Why the story of Whitney Wolfe's lawsuit against Tinder is important for any female startup founder.
I just read the entire complaint against Match.com's Tinder app. Line by line, I read through the way in which Tinder started out as a Hatch Labs incubator and grew into a concept formalized and pushed by Wolfe. Ms. Wolfe, according to the lawsuit, was the one who pushed for a pivot and to take the initial idea and craft it into Tinder. Ms. Wolfe also named the app. She also saw the potential to market the app to women, a key missing piece of most dating apps.
Wolfe put some midnight oil into a marketing plan and presented all of those ideas to the other people on the team, all men. They dug the concepts and Wolfe was off to a few college sororities to get the app some exposure. That's right. She hopped on a plane and did some IRL meetings with people who could benefit from the app. College after college, things were working. People were signing up. Success.
I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty details on the complaint, but a few things were a reminder as to how easy it can be to be in an incubator environment where 'everyone is in it together' to national press coming around and things getting more serious. Aside from the misogynist and racist comments passed through texts, here are the other watch outs, based on the complaint:
- Mateen was first a contractor for a few months, then became the CMO. Wolfe had to report to him even though she was the force behind the growth and marketing of the app
- The developer of the app, Munoz, gave 100% credit to Wolfe for growing the app
- When more national press was coming, Wolfe wasn't included. Asking why this was the case, her male team responded with 'you're a girl'. Wolfe's age of 24 made her seem to young and having her listed as co-founder would mean too many cooks in the kitchen. Er, how old was Zuck when he started Facebook?
- Wolfe's co-founder title was officially stripped at someone point and the excuse Mateen supposedly used was that Facebook and Snapchat had male founders. Including Wolfe in the current co-founder mix would make things appear like an accident.
During this entire time, Ms. Wolfe was getting disgusting comments and threats from Mateen, someone she once dated after Mateen pursed her for some time. Rad, the CEO, didn't seem to want to do much. The complaint ends with a story of Wolfe and Match.com's CEO having a coffee. Wolfe went on to detail all of the horrible things she endured and the CEO appeared to do nothing. His ending comment to her was 'I can still sleep at night.'
Why is this so important for female founders? Because the vast majority of you are thinking about ideas that can apply to women and/or the vast majority of you may be on male dominated teams. The story of Tinder proves that some ingenuity and insight from a woman can make or break an app. Wolfe hustled. She got on planes, both here and internationally, to demo the app to real users in real life.
This story also displays the sad state of startup life as we know it today. As much as incubators, cities, organizations and conferences try to be overt about supporting women, those support groups aren't living in between the text messages that are sent in the middle of the night. Those organizations and support groups aren't right next to a woman when she's getting berated in public at a company party.
How strange it was for me to read that Rad, the CEO, is dating the daughter of a well known tech exec. How strange it was for me to see the supposed breakdown of a friendship between Wolfe and this woman. How could this daughter of a well known, powerful tech powerhouse not know what risks could be involved with treating women in tech this way? I saw the exhibits documenting the texts between Wolfe and Rad's girlfriend. Yet, silence.
Ladies, keep creating your ideas and pushing for change, however, there is one more elephant in the room worth taking about - cattiness. In order for you/us to feel comfortable sharing future wrongs similar to what Wolfe experienced, there needs to be a culture and camaraderie among female founders, tech types and those who touch the world. I would also call on the more seasoned women in the room who are either VCs, angels, founders or influential women in business to serve as a sounding board.
As for me, I'm here and available for Skype chats, Hangouts or phone calls. I'll offer up my time to let anyone blow off some steam about the frustrating experiences or scary startup situations.
Lastly, keep creating your lifestyle/warm and fuzzy ideas. We know they work. We know they can make money. Most of the people who may fund your idea just don't get it - yet.