Whitney Wolfe describes Bumble, her delightfully vibrant dating app, more like a 2 p.m. spin class than a 2 a.m. dingy nightclub. Now, Wolfe and Bumble are spreading their wings, empowering women and rethinking what it means to live the happiest life possible.
The yellow-and-black stripes of the bumblebee coil around its famously fuzzy thorax in a striking, iconic pattern. These contrasting colors have become synonymous with the social insect, and yet, they rank second to its most inimitable feature. That distinction rests with the attribute for which the lightweight, fluttering creature was named: that soft hum the well-known pollinator produces as it hovers in the air, its delicate wings flapping furiously— its buzz. Whitney Wolfe, the 26-year-old founder of Bumble, launched the social-discovery platform, heralded by many as the feminist dating app, less than a year and a half ago. With her core staff of six women working feverishly from Bumble’s headquarters in downtown Austin, Wolfe and her team zip and zoom from one task, one milestone, one breakthrough to the next. And all that movement is generating a lot of buzz.
Wolfe is, forgive the pun, a busy bee. She checks her phone intermittently between movements, responding to emails, texts, phone calls. Buoyancy is a strength. She bounces between Bumble’s outposts in London and Los Angeles, where it’s standing room only for technology startups, yet anchors her team in Austin, away from the swarms of stinging competitors and with plenty of space to consider the myriad decisions she must make for her rapidly expanding company. Austin, she says, gives Bumble the freedom to spread its wings and fly.
Leaning over the kitchen counter of the waterfront home where she launched her game-changing idea not long ago, Wolfe sips on a Topo Chico and puts on a pot of coffee. She hinges her elbows to the countertop and checks her phone one last time before placing it just out of arm’s reach.
“I don’t remember a night that I didn’t check my email in the middle of the night in the last year,” Wolfe admits, glancing at her phone’s screen across the countertop. “I think I’ve slept maybe five nights completely through the night without taking a break halfway through to check something, respond to something, do something. I’ll wake up in the morning at 7 and will already have had multiple conversations via email with people in London and elsewhere.”
Indeed, Bumble has anything but bumbled along since launching in December 2014. As a dating app, it utilizes many of the basic operational functions used by other dating apps, but with one resounding, distinct difference. For those new to the mobile-dating world, here is a quick primer: Most mobile-dating apps operate on a matching system. A user swipes through the profiles of other users on her phone, swiping right to indicate interest, and swiping left to pass. A match is made when two users both swipe right on each other, at which point, either party can usually make the next move to initiate contact.
“I had an aha moment,” Wolfe says. “I said, ‘You know what? I’ve got it. Women have to make the first move.’ ”
Wolfe’s aha moment not only uprooted the recently planted norms of the mobile-dating community, but it also defied the long-held societal standard that the guy makes the first move. Before Bumble, dating apps had started developing seedy reputations as a result of the sleazy and slimy pickup tactics initiated by some of the apps’ male users. Bumble, by creating a platform through which only the female user can initiate contact, eliminates that uncomfortable situation for its users. As a result of its virtual gender-role reversal, women flocked to Bumble.
“We’ve done in 14 months what I would call nearly impossible,” Wolfe says, noting the millions of new users Bumble has added to its hive during that time, at a growth rate of as much as 65 percent per day. “We’re growing, which doesn’t happen by accident. That has to be engineered. We built a pretty meaningful brand in a short amount of time, and that doesn’t happen without hard work.”
Bumble’s remarkable growth illustrates how disturbingly negligent other dating apps had been toward their female demographic. Even the bumblebee’s black-and-yellow stripes pale in comparison to the contrast between Bumble’s brightness and the industry’s darkness.
For Wolfe, it was always a matter of when and how, not if, she would discover Bumble’s light.
Born in Salt Lake City, Wolfe spent her early childhood years in an environment more pastoral than metropolitan.
“Imagine not seeing a person’s house unless you literally walked for two minutes,” Wolfe says. “Everything was on its own spread and it was every child’s dream. It was this wooded, secluded type of childhood.”
Growing up with her parents and younger sister in Utah, the geographical center of the Mormon faith, Wolfe cultivated an early understanding of the people and places around her.
“My mother’s family is Catholic, and my father’s family is Jewish,” Wolfe says. “I think I benefited from that because I grew up with such an understanding of everybody. I went to a Jewish preschool but then a private Catholic high school. I grew up with a cultural understanding of different people, traditions, ways of life.”
By the time Wolfe turned 11, her parents moved the family to Paris, specifically to instill in their children a sense of the world. Wolfe was placed in a non- English-speaking school and immediately immersed herself in the culture.
“My very, very best friends in the world are from that school in France. They’re from all over the world. That’s been a huge part of who I am because I was raised with these people that were not just from my neighborhood,” she says. “We’re talking from different worlds.”
Despite Wolfe’s parents having the fortunate means to live in Europe, they found the life difficult to sustain, and moved the family back to Utah after a couple years.
“It [was]much harder to keep the family together across the pond,” Wolfe explains. “I have a half brother and half sister from my father’s first marriage. It was very hard to see them. You can’t take kids out of school and shuffle them across the country. [There are] grandparents, all of these things that are so important in a child’s life, even soccer practice and being able to drive in a car and go through a drive-thru. You don’t get that in Paris. It was 45 minutes on a metro. It’s a different thing. It’s just different.”
The transition back home to Salt Lake City proved more difficult than it had been to leave.
“I wouldn’t get invited to birthday parties,” Wolfe admits, laughing to herself. “Here I had just come home from living in Paris. I’ve seen half of the world at age 12 [and]I was an outcast.”
As Wolfe entered her teen years and progressed through high school, doing “all the normal things a high schooler does,” her situation improved. In fact, the seeds of her creativity and innovation had started to bloom.
“My mom would tell you I was always crafty. I had some weird painting project going on in my room or was inventing something new,” Wolfe says. “I was always kind of doing something different.”
Wolfe’s inventive spirit continued to flourish after she graduated from high school. As a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, her mother’s alma mater, Wolfe used her ingenuity to spearhead an impassioned venture.
In late April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig operated by British Petroleum suffered an internal explosion and started gushing what would become millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I was really upset about all of the animals they kept showing on TV that were covered in oil,” Wolfe says. “Do you remember that? They were just doused in oil.”
While efforts to contain the BP oil spill drifted along, Wolfe brainstormed ideas that would benefit the organizations trying to protect the affected wetlands and wildlife. One morning while talking to her mother, who had just come from yoga class, Wolfe had an epiphany.
“I was like, ‘Perfect. I’m going to make yoga bags, tote bags [and]I can get every girl on campus to carry them.’ I was in a sorority and I knew that everyone carried a little bag to school,” Wolfe says.
She found a local, organic, eco-friendly distributor, had the bags designed and started selling them via Facebook.
“It just went crazy,” Wolfe remembers. “All of a sudden, I had sold so many of these things, and then I was at home pitching it to these magazines and these celebrities. It was in In Touch and then it was in Us Weekly and all of these different things, which, being a sophomore in college, was a really big deal. It really was.”
Wolfe graduated from SMU ready to do more. During college, she had studied abroad for a year and vacationed overseas with her family during the summers, but yearned to see things in a different light.
“I just wanted to be anywhere that was different from my own corner,” she says. “I wanted to see it. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to taste it, feel it, think it, do it. I just needed to understand it.”
Wolfe packed a backpack and hopped on a flight to Cambodia. “I was desperate to understand what life was like for people that didn’t have the good fortune that we all do here,” Wolfe says. “I wanted to understand that side of life and help do something.”
Traveling throughout Southeast Asia and sleeping in $3-a-night hotels, Wolfe eventually discovered an orphanage in Northern Thailand, which she found herself returning to day after day to volunteer. Then, one day, she stopped.
“I’d go and be there all day and just kept saying, ‘You know what? I have the good fortune of having an education. There’s so many other capable humans here that can go and rock the babies and play with them. I have the ability to go home and do something that will touch all of these people somehow. I need to go do that because sitting here with the amount of education I have is actually a disservice to people.’ ”
After hungering for a world different from her own, Wolfe’s outlook changed.
“I realized that I shouldn’t be there, because I could only have an impact on the people in that room,” she says. “If I want to have any type of impact, there’s only two ways to do it: through education and technology. That’s it. Truly.”
Wolfe returned to the U.S. bearing big dreams to start her own microloan business selling clothing, jewelry and other artifacts made by women from different parts of the world, until she got a proverbial wake-up call.
“My dad was like, ‘No. Good luck funding that. Get a job. You need a job,’ ” she remembers.
And so, Wolfe got a job at Hatch Labs, an incubator for startups in San Francisco, where she started working on a series of projects, including an app that would launch four months later and eventually be called Tinder.
Despite Hatch Labs serving as her first “working-for- somebody-else job,” the startup environment suited Wolfe’s own quick-paced mind.
“There were probably seven or eight little things that we would be tinkering with, as you do in an incubator,” Wolfe says. “That’s the whole point. It’s like going into an art class. You do projects.”
Wolfe joined Hatch Labs in May 2012, and by September, had started launching Tinder on college campuses, beginning with her alma mater, SMU.
As one of the first location-based dating apps, Tinder ignited a new, sexy world of social discovery. It merged the basic laws of attraction with the instant gratification for which millennials are stereotyped. It also launched its co-founders, including Wolfe, into the cosmopolitan world of startup stardom. Wolfe wasn’t in Utah or Cambodia or even Paris anymore.
Unfortunately, when Wolfe ended her relationship with fellow Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen, her relationship with the company she helped establish also dissolved, and got messy. Following an incoming flurry of inappropriate texts, emails and other forms of communication from Mateen and others at Tinder, Wolfe filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit. Wolfe had hoped the suit would be resolved confidentially, but instead, had to pursue it after months of failed attempts. (Wolfe is unable to discuss specific details of the lawsuit.)
Wolfe left Tinder, but in her wake, exposed the chauvinistic predispositions of a male-dominated tech industry. Tinder, which had since become infamous for facilitating late-night hookups and nightmarish one-liners, all of a sudden, reflected an ugly, derogatory world that frightened women.
“When I was surrounded by misogynistic characters in my past, naming no names or eluding to nothing, I, myself, started acting that way because I was so fearful of them putting me in this nasty category,” Wolfe says. “I started being misogynistic. I was calling girls bad names. I was saying, ‘Oh, look at her. She’s this,’ or, ‘She did that last night with so and so. She’s a that.’ I regret that now, but I’m grateful that I lived through that because I realized what so many young girls do. They’re so fearful of being categorized or being the victim of a misogynistic mindset that they, themselves, put on this misogynistic shield, and it’s really dangerous.”
Following her departure, Wolfe found solace in her experiences with the people she had met in places like the orphanage in Northern Thailand.
“Why would I feel sorry for myself that things went the way they went when I’m healthy, I don’t have a terminal illness, I have family, I have friends, I have a roof over my head, I have great food, I have access to anything?” Wolfe says. “It would be the most gluttonous, horrible, self-loathing thing for me to sit around and feel sorry for myself. Zero excuses for that.”
The then 24-year-old returned to Texas and attempted to control a relentless media storm.
“You have to remember,” Wolfe points out, “I didn’t have some PR team. I was just sitting here with my family, my boyfriend and his family, ordering in and going about my life, with the Daily Mail trying to climb through the window and The New York Times calling extended relatives. It was insane. I’m not a celebrity. For a normal girl to have international media interest from every direction, it was nuts. Nuts.”
During that time, Andrey Andreev, the CEO of Badoo, the world’s largest and fastest-growing social-discovery platform, emailed Wolfe, who was receiving hundreds of messages from people by the hour, but she didn’t respond.
“I got a second email, and [my boyfriend]said, ‘Are you kidding me? The CEO of the most successful dating platform in the world,’—which it is—” Wolfe interjects, “ ‘wants to talk to you? You talk to him right now.’ ”
Wolfe replied to Andreev, and started talking to him about her next move. Together, the two formed a partnership and soon developed the concept for Bumble.
The American cosmetics maven Mary Kay Ash once remarked, “Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it, so it goes on flying anyway.”
Since its inception, Bumble has flown past its foes without looking back.
“We are our own thing and we’re a force of light and good and kindness,” Wolfe says. “We’re trying to help people. We don’t care about our ego. We’ve really tried to just stay on this path of not letting the naysayers screw with us and bite our ankles. There are lots of snakes in the garden. You’ve just got to put on some tall cowboy boots and run through it. There’s no other way.”
And so, Bumble runs, or rather, whizzes, though a garden of budding technology, chasing ideas on the horizon and challenging conventions rooted to the world more stubbornly than a patch of weeds.
“The big vision is really to be the go-to lifestyle brand for all things connecting, confident connections, whether that be finding your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your husband or your wife, or to find your best friend, or to maybe make the first move in a business setting,” Wolfe says. “If Bumble can eventually move into this place that kicks you out of your comfort zone and encourages you to be confident and feel good about yourself when you are connecting, for any purpose, then I think that’s really the long-term goal.”
Bumble unveiled part of that plan in March with the release of Bumble BFF, a feature that allows users to search for friends, not just significant others.
“People are already so comfortable with the brand Bumble,” Wolfe says. “It doesn’t feel sexy to them. It doesn’t feel sultry. It feels cute and fun and welcoming.”
Wolfe explains that many users were already using Bumble for this purpose, sometimes to the confusion of their significant others.
“[The user has] a boyfriend back in LA,” Wolfe says, as an example, “but their boyfriend’s buddy travels to Paris or wherever and sees them on Bumble. Then, it turns into this, ‘Well, no, I’m not on Bumble for that. I’m really using it because I know that I can connect with other people. …’ ”
Wolfe elaborates that Bumble’s users want to make connections for a variety of reasons. Maybe they recently relocated for a job, or suddenly, all their friends are pregnant and they are looking for a friend who can meet for happy hour or they just want to branch out. In any case, Bumble BFF fills their need, and Wolfe isn’t stopping there.
“Maybe after that, it’s a professional setting where you’re looking to network,” Wolfe ponders. “You’re bored with your job. You want to branch out with your new job. You don’t want to be seen out taking job interviews when you’re still at your current job, but you do want to meet some people to start dipping your toes into different industries. Why not do something like this?”
To Wolfe, Bumble is more than an app; it’s the option someone never thought they had. And by providing a safe, comfortable place to make new connections, Bumble gives its users new viable options.
“Do not feel like you are forced to stay in things that are not healthy. Do not stay in a bad relationship because you’re scared of not finding someone else. Do not keep these same friends that are maybe toxic to you. Do not stay at that job that is draining the life out of you,” Wolfe expounds. “We want to show you that there’s hope for really going after whatever you want, feeling good about yourself and connecting with people outside of what you already have access to.”
Wolfe had this mentality in mind when she first created Bumble, knowing other social platforms only catered to a certain accepted form of dating.
“I don’t like sitting in nightclubs at night. I don’t go to bars. I go to bed at 10,” Wolfe says unapologetically. “I don’t want to be limited [just]because I don’t want to partake in the average socializing event.”
Bumble’s trajectory and mission reflect Wolfe’s journey to define herself and her own path.
“Happiness doesn’t come from living in the biggest city. Happiness doesn’t come from being able to eat at the fanciest restaurant. That’s not what it’s about,” she says. “It’s about being somewhere safe and with people you care about, just being able to be happy with whatever your surroundings are, no matter what is going on.”
Bumble began with women making the next move. As Wolfe envisions Bumble’s next move, she pauses, marveling at how her team flies from point A to point B.
“We just have fun,” Wolfe says. “That’s kind of our mantra at Bumble: Work hard. Take things seriously. Don’t break the law. Break the rules, but not the law. Don’t take yourselves too seriously.”
Wolfe gulps the last of her Topo Chico and reaches for her phone. She scans it for any urgent messages and sets it back down. She is about to head to the office, and is flying out to London in a couple days. There is work to be done.
“It’s nonstop, but I’m passionate about it,” Wolfe says. “I imagine if you have the good fortune of having children, you’re passionate about them in a way that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night for them, you know? I look at Bumble as this passion project. It’s something I love and I care about. We’re really having an impact on people. How many people get to say that? Not many. If I get this opportunity, I don’t want to sleep on it.”