The international ownership saga of America’s most popular gay dating app, Grindr, came to a close last month when a group of American investors took control of the West Hollywood company.
China-based Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. bought Grindr in 2016 and had hopes of taking the company public in a large stock offering until the U.S. government intervened. Citing fears that the Chinese government could use personal data stored on the app to blackmail U.S. citizens, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States announced that it was forcing Kunlun to sell the company to American owners in March 2019.
A year later,Kunlun reached a deal. A low-profile investment group, San Vicente Acquisitions, bought the company for $608 million.
Then in mid-June, Grindr’s employees got to meet some of their new bosses for the first time. Two of the investors in San Vicente, Jeff Bonforte and Rick Marini, announced in a company meeting that they would be Grindr’s chief executive and chief operating officer, respectively.
Bonforte and Marini find themselves in the enviable position of taking over a company with solid profits, an active and dedicated user base in the tens of millions, and a leading position in the gay dating market. But they also face challenges.
Grindr has been criticized for its data privacy practices in the past, and as recently as January was banned from Twitter for its handling of user privacy. Users had also criticized the company’s racial search filter for years, saying it fostered a culture of racism within the Grindr dating scene (the company announced on June 1 that it was removing the filter in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests).
Grindr’s ownership had come under fire as well. Scott Chen, its chief executive under Kunlun, sparked a controversy in 2018 when he said he supported same-sex marriage, but personally believed that marriage is “a holy union between a man and a woman.” For many users, that underlined some of the contradictions of having straight men run a gay dating app.
Bonforte and Marini are managing partners at Catapult Capital, a San Francisco private equity firm, and have long careers in technology behind them. Bonforte has founded and run five start-ups, and spent five years as an executive at Yahoo running the internet company’s mail and social products. Marini has three start-ups under his belt and extensive experience as an investor.
Both men also identify as straight.
They spoke with the The Times in June, right before taking control of Grindr.
The Times: To be clear, no one on the new ownership team — including the two of you — identifies as LGBTQ, is that right?
Marini: There are 15 members of the senior team that are part of the gay community, and we will continue to work with them as part of our team. And we absolutely have the intention of recruiting more gay members of the community to every level of Grindr, from the lower levels to senior team to the board. I think it’s important for the business to be able to hear from real users of the site, so that is a priority for us.
Why do you think you’re the right people for the job of running a gay dating company?
Marini: Uh, Jeff, do you want me to take that?
Bonforte: You take it. I’ll critique it.
Marini: If you look at my background and Jeff’s background, we’ve been running tech companies for 20 years. I have run social sites, I have run subscription-based online sites. And Jeff has run a technology company as a social site and subscription-based companies. So a lot of what is core to the Grindr platform and product from a business standpoint is what we have done.
Jeff and I are both very supportive of the gay community. Both of us have been in San Francisco for roughly 20 years — we both marched in Pride parades, we’ve both raised money for GLAAD. This is something that we’ve both been supportive of for many years. So even though we may not be gay, we do support the community. We will hire people from the gay community around us. And I do believe that we have the right backgrounds to be able to run this type of business.
Bonforte: It’s worth saying as well that no matter who had these jobs, they were going to have blind spots. The diversity of the LGBTQ community is so significant than one voice is not enough anyway. So it would be hubris to think, “I’m gay, and therefore I’m the perfect person to run any business.” I’ve run businesses where I was not the primary user, and the process by which you do right for the user base, for the business and for the community is the same. You have to listen. You have to be curious. You have to be open. You have to be transparent.
Why did you want to buy Grindr?
Bonforte: It’s a rare opportunity to be able to buy a beloved brand that has had such a huge impact and is in such good shape. From the business side, it was also a rare opportunity to be able to invest in and buy a dominant player in this category that has incredibly loyal and happy users, and that has been there for over a decade.
I think it’s an honor to be an investor in Grindr as well, because it’s played such a role in the LGBT community over the last decade. It’s important that the business be healthy and successful, and that the product is safe and works. We take that responsibility seriously.
And the more we learned about Grindr, the more excited we got. I just got off two phone calls this morning, and I was, like, really jazzed. It’s gonna be amazing. It’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna be really hard.
Beijing Kunlun Tech paid $93 million for a majority stake in Grindr in 2016 and an additional $150 million in 2018 to take full ownership of the company. It’s reported that your investment group paid over $600 million. Why is the company worth that much today?
Marini: This is a company that’s doing well over $100 million of revenue [annually]. It is highly profitable and growing quickly. When Kunlun came in roughly three years ago to acquire the company, it was not nearly as large as it is today. I would say that the valuation paid accurately reflects that growth.
Grindr has come under fire for data privacy issues in recent years, mostly related to sharing user data with third-party advertisers. How do you plan to address those problems?
Bonforte: That’s the No. 1 thing on our list.
When I was at Yahoo and working on a product with 350 million users, we encountered data issues, global privacy issues — and encountered them more quickly than Grindr did, since it’s a much smaller business.
One of the advantages we have is bringing in that experience. Last time I worked at Yahoo, I had 3,700 people reporting into me, running multiple billions of dollars of the business. And it was global, and I had been through the hacking scandal [an incident that came to light in 2017 in which all of Yahoo’s 3 billion accounts were hacked]. When you go through something like that, you learn so much that you can’t learn in a textbook.
Are there any specific changes on privacy that you plan on moving on Day One?
Bonforte: No, we wouldn’t talk about that even under the best of circumstances. And there is no binary state of a product being perfectly safe or perfectly unsafe. Can we make the product safer? Yes. Can we make data more secure? Yeah. It’s just evolving.
I will say some things about Grindr are quite good already from a privacy perspective. There is a lot of protection in the product just from how it’s architected, and I’m not even sure they were architecting for those reasons. When you ran a gay dating service 10 years ago, users — and this is still true around the world — … are physically endangered by participating in the product, so privacy and safety and security was built in simply in the level of anonymity and how data is stored and not stored.
Can users expect to see any immediate changes?
Bonforte: Users are probably not going to see anything right out of the gate, because we’re spending a fair amount of time listening.
Grindr got rid of its ethnic filter at the beginning of June and put out a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Do you have any further plans to address this political moment?
Bonforte: The company has tens of millions of users with tens of millions of voices. And so part of what we will do is to continue to build platforms that helps that voice get amplified. The company will do its best to keep maintaining itself as a positive force to champion the values that I think have been there from Day One and that we embrace as well, but in the end, it’s our ability to magnify the voices of our users that will be the biggest impact.
I think the downside is in the process of more voices being heard, there can be a cacophony and there’s noise. I think we’ll have to focus on how can we really sort of amplify and unify at the same time. It’s a challenge.