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Female Disruptors: Madeline McKinnon Of ‘Feels’ On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Better to have it not need it, than need it not have it: My mom has said this to me for as long as I can remember, usually in the context of bringing a jacket when I go out. But the principle applies everywhere. I’ve learned to come prepared, have a backup plan and expect things to not work out seamlessly. Our U.S. launch strategy at Feels has changed significantly since we first started, and as we progress, we’ve iterated and continue to build back up plans, because you never know when you’ll need it!

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Madeline McKinnon.

Madeline McKinnon is a co-founder and U.S. General Manager of Feels. Before joining the Gen Z dating app, she led user acquisition at Lover App, funded by Tinder’s founder Sean Rad among others, and The Action Network, a sports betting media company acquired for $240 million. Madeline studied Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The University of San Francisco before joining five startups on their growth and marketing teams. Based in NYC, Madeline is passionate about ethical social media usage, environmentalism and mentorship.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been an athlete, and I think some of my best personality traits come from being on sports teams as a child. I went to college in San Francisco where I was able to intern at several tech startups and early on realized that building a business felt like play to me; it was scrappy, required wearing multiple hats, and being part of a team, similar to sports.

Actually, many aspects of startup culture mirror being on a sports team — from working to each other’s strengths, unearthing a fierce competitive drive, showing up as an empathetic team player and simultaneously as a leader. I fell in love with the startup world, but even more, the promise of a team that I could count on and lead.

I moved to New York after graduating and saw a friend become very successful in online advertising.

I told myself I want to do that.

I found a mentor, took a course online and started a position at an agency where I lead the media department. After a few years, I left the agency to run online app marketing and paid media affiliate business of a sports betting startup. After they were acquired, I ran the Growth Division for a UK-based sex-tech app before co-founding Feels in the US and developing our launch strategy.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’ve been conditioned to believe that to find someone you are compatible with on a dating app, you must swipe right, judging them on their appearance alone. Who created this standard? Two men, 10 years ago. The way we use dating apps today is broken and dehumanizing. Feels vehemently rejects this norm and has completely transformed how we interact on dating apps.

On Feels, there’s no swiping — you scroll through a fully immersive video-first interface and react to another user’s content, similar to a social network. We’ve successfully integrated a key component that has been missing from the dating app experience: context to your connection. Profiles on Feels are playful and authentic, composed of videos, photos and personality-based questions. Inbound messages are also broken out into two categories: users who only reacted to your content and users who wrote you a personal message. Our focus is to facilitate true connection between two people, not inundate them with superficial conversations and matches.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was fired from one of my first internships at a well-known corporate retail and e-commerce brand. I spent the first 3 weeks at one of their brick-and-mortar stores to get a sense of their product line where I met and connected with several sales associates. They asked me to take some feedback back to the corporate headquarters, including the lack of Wi-Fi in the stores, 15-year-old computers and unrealistic sales goals.

When I finally started at the corporate office, the CEO welcomed the intern class and asked us all what we had learned from the previous weeks. I promptly stood up and gave the criticisms — yikes! Again that week, I spoke out at a meeting I had been invited to with C-level executives, criticizing an embellished narrative the company had adopted about sustainably sourcing their products.

I was quietly dismissed soon after. But this was a good learning experience I needed at that time in life. I learned to listen and evaluate a situation from multiple perspectives and people. I’ve actually integrated this principle into the Feels user tests I conduct, making sure to seek out people from different backgrounds to gain greater insight and feedback about the product.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My mentors have all been my managers at some point in my career. I credit one for outlining the path of what I have built in the last two years; without him advocating and supporting me I wouldn’t be where I am today. During the pandemic we spent hours on video calls every day, him patiently walking me through new media and leadership strategy — providing gentle, constructive feedback and celebrating my wins. In a time when we were all physically isolated, I filled a void of loneliness through our friendship and grew professionally.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Democracies are a great example of a structure that continue to be the most progressive and equitable form of government. In the U.S. this past year, and recently in Europe, we’ve seen standing democracies disrupted followed by civil unrest, civilian casualties and widespread fear. Though not perfect, a democratic government with decentralized power is one system that we should stand to preserve.

I always try to look at product and service innovation in a human-centered design framework, which allows me to sympathize with individuals outside of myself and weigh the pros/cons of industry disruption. One easy way to distill if an industry is ripe for disruption is to identify if there is a resounding pain point from its target audience. If there isn’t one company in the space addressing this concern, it’s time for things to change.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Don’t react emotionally: I used to dread yearly reviews where it’s inevitable you’ll receive good and bad feedback. It’s natural to be defensive with the bad, and it’s still a learning process for me to sit with critical feedback, but I’m working on listening more, digesting and looking at situations objectively.

You’re the sum of the 3 people you spend your time with: One way I take care of myself is surrounding myself with positive, motivating and inspiring people. I’m a firm believer in the universal theory of attraction, and when my friends are making moves, it seems we all ride that wave.

Better to have it not need it, than need it not have it: My mom has said this to me for as long as I can remember, usually in the context of bringing a jacket when I go out. But the principle applies everywhere. I’ve learned to come prepared, have a backup plan and expect things to not work out seamlessly. Our U.S. launch strategy at Feels has changed significantly since we first started, and as we progress, we’ve iterated and continue to build back up plans, because you never know when you’ll need it!

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m really excited about some of the new features we’re launching on Feels this spring. No other dating app has explored the UX integrations we’re working on. Feels’ users will be able to connect with each other in a digital landscape that is fully immersive, playful and secure. You might be able to guess — we’re moving into the metaverse.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Being heard the first time, coming off too sharp or ‘bitchy’, finding women in similar positions, biological pressure to start a family.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I read “Sex At Dawn” for the first time several years ago which expanded my position on relationships greatly. I grew up in a traditional family with married parents and never questioned lifelong commitment or monogamy.

In “Sex At Dawn,” I learned that humans aren’t programmed biologically for monogamy, and the relationship norms we have today were inherited from Puritanistic thinking.

After reading this, I gained perspective and empathy for unconventional relationships, and allowed myself the grace to explore that. This has been transformative in how I approach connection, loyalty and the possibility of marriage.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Our society has come a long way in destigmatizing mental health, but talking about personal mental health struggles with a significant other is still taboo and often awkward. I would love to see increased comfortability in dating today to be out and okay with having a mental illness, similar to coming out about one’s sexuality or gender preference. For many, it’s a part of their identity and something they deal with every day, so this should be a topic we embrace and normalize instead of shut out.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I come from Scottish descent, and on the McKinnon Clan crest is the quote “Fortune Favors the Bold’’ which feels like a gift from my ancestors. The motto pushes me to bet on myself, with the promise that great reward only follows great risk.

At Feels, we err on the side of nonconformity and being a leader in the online dating industry. We’re unapologetically bold — rejecting relationship/gender norms, labels and the swipe-and-match model. It’s a risky swing that we believe will improve dissatisfaction in online dating and facilitate fortuitous human connection.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Instagram at @madelinefromdenver or TikTok @themadelinemckinnon.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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