Chances are, at the very least, Joel Simkhai
is directly responsible for one of your "relationships" over the past four years, and at the very most, every single interaction you’ve ever had with another gay man. Since the iPhone application Grindr launched in 2009, it’s amassed more than four million users worldwide, provided a bustling underground railroad for erotic self-portraiture and, on the whole, it's revolutionized how gay men communicate with each other.
I caught up with Simkhai at the tail end of Toronto Pride, looking considerably better for wear than some people
(read: pretty sure I was still coughing up glitter). Fresh-faced and compact, he moves with the point-A-to-point-B intention of a classic entrepreneur, and his smile easily takes up 25 percent of his body. Born in Tel Aviv, raised in New York and educated at Tufts in Boston, Simkhai settled in Manhattan, spending the better part of a decade toiling in finance and online marketing – not to mention online
chat rooms back in the internet’s Stone Age.
“I came out online. I was able to type ‘I’m gay’ before I was able to say it. So the internet has always been so important to me in that sense” he says. Regarding some of the more primitive chat services of the time, he adds, “They were text-based, not location-based . . . in the early days of CompuServe, there was one
New York room – hundreds of thousands of guys in one room, and it wasn’t a very visual experience.” Cut to June 2008 and the release of the iPhone 3G. “I don’t want to say it was an ‘aha’ moment as much as it was a ‘finally’ moment. Then it was just a matter of execution.”
Simkhai worked with a Danish software developer and a graphic designer named Scott Lewallen, and Grindr was born. But where did the name and that ominous logo come from? “The name was different and masculine, with nothing intrinsically gay about it, and the mask is inspired by Polynesian tribal art. We were trying to break down the essence of Grindr and what we were trying to do. We’re helping you meet, find people, build community and, of course, hunt – which is what we as humans have been trying to do since the beginning.”
Asked if he can identify Grindr’s tipping point, he has an idea. “We always did a lot of events to promote it, went to a lot of Prides, other guerrilla marketing . . . but I’d say our watershed moment was late June 2009, three months after we launched; [British actor] Stephen Fry mentioned Grindr on the BBC show Top Gear
. Overnight we had a huge presence in the United Kingdom.” Since then, it’s infiltrated many corners of pop culture, whether as the focus of the viral hit “Fellabone
” by Toronto’s own Cheeto Girls, or incurring the wrath of millionaire matchmaker/lizard-woman Patti Stanger.
Officially tipped, Grindr offices are now a hub of about 50 full-time employees, including a team of 10, who, at any given moment, are approving or denying your very own duck-faced torso shot! “It’s amazing for me to go into the admin panel and see [our users’] faces and think, ‘That’s a real guy. He’s got his own story.’ Sitting there day-to-day, it’s a nice reminder that we’re part of the real lives of real people, because I don’t get to meet all our users.”
With a growth rate of 10,000 users a day, physically meeting all of Grindr would be impossible, and it’s only getting bigger and better. Debuting any second now, new Grindr will feature completely rewritten software, making it faster, speedier and better connected. “Community selection” will allow users to browse through and self-appoint themselves into various "scenes" – twink, jock, bear, etc – and there are filters on almost any aspect of profile information. Just when you thought this couldn’t get any easier!
Finally, I thought I’d wrap things up by asking Simkhai one of the most Frequently Asked Questions on Grindr: What R U Looking 4? “I’m open. Whatever comes my way. I’ve found love on Grindr, I’ve found friends on Grindr, I’ve found old
friends on Grindr, I’ve found old boy
friends on Grindr . . . ”
— Andrew Johnston