The rise and fall of online dating queen Whitney Wolfe Herd

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Whitney Wolfe Herd changed online dating for millions of women with a simple idea, inspired by her own unhappy experience.

Wolfe Herd was 24 when she left Tinder, the matchmaking app she had co-founded, and sued the company claiming “atrocious sexual harassment and sex discrimination”, largely by her co-founder and former romantic partner Justin Mateen.

Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and chief executive officer of Bumble.Credit: Bloomberg

After filing the lawsuit, which was later settled by Tinder, she was met by a barrage of online abuse, which would send her into a spiral of depression, drinking and insomnia.

“I was only 24, and already I felt like I was finished,” she later wrote.

Instead, she was convinced by Andrey Andreev, a Russian billionaire, to change the rules of online dating. Bumble, the app she founded, required women to make the first move when a couple matched up, in a stroke cutting down much of the abuse women experience in online dating. (Andreev sold his stake in the company to private equity giant Blackstone after rumours of fostering a toxic workplace at his companies, which he denied.)

“Women typically have never been in the position where they are empowered to, or encouraged to make the first move,” says Jess Carbino, who worked as a sociologist for Tinder and Bumble.

“Whitney completely and totally changed the paradigm.”

It turned out to be a $US13 billion ($20.2 billion) idea.

In early 2021, when her dating empire went public on Wall Street, Wolfe Herd’s stake made her the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. At 31, she was also the youngest woman to take a company public in the US.

Wolfe Herd rang the opening bell of the Nasdaq stock market in New York with her one-year-old son on her hip. “This is what leadership looks like,” the company’s Instagram account cheered.

But this turned out to be a high point. In less than three years since, Bumble has lost more than four-fifths of its value and has rarely turned a profit.

Popularity is one thing. Turning the apps into successful businesses is another proposition.

On Monday, Wolfe Herd announced she was stepping down as chief executive.

Wolfe Herd will become executive chair in January and said she would continue to be deeply involved.

However, her departure comes at a critical juncture not only for Bumble but for all online dating apps. The first generation of users are now settling down and dating apps face fresh challenges to convince new cohorts to sign up.

Tinder, the first major dating service for the smartphone era, was launched 11 years ago, transforming online dating from a somewhat embarrassing last resort to the most common way young people form relationships.

A monitor displays Whitney Wolfe Herd ringing the opening bell during Bumble’s initial public offering in front of the Nasdaq market site in New York on February 11, 2021.Credit: Bloomberg

One in five 25- to 34-year-olds in Britain used online dating, Ofcom found when it conducted a survey in 2021. For the adult population as a whole, it was one in 10.

Tinder was the most popular, followed by Bumble and Hinge, which focuses on forming relationships between people who have mutual friends.

Popularity is one thing. Turning the apps into successful businesses is another proposition.

Like dieticians and driving instructors, online dating apps are something of a contradiction: they lose customers when they succeed. When they don’t, customers might ask what the point of using them is.

Despite claims that online dating has become an exhausting battleground, usage is at a record high. There is still a wide pool of singletons. But the majority of those on the apps do not pay money.

Bumble charges a monthly fee for users who want power features, such as seeing those who have already “swiped right” on a user’s profile. Yet those who pay are a small minority.

Although dating apps remain popular, the current generation of daters are proving more elusive than the Millennials who first signed up to Bumble in large numbers, particularly when it comes to paying up.

“If you think about Gen Z, not everyone has disposable income at that time,” Wolfe Herd told investors in August.

The company is responding with cheaper subscriptions for younger users, and has acquired Fruitz, a dating app aimed at Gen Z (users specify what type of relationship they are looking for with a choice of fruit emojis).

Meanwhile, the pool of potential older users is shrinking as more Millennials partner up. Bumble has sought to add non-dating features to hang on to users, such as a friend-finding app, BFF, a professional networking service, Bumble Bizz, and an app for couples, Official.

Bumble launched video chat in 2019.

Carbino says that dating app usage is often fleeting, making customers unreliable. “People cycle on and off the apps, they become disillusioned, so they stop using it for a period. And then they sign up again.”

The number of paying users has picked up in recent months, but investors have soured on online dating as the economic picture darkens, seeing it as an easily discarded expense during a cost-of-living crisis.

Bumble’s share price slump has come despite Wolfe Herd seeking to ride the artificial intelligence boom, promising that AI could become a powerful digital matchmaker.

On Tuesday night, the company disappointed shareholders again, revealing a slowdown in user growth, from 20 per cent three months ago to 16 per cent, and a 13 per cent year-on-year drop in quarterly profits to $23 million.

Bumble’s founder is no longer a billionaire, with a net worth of $US510 million according to Forbes. Shares fell further when Wolfe Herd stepped down, despite proclaiming that her successor Lidiane Jones, the head of office messaging app Slack, would bring about Bumble’s “most exciting chapter to date”.

Investors may have lost faith in Wolf Herd’s matchmaking powers.

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