with Whitney to learn more about her entrepreneurship journey, and what it takes to build a successful scale-up business.

Q:  Did you set out to be an entrepreneur?

[Whitney Wolfe Herd]:  I didn’t go to business school to take a formal job at a formal company, nor did I code a brand-new product in my dorm room…. I don’t come from the kind of background that would ever lead me, from a historical standpoint, to the career I’m in.  Credentials don’t always define who someone is, or who they’re going to be.

When I was in college, I wanted to go into marketing and advertising – I felt I had a knack for it and was passionate about it.  I had my hopes shattered when I was denied for a marketing and advertising course at my university – and went with my backup choice of global studies (which was really interesting!).  On reflection – the exam was riddled with questions that I didn’t feel embodied what true marketing and consumer approaches should be – it was lots of tactics around cost, ROI and nothing about humanity – nothing about speaking to human personalities and understanding them.  Global studies ended up being the best marketing degree I could have gotten – you took classes on globalisation, on women around the world, on international politics, on sociology, psychology, anthropology.  And truly it’s the understanding of humans, human studies.  And that’s the foundation of any consumer products, whether that be Bumble or Tinder or anything else.

The only way to engineer virality and make a product work is to understand the consumer, and that changes from city to city, from country to country.

When I completed my degree, I had no intention of building a dating app – I didn’t even know what one would be (I don’t think anyone did at that time).  I set off to go explore the world… I went to South East Asia for a few months, spent time volunteering, and whilst I was there, I had this a-ha moment! Whether you’re helping people, travelling, building a business, whatever it is… if you don’t have access to technology, you have nothing – that’s when I decided to go work in the tech space.

Q:  How did your entrepreneurship journey begin?

[Whitney Wolfe Herd]:  I serendipitously ended up at a dinner in Los Angeles and met a couple of individuals who were working out of an incubator under the wings of Match.  I ended up working there, on a completely different product – there was no tinder at the time – it was a little side-gig that one of the coders built at a hackathon, but I saw huge potential… I’d just come out of college and I really felt that young women and men on campus would use a product like that.  I was there for 2 years, got a lot of insight, learned a lot about consumer behaviour, learned a lot about what women weren’t getting from the digital space, and that really led me to my next chapter.

A while later, I received an email from Andrey Andreev – we’d met back in 2013, and he’d always said he wanted to speak to me when I had my next step after Tinder.  We got speaking – he was really convincing – and said, ‘Hey! You should come be the CMO for my dating app…’ – at the time I was allergic to dating apps and didn’t ever wanted to be in the space again.  I told him, ‘thank you so much, it’s really kind of you to have that belief in me – I’d love to work with you, but I want to start my own company, and be CEO… I’m thinking of starting a social network, where the currency is compliments, just for girls and women…’ –

I’d had a really tumultuous summer where I was being abused on the internet by strangers, and I really wanted to clean-up the internet for young girls.  I shared this vision with Andrey and he said, ‘that’s a great vision, I believe in it.  I see these issues all the time on the internet and there’s definitely something here…. Why don’t we turn the concept into a dating app?’ – I thought he was mad, I thought he’d lost his mind, but you know what…. He was absolutely right – there was a huge opportunity to improve the dating space for women.

We sat down, brainstormed what a dating app for women would look like… how it would work…. How our past experiences could be drawn on…. and it came down to one thing. Women were never in the driver’s seat with dating.  It always came down to the man to take the lead, to ask the girl…. There was this playbook where the guy has the power, the girl is weak and fragile waiting to be saved by Prince Charming… and this is disempowering for both sides.

We decided to flip the script, and empower people through connections, reducing rejections on the man’s side, and empowering women to make the first move and be confident.   That was the beginning of Bumble – and here we are, 5 years later, with almost 60 million users globally….

People write that Andrey was a mere investor or he was only important in the beginning.  Him and I built this company together from day 1 to right now, and there wouldn’t be a Bumble without him, there wouldn’t be a Bumble without me.

Bumble is giving people so much opportunity now…. our product was created to engineer opportunities, whether love, friendship or work.  Bumble is a tool to give you access beyond your walls and to open-up the world to you in ways that nobody can really explain.  The power of even one new connection in your life is unbelievable – it can lead to a family, to love, friendship, children, adventures, new careers, hobbies and more.  Connections are the root of everything we do and everything we are, and Bumble really does empower those.

Q:  What is the secret sauce of building a scale business?

[Whitney Wolfe Herd]:  A good business has a lot of ingredients, not just one.  You have a lot of business that may have a great marketing team, but a poor product – or an incredible product, and poor marketing.

At Tinder, I’d been a big part of engineering network effect and I knew how to do it, and understood how to speak to a consumer and build an authentic brand – that said, I had the perfect partner, because Andrey brought everything to the table that I didn’t have; a robust infrastructure, 12 years of user data points, and the incredible technology he had spent so many years building.  He and I were very much the ying to each other’s yang in the sense that he could not have been further disconnected from the branding and marketing world, and I could not have been from his world. Together, it was the perfect storm!  I was able to go to market and build an incredible brand with network effect, build a team culture and spirit, but the product worked beautifully because of Andrey’s contributions.

Q:  What keeps you resilient in your role?

[Whitney Wolfe Herd]:  When I left Tinder, the whole world was calling me names, telling me I had nothing to do with the success, and that I was just a chirping young woman who was looking for attention.  I knew that wasn’t the case, but It shattered me that my contributions were being misconstrued.

I had this burning passion in me to prove to myself, and on behalf of other women, that if my voice was being stifled… and if I was being treated a certain way… that I had to stand up.  What type of example would I set to other women and girls? I had to show that if you get knocked off the horse, you get right back up.

I had to really make a serious decision at that moment, and at that point I had to say that this is bigger than myself, I have an opportunity here, I’m very fortunate in the sense that I have opportunity via Andrey and I have opportunity via my contributions in the past few years, what I learned in my career, and I could actually go out and make a difference.  And I felt like that was my only choice, so that has really been the fuel.

The mission at Bumble is what gets me out of bed every single day.  We’ve proven over a billion times that women will make the first move (that’s how often they’ve done it on Bumble).  There was a point where I was told that wouldn’t happen even once.  When you have opportunity in this world you have to really take it and run with it, because there’s too many women around the globe that just don’t.

We’re also investing in businesses with the Bumble Fund.  What good is success if you can’t pay it forward… what is the point of all of this if it can’t have a catalytic reaction or effect on the world.  I just lean back on myself as the 18 year old before the Tinder opportunity happened and look at other women in similar positions and think, ‘what would have happened if they were given the chance…. Or if X or Y had been different… if they had someone to believe in them

The world would be a different place today if we would find a way to really empower girls and women globally.  It is the solution, and I’m definitely not the only person that thinks that.  There’s many more intelligent people than me in the world that fundamentally believe that’s the solution.

Q:  What would be your advice to the next generation of entrepreneurs?

[Whitney Wolfe Herd]:  Nobody will ever be an entrepreneur for the sake of being one.  No successful entrepreneur ever woke up and was like, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur…’ Almost every successful entrepreneur woke-up and experienced or identified a problem they passionately and vigorously wanted to solve.  The best entrepreneurs in the world are problem solvers – they want to make the world a better place through solving very precise problems – It’s a winning formula and it cannot be disingenuous.  That’s the most important piece, you can’t just sit around and throw darts at a map and say ‘that’s a problem’.  It should be something you feel deeply in your heart, because the reason I say that, being an entrepreneur and trying to get a business off the ground, whether you have the support system that I had with Andrey and the incredible infrastructure which was very rare, whether you have that or nothing it’s equally as hard.  It’s equally as painful, because the truth is humans don’t like change.  And the people in the arena are the nastiest people, they criticise you, they hate on you, they throw things at you (figuratively), and it hurts.  It hurts to be on the stage, and it can be scary, and it can be really, really gut-wrenching.  But if deep down in your heart the problem you’re trying to solve is something that is so important to you, that will erase the noise of the millions of voices in the arena.

You really don’t let criticism stifle you at that point, and you can’t get eaten alive by people’s opinions… You have to ignore the naysayers and let that actually fuel you.

I always think about a basketball team, they play on someone else’s home court and they’re booed the entire time.  They have to just look around them at their teammates and keep their eye on the ball and remember that those boos are out of fear and out of terror that their other team is going to win.  And that’s exactly what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.  You’re going to be booed at, you’re going to be – people are going to try to knock you down.  You have to just know that you can still win the game.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.