5 Lessons Hinge Founder Justin McLeod Learned Building the Dating App

Leandro Mortenegro
  • Justin McLeod is the founder and CEO of the dating app Hinge.
  • He said he made many mistakes in the early years of the app and was close to bankruptcy twice.
  • He told Insider how Hinge got started and five lessons he’s learned in his 11 years as a founder.

This is an edited, translated version of an article that originally appeared on October 18, 2022.

When he created Hinge in 2011, Justin McLeod was a student at Harvard Business School.

The original version of the app, called Secret Agent Cupid, failed to take off. But despite this inital failure, McLeod succeeded in turning the company into one of the biggest dating apps in the world.

Hinge began as a desktop app where McLeod and his friends could tag people they liked using their Facebook-friend lists and then get notified if the interest was mutual.

Two years later, McLeod relaunched Hinge as a mobile app, but before it could scale, the company was in danger of running out of money, he said.

In 2013, Hinge had just $25,000 left to work with, McLeod said, adding that he spent it all on a launch party to try to gain publicity and attract investors.

But by the end of the year, Hinge had raised $4 million from investors, with a further $16.5 million coming in 2014.

In 2016, McLeod decided to relaunch Hinge again. The team wanted to adapt its matching process and move away from the swipe system that its bigger competitor, Tinder, also used.

The relaunch burned through a lot of money, and McLeod went looking for investors again, but, he said, no VC wanted to invest.

Finally, in the summer of 2018, Hinge sold 51% of its shares to Match Group, the parent company of competitors like Tinder and OkCupid.

Six months later, Match Group bought the remaining shares of Hinge. The groups didn’t disclose the terms of the acquisition.

McLeod said Match Group’s takeover quickly helped Hinge grow, with the number of employees rising from about 50 to more than 200.

In 2021, Hinge generated $197 million in revenue, more than double that of the previous year. McLeod added that company has a target of generating $300 million this year.

“Looking back, I would have done many things differently. I learned a lot from the mistakes I made from 2011 to 2016,” McLeod told Insider.

He shared five key things he’s learned in his 11 years at Hinge.

  1. You can’t make every decision. “I realized that, as a boss, you have to let go sometimes and allow other people to make decisions in order to scale.”
  2. Customer satisfaction is key. “If users are satisfied because we’ve found them great dates, they’ll recommend the app to others. Customer satisfaction always leads to a successful business. And word-of-mouth is the most effective and cheapest marketing channel.”
  3. You don’t have to copy your competitors. “The product doesn’t necessarily have to look and work like the competition’s. We also had a swipe mechanism like Tinder’s and later completely rebuilt the procedure.”
  4. Don’t be afraid to change your goals. “We also changed our goals over the years: Instead of optimizing our app for metrics like engagement rate and retention rate, we focused on getting users great dates. So it was no longer about keeping customers in the app as long as possible and making money from them.”
  5. Ask your users for feedback. “We analyze our users’ behavior, which means that after some time, the app asks if they’ve had a date, if it was good, and if so, if they’d like to meet a similar person again. And the feedback helps tremendously. When we gave the profiles more features, meaning space for more photos and personal information, we found that the number of dates through Hinge increased.”
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