How Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe hacked Metcalfe’s Law

Or, why even genius-level marketing gets no respect in Silicon Valley.

Photo: Seth Anderson, Flickr CC

A CEO once told me there are only two types of people truly crucial in any company. Those two are:

1) “Someone who makes something”, and

2) “Someone who sells it.”

If you’re not doing one of those two tasks in your corporation? You are, he shrugged, just moving paperclips around for the people who do. (If we’re talking about the service sector, we can substitute “providing a service” for “making something”.)

As this CEO saw it, those are only two truly essential tasks in a firm. Without someone making something, there’s nothing to sell. Without someone to sell it, the thing made rarely sells itself.

I thought about this koan while reading the legal complaint that Whitney Wolfe, cofounder of the dating/zooming app Tinder, brought against her former company. In case you haven’t been following it, Wolfe was a co-founder of the firm and its head of marketing. Her complaint details loathsome, misogynist behavior on the part of her other co-founders Justin Mateen and Sean Rad, who—in addition to subjecting her to torrents of verbal and written abuse—stripped her of her co-founder title, because having a female co-founder, as Mateen said, “makes the company seem like a joke”. As Tinder took off and the firm was showered with positive media, the other founders downplayed and negated Wolfe’s role.

Yet Wolfe was, in fact, crucial. It appears that she not only conceived of the company’s name, but corralled its first user base. As Joanne McNeil noted in The Message last week, this is a pattern in Silicon Valley: Women’s work gets erased from high-tech success stories.

Why? Because Valley culture—the capitalists, the media that write about startups—tend to focus on the programmers, who are still mostly men, and they ignore folks in other jobs, where female employees cluster. “It is harder to pin down the responsibilities of a community manager”, McNeil noted, citing Kate Losse’s excellent Model View Culture essay on “Sex and the Startup”. Indeed, any employee who does social labor—i.e. anyone who deals with other breathing human beings, such as Facebook’s legions of user-support staff—is regarded as basically unskilled, as Melissa Gira Grant pointed out in “Girl Geeks and Boy Kings”; this disproportionately winds up being women, who are thus tasked with “emotional labor that is at once essential and invisible.” Feminists have long documented this dynamic in just about any industry you care to study.

Which brings us back to that aphorism the CEO told me. Valley residents and observers understand the value of the programming, of “making something”.

But they don’t grasp the importance of the second part—“selling it”.

In this field, Wolfe was a genius.

Consider Wolfe’s first big contribution: Convincing her startup to focus on Tinder, and naming it.

Try looking at this logo and imagining the app is called “Tender”.

The group of co-founders was working originally on a customer-loyalty app called Cardify. The dating app came later, when the group’s coder Angel Munoz created it during a weekend hackathon—and it was originally called “Matchbox.” As Wolfe details in her complaint, she was the co-founder who first understood the potential of Matchbox, and successfully lobbied her colleagues to drop Cardify and focus on the new tool. The name of this new app was a problem, though. It was too close to Co-founder Rad offered the name “Tender”, but Wolfe astutely noted this was too “romantic” for such a racy app. She countered with “Tinder”—a masterstroke of branding on two levels, because in addition to being metaphorically adept, it also matched the logo they had already designed, a flame.

Even more crucial to Tinder’s success, though, was Wolfe’s ideas for building an early user-base. She planned a tour that would take her to prominent college campuses around the country, as Nick Summers reported in a recent Business Week story:

“We sent her all over the country,” Munoz told me this week. “Her pitch was pretty genius. She would go to chapters of her sorority, do her presentation, and have all the girls at the meetings install the app. Then she’d go to the corresponding brother fraternity—they’d open the app and see all these cute girls they knew.” Tinder had fewer than 5,000 users before Wolfe made her trip, Munoz says; when she returned, there were some 15,000. “At that point, I thought the avalanche had started,” Munoz says.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Wolfe’s work here. When social services become big, they snowball due to “Metcalfe’s Law”, which states that the value of a network is the square of the number of participants. If only you and I own fax machines, that’s a pretty small network, so our fax machines aren’t terribly useful—and very few other people will want to buy a fax machine to join our network. If a million people own fax machines, though, each individual machine is now enormously more useful, and everyone else sees the value in getting a fax. Once a social network gets reasonably big, it cascades.

But Metcalfe’s Law also works in reverse—and punishingly so. When a social network is small and new, it’s not terribly valuable. So how do you convince anyone to join? If you never get a critical mass of early users, you never snowball into a mammoth crowd; the party seems too dull for anyone to check in. Back in the late 90s, when Internet dating was still new, I interviewed the founder of a UK site called Cybersuitors. He was a network academic and told me he deduced that a dating site needed a minimum of 144 people to create interesting possible pairings—“the same number of people you’d need to populate a multigenerational starship headed to Alpha Centauri,” as he joked. The number is probably a lot higher than that, but you get the point.

What Wolfe appears to have done is to singlehandedly slingshot Tinder out of the gravity well of early-stage Metcalfe’s Law. She created the critical mass that made Tinder explode.

This is marketing—“selling something”. It’s utterly crucial. Yet it’s generally a complete and total mystery to far too many engineering types. If your governing mechanic for understanding the world is “merit” (however fuzzy and apolitically ill-informed that understanding is), your assumption is that if hey, if your app is totally awesome, then people will flock to it, right? But they won’t—not always, not even often. Particularly in a crowded field like dating sites, “merit” alone will never win the day. You need to seed an early-use case.

You see this dynamic all over the place. In the early days of Flickr, co-founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield were constantly going around and visiting the site’s early user-pages, commenting on their photos and encouraging the contributors. They actively wanted to create a positive social environment because they understood that Flickr needed a civil, encouraging culture if it was going to get off the ground. Y Combinator’s Paul Graham writes about how Airbnb required the same “unscalable” human labor, “going door to door in New York, recruiting new users and helping existing ones improve their listings.”

Graham is right. There’s no way to automate this stuff. It requires intelligence and EQ and social toil; again, precisely the work that the engineering side rarely understands, and that the economic/journalistic nexus of Silicon Valley often actively ignores or disparages. Technology culture usually venerates the “viral” success, the app or service that just sort of explodes on its own by dint of sheer fabulosity. These stories exist, but they’re pretty rare. Scratch the surface of an outta-nowhere successful technology, get past the mythic sold-to-investors creation story, and you often find some hard-slogging social work and marketing.

Another great example is eBay vs Alibaba in China. In 2004, eBay launched its service in China, and it assumed people would just show up to buy and sell things. But they didn’t. eBay couldn’t quite figure out why. But Jack Ma, who was eBay’s Chinese competitors—running Alibaba, a business-to-business online market, and Taobao, a person-to-person one—told me the secret of his success: He had to brute-force early customers. Back in the early 00s, a significant number of factories in China weren’t accustomed to working with other people online, and in some cases didn’t even have computers and Internet. As the ethnographer Tricia Wang has documented, China was (and still can be) a pretty low-trust environment. Businesses only wanted to work with people they knew personally, on the phone or in person. People were unsure about buying from remote strangers. So Ma sent out a large sales force to fan out across the country, visiting factories one by one to show them how they could use Alibaba and Taobao to sell stuff online. (He also ran TV ads to educate customers about Taobao.)

It took an enormous amount of sweat and facetime. But, much like Wolfe brute-forcing Tinder in the sororities and fraternities, it worked. Companies flocked to Alibaba and its holdings, and the company grew to be so valuable that it is currently the only reason any investors care at all about Yahoo (which owns a 23% stake in Alibaba). Indeed, Yahoo might have dried up and blown away years ago if it weren’t for Jack Ma understanding the critical importance of marketing and sales, halfway around the world.

If you want to have a successful business, you have to make something, and you have to sell it.

Wolfe excelled at selling Tinder. Her other co-founders appear to have excelled only at selling themselves.

(Coda: Want another example of how deeply gendered is the mythology of engineering? Consider the title I gave to this piece: “How Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe hacked Metcalfe’s Law”.

I mean … “hacked”? Why did I use “hacked”? Well, in part because I like the word. I particularly like its non-technological connotations—“hacking” as wrestling with a system to try and get it to do something you want.

But the truth is, I also chose it because “hacking” inherently sounds a) badass and b) technical, and I wanted to add those valences to a discussion of social labor. Of course, this means I’m reinforcing precisely the same bias that I criticize here—i.e. the idea that only hard-edged, manly, tool-wielding technical skills are the ones that matter. (And the use of “wrestling” in the paragraph above only digs me deeper into the same rhetorical swamp, really.)

I realized this metaphoric Freudian slip almost as soon as I’d finished typing the headline. But I decided to leave my original language in place, because it’s a useful indication of just how deep these waters go.)

(Thanks to Joanne McNeil, Craig Mod, Zeynep Tufecki and Anil Dash for input on this piece! That lovely backdrop picture of the “Sale” sign is by Elliott Brown on Flickr.)