The Bumble IPO: How we got here

As the US dating app goes public, we ask: how did love become such big business?

If you spent much time floating about dating circles at the beginning of the last decade, you’ll have felt a shift in the romantic vetting process: swiping left became the new “its not you, it’s me”; sliding into DMs became a 2.0 version of a “DTF?” BBM message; sexting supplanted getting coffee, much the same way that a slippery oligarch trades in his childhood sweetheart for a younger iteration with go-faster stripes. 

On Monday, Bumble Inc, whose eponymous dating app’s cornerstone feature ensures that only women can reach out first, announced it was seeking a valuation of more than $7bn, once it makes its Nasdaq debut, three days before Valentine’s. 

Whitney Wolfe Herd, Bumble's CEO, who will take the firm public shortly

Launched in 2014, in Austin, Texas, by chief exec Whitney Wolfe Herd (also the co-founder of Tinder), Bumble’s move not only underscores this as a time when success in the US IPO market seems like a sure thing — it is currently at its strongest since the turn of the millennium, as an unprecedented $168bn was raised through stock market debuts last year — but it also emphasises that the thirst for virtual matchmaking services is at its zenith, at least when it comes to heterosexual relationships, with reports saying that 39 per cent of new couples in the US meet online. 

What has paved the way for Bumble’s ascendency? Much like those scandalous DMs, the rinse-and-repeat cycle of news, and the way in which you order your Friday evening platters of Nigiri, courting has been facilitated by tech. The consumer rush towards smartphones at the end of the Noughties simplified the rigmarole of sorting through pics and profiles of potential suitors, a phenomenon – which was a shiny upgrade on Zuckerberg’s contentious college site Facemash – that finds its roots within the gay community by way of Grindr (founded in 2009) and Scruff (2010) – apps which provide single men with a way to reach out and connect to other users, based on location. 

Then came the rise of Tinder, in 2012, whereby iPhone owners — and eventually those in the Android tribe — saw their screens turn into eBay-style meat markets for all who were looking for companionship, hook-ups, or relationships with serious legs, both literally and figuratively. Tinder was the place you had to be, and the fervour that came with it was emphasised by the fact that just two years after launch, the app was recording more than a billion “swipes” a day. In 2016, such was Tinder’s ubiquity that many interpreted Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo as a visual call to “swipe” right for her candidacy.   

Then followed those who were looking to besiege Fortress Tinder. There’s been Hinge, a sort of mashup between Tinder’s ‘hot or not’ premise and a job interview, whereby profiles allow users to masquerade behind Q+As that showcase an apparent flair for wit and sarcasm. There’s the aforementioned Bumble, in which women get the ball rolling. Coffee Meets Bagel is the ‘meaningful’ American app that curates a small selection of potential matches for you, every day at noon, which, in effect, limits your ability to compulsively doomswipe. Muzmatch is angled towards the Muslim community; JSwipe for the Jewish. Feels can cater for those who subscribe to the ‘more, the merrier’ philosophy (threesomes). Luxy is an echo chamber for the high-earners (mostly populated by Ralph Lauren newsletter subscribers and the trust fund crowd whose hairlines recede like a low tide). 

There’s also been the occasional washout. Realising that there was no clear road to profitability, Cuddli, ‘a dating app for geeks’, shut down last year. Skout, after having been linked to a series of sexual attacks in the US, suspended its under-18 service, in 2012. 

Although a headline for a 2015 Vanity Fair article read, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’”, it’s hard to contend that online swiping isn’t without its perks. Although the end goals of meeting someone haven’t exactly changed – kids, a partner with whom to watch When Harry Met Sally, frequent or one-off nooky – the way to arrive there has, with apps able to provide coup de foudre opportunities to individuals who may have never have interacted otherwise. At best, it’s a virtual flex at the gym, or a stand-in for making eyes at the bar, just without the muscle-T-shirt bartender; viewed another way, it’s an on-demand Uber request, but for sex. 

"One study found that compulsive swiping made users feel even lonelier than they did beforehand..."

Of course, wrinkles still remain. Has it gamified romance? Perhaps. In the 2018 documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, Tinder co-founder Jonathan Badeen admitted that the app’s algorithm takes its cues from a renowned 1940s psychology experiment whose patterns can be compared with slot-machine highs — although not necessarily a bad thing, the compulsive addiction of trying to connect with others can often result in one ironic symptom: one paper in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, published in 2019, found that compulsive swiping made users feel even lonelier than they did beforehand. 

Moreover, in the bloodsport-style Darwinian jungle of love and lust – a place where the laws of decency and courtesy are taken as mere suggestions – has the screening process become further ruthless? As the old-think method of a mutual friend playing Cupid has been replaced by a safe zone comprising a smartphone screen and a Wi-fi connection, the elbow room to ghost, stand up, or break off a relationship without explanation has ballooned. There’s also an argument that matching with someone outside of your natural friendship circles could conclude in a shotgun marriage. After all, in trying to navigate the swamp, the results can often be a rogues’ gallery of hubristic pretenders and chancers who swipe as though they have a time clock to punch. We can also converse for an afternoon about the phenomenon that is the unsolicited pic of the nether regions. Then – with pre-existing bias and the controversial ‘ethnicity filters’ – there’s the pressing issue of racism. 

With Bumble’s billion-dollar IPO imminent, have we only seen the tip of the dating app iceberg? Or will its fissures in Society Woke lead to an eventual undoing? Hard to say. Love can be complicated. 

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Further Reading