Joel Simkai’s Grindr has changed the way gay men ‘connect.’ Steven Foster tries to get the barista of the 21st-century booty call to spill the beans.
By Steven Foster
Every time the subject of getting laid is raised, the blades of the Grindr PR machine begin to buzz. “We want to stress that Grindr is a way to locate people with whom you share similar interests, and blah blah blah.” Press releases as well as creator Joel Simkai then proceed to profess that numerous couples have married after meeting on Grindr. Frankly, there are better chances of discovering a rainbow-farting unicorn than finding a couple who wed via the world’s most popular gay hookup app.
Simkai is an affable guy, ADD-adorable yet laser focused, and naturally he’s proud of his children, firstborn Grindr and little sister Blendr. But Blendr, the “Grindr for straights,” was released to miserable reviews, failing to capture the nouveau, naughty magic of its gay predecessor. Initially, Grindr’s novelty may have been its location-based software, but the app now seems more desire-affirmation tool than handheld yenta. No wonder straights want one for themselves. Simkai says he was inundated with requests from female friends, and he repeats this fact with such frequency you begin to wonder if the only girls Simkai knows are sluts. Talk to most women and you find a pervasive fear of the freak factor—that Blendr will have every drooling, straight slob within a three-mile radius showing up on their doorstep with his Droid in one hand and his dick in the other.
But Blendr’s shortcomings do not diminish Simkai’s massive achievement—revolutionizing the way gay men date. Grindr is often the first app a gay man loads onto his smart phone, whether for recreation, iCandy, or validation. iGrind, therefore iAm. There is something strangely affirming (and yes, sometimes mildly creepy) about knowing there’s a living, breathing, often horny homosexual within 50 feet of you. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Aliens when Bill Paxton’s character searches for the phallic-headed phuckers with a tracking device, clicking off the proximity as Sigourney Weaver snaps, “That can’t be right. That’s right in this room!” Sparks fly and voila!—gay men rain from the ceiling.
Fireworks also ignited when Simkai released the app, now a global monster itself. And even Doctor Frankenstein uses his creation. He might not have found a husband yet, but give the man time. He’s on Grindr almost as much as you are.
Steven Foster: I know you went to Tufts, but you’re not a tech geek, are you?
Joel Simkai: I studied economics and international relations. And no, I’m not a programmer. But when I had the idea, I found a developer to develop the app. He was kind of a hacker. The first-generation iPhone didn’t have a GPS, so he hooked up his unit from his car and hardwired it into his phone. When I heard that, I thought, This guy is awesome.
More importantly he was a problem-solver, and that’s one of the key aspects of a developer. “No” doesn’t work for them. They always look for the “Yes,” and he found the Yes.
You started with just a $5,000 investment?
One of the nice things about iPhone development is it’s not super-complicated. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not that complex. The developer just told me, “I’ll just need you to cover some of my costs here.” Then I had my designer friend Scott Lewallen work on things. It wasn’t this notion of Let’s build a big business and have millions of users around the world. There was no business plan. It was more like, Oh, this’d be a fun app to have.
Basically, this horny guy creates this giant monster.
[Silence] Well, it’s…
[Laughs] For me, it…it…it… it’s not a sexual thing. It’s a frustration that I had: Who’s the gay guy in the room? Who’s the gay guy on the block? You could go online, but that’s not any real kind of experience. There was nothing that would let you search for someone near you.
Grindr as gay identifier instead of just a geographic locator?
I do it all the time. It’s quite helpful. Our goal is for every gay man to have Grindr. Imagine a world where every gay man is connected with a device that’s location-aware, that’s mobile, and you can interact with them. That’s what we’re going for.
When did you first realize you were close to that goal?
I guess the moment was about seven months after launch. I went to a coffee shop and there were two guys on Grindr. That was remarkable.
You came up with the concept. Who came up with the name?
Scott Lewallen helped with design and branding. We wanted something masculine, something strong, a little aggressive. But something that wasn’t typically gay. We came up with this notion of people grinding, mixing together—but again, rough, masculine. Like a coffee grinder. It’s a little bit…
Sexual. Say it.
No, no! It’s not sexual. It’s just rough. And masculine.
What is the logo? Hockey mask? Tribal? Is it a skull?
It’s tribal. We looked back and asked, What are we doing? You know what? We’re connecting people. This notion of meeting is the most primal aspect of who we are.
You have 45 employees now? You’re the small-business guy everyone running for office mentions.
[Laughs] It’s amazing. You just need to be driven and never take No for an answer. I always assume there’s going to be roadblocks—always assume there’s going to be problems. My job is to figure out a way around them.
You’re single. How many times a day do you use Grindr?
I use it all the time. I’m kind of selfish with it. This is my app. Who are all these guys and when did they get in here?
When did you come up with Blendr?
When we launched Grindr we thought, Should we launch something for straights or just for the gays? But we decided to see what the gays thought. If gay men don’t take to this, then nobody will. Once they accepted it, we started listening to other groups. A lot of women and straight men said, “Hey, what about me?” So this past September we launched Blendr.
Reviews have not been kind. Sabatoge-Times said Blendr totally f–ked straight people. Salon’s headline was “Are Straight People Really This Boring?” Do you think you should have gone more hard-edged?
I don’t think so. One of the things we got in the feedback—forget the hooking up aspect—was it’s hard to meet people, and with Blendr you can meet people near you who have the same interests as you do.
That doesn’t sound all that different from any other dating website, except for the location angle Blendr brings to the party. But as far as Grindr goes, do you ever sit back and realize that you, almost singlehandedly, revolutionized how gay men meet?
[Long pause. Sigh]
You have, you know.
Thank you, thank you. You know, I hear that sometimes, right? And I appreciate it. It’s very, very hard to understand. We’ve got almost a million men that go on Grindr every single day. I don’t even know what a million men is. I have no concept of how many people that is. It is hard to understand. It’s a bit unbelievable.
Steven Foster also writes about ChristWire.com in this issue of OutSmart magazine.