Swipe Right for Innovation

Q&A with Tinder CTO Ryan Ogle

Online dating has skyrocketed over the past few years, thanks in no small part to Tinder. According to a recent Pew Research report, 22 percent of 18- to 24-year olds reported using mobile dating apps in 2016, up from only 5 percent in 2013. This Valentine’s Day, Tinder users are swiping left and right in 196 countries, with more than 26 million matches and 1.4 billion swipes every day.

We connected with former CTO Ryan Ogle (he’s currently changing roles within the company) to see how product iteration — and keeping the passion for innovation — has transformed over the course of their explosive hyper growth. “Tinder opened it up to an entirely new generation and really made it okay — actually, more than okay: popular — for everyone to use an app to find a connection.”

When building and refining a discovery algorithm to help people find a match, how do social norms, beliefs, and trends inform your work?

While most of our initiatives are data-driven, we also take cultural norms into consideration. It’s interesting that while the technology and the product remain the same, how we mass market such a product on a global scale accounts for local, cultural and sociological nuances. As we’re adding new features, our team is also taking into consideration data and customer feedback to determine the best approach to marketing.

For example, India is our top market in Asia; Tinder has helped create a once non-existent dating culture in the country. Where arranged marriage is often the norm, we brought Tinder to life in India by partnering with The Viral Fever to produce a video titled “Eat, Pray, Swipe” which resonated well with Millennials in the country and has more than 1 million views.

How do you innovate and iterate at Tinder?

So here’s the catch-22 about innovation: in the early stages of a startup, you have all the freedom in the world to innovate, but you likely don’t have a lot of resources — time is of the essence. You’re burning capital, and you’re trying to find the right product fit. So what really limits your innovation in the beginning is time. It’s generally not on your side.

After you find that hit and you make your product successful, the issue becomes one of focus. You really have no choice but to keep the product going. You have to solve all of the operational, growth, performance, international, etc. issues that come with a successful product. But that means that your energy is focused on really just maintaining the existing thing you’ve built. And it’s really, really easy to fall into that trap of not thinking about planting the seeds for future innovation. You have to retain some of that wild spirit that you had before you had all of the weight of a successful product on your hands. No matter what your process becomes in the future, never lose your silliness and curiosity.

Tinder’s Ryan Ogle

What are the biggest challenges you’ve had with Tinder, and how have you learned from them and used them to inform decisions for new versions going forward?

When we first started Tinder, it was all about focusing on iterations and building. We immediately saw people liking the product, and we then had to shift from a company figuring out the right product to one that could handle rapid growth. We also couldn’t use existing customers to test the product with. “It’s a good problem to have” became a common phrase thrown around here at Tinder.

When it comes to our core product, and this is something we keep in mind today, we found that a seemingly simple, intuitive product requires the utmost prioritization when it comes to UX/UI. Each feature we add brings with it a new set of challenges, but we greet those challenges with excitement as they signify opportunity to offer our users something new.

From the early conceptualizing of Tinder to today’s iterations and growth, how has the company’s process for adding new features to the product evolved, looking particularly at your organizational structure, testing, and strategies?

Pretty dramatically, actually. Quite frankly, in the beginning there’s really a lack of process, but that’s a good thing. If you have a team of creative people, you want to enable and empower them to move quickly and experiment.

Of course, as your company grows, that no longer becomes feasible in the same way. Process becomes necessary to execute effectively because everyone will start stepping on each other’s toes otherwise. But I personally have a disdain for too much process. I’ve seen it time and time again where too much process inhibits and prevents you from doing what you originally set out to do: to create inspiring products. Someone once told me that the right amount of process is having just enough so that things don’t fall into chaos. I like that principle.

Were there any unexpected issues that you have to account for in new versions? What did that process look like?

If you are popular and people like your app, then that’s an amazing thing. But there will definitely be growing pains. Hyper growth is an example that hit us pretty hard early on. We didn’t have a process in the beginning because it was just five or so engineers at that point. We were getting exhausted just trying to keep the app up and running, and we also had to handle all the new features that were being thrown at us.

“Someone once told me that the right amount of process is having just enough so that things don’t fall into chaos”

But even though it was certainly pressure-filled, I can remember no fonder time in my business career. I really look at those problems as opportunities. They are opportunities to grow and learn. If you never face adversity, you never have the need to create innovative solutions. And, of course, you screw up half the stuff that you’re trying to solve. And you take those failures and experience into the next round and beyond. The most important thing is to never quit. I’ve seen that too many times where people can’t take the pressure and really give up on a problem. That’s literally the worst thing you can do.

How do you keep your core culture as you scale?

The answer is pretty simple — you have to hire the right people. Hire the wrong people; your culture will suffer. That’s not to say that you want everyone to mindlessly follow your existing culture. Of course, culture is additive and will bend and sway as you bring unique perspectives onto the team. But there should be a few really important principles that your entire team believes in strongly. I call those your “core culture.” And those things really shouldn’t change. At Tinder, one of our core principles is having an inclusive culture. Paying attention to culture and encouraging collaboration is critical. Whatever your core beliefs, it’s important that you hire the right people that believe in and will reinforce your core principles.

It’s important that you hire the right people that believe in and will reinforce your core principles

What’s next for Tinder technology?

When we first launched Tinder, we were really focused on creating the 1:1 experience of meeting someone in real life. While that’s still our ultimate focus, today we’re constantly testing new paradigms. Features like Smart Photos offer a glimpse at what’s to come as the platform grows smarter. Overall, our goal will always be to create rich, meaningful connections for people.