Tinder’s CEO met her husband on the app. Now she’s trying to fix the problems that drive women off the platform
If that phrase means something to you, thank (or blame) Tinder. The company essentially invented the modern internet-enabled dating landscape and, a decade after its launch, continues to dominate the market as the world’s No. 1 dating app. But with that success have come a host of challenges, including some—like Tinder’s rep as a “hookup app” that can be a hostile, even scary place if you’re not a straight man—that still dog the company.
That’s where Renate Nyborg comes in. Named CEO of the app in 2021, Nyborg seems to have sprung fully formed from the brain of the company’s brand marketing team. The 36-year-old is the ultimate testament to Tinder’s ability to create healthy, long-term relationships: She met her husband on the app six years ago, and still describes herself as a “happy customer.” She’s also a female CEO—the first in Tinder’s history—who made it her first order of business to dig into the experiences women and LGBTQ people were having on the app. And, in what may strike some as a low bar, she’s known as a stable, drama-free leader. “I’m just here to build,” is the closest Nyborg will get to acknowledging the contrast between her leadership and what’s come before.
Nyborg, who joined the company in 2020 as the head of its Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) business, is Tinder’s fifth CEO since its founding in 2012. Her predecessors include cofounder Sean Rad, who was accused of harassment by fellow cofounder Whitney Wolfe Herd—the future creator of Tinder competitor Bumble—and Greg Blatt, the former CEO of Tinder’s parent company, Match Group, who was accused of sexual assault by a Tinder employee. (Wolfe Herd settled her lawsuit against Tinder, in which she specified the allegations against Rad, for a reported $1 million in 2014; Blatt sued for defamation and settled in 2021, claiming the allegation was part of a scheme concocted by Rad.) In 2018, three cofounders sued the company, alleging that former Match parent IAC lowballed Tinder’s valuation. Match announced its intention to settle in 2021.
With the company’s internal dynamics offering enough drama to power a telenovela, it’s perhaps not surprising that Tinder hasn’t been able to focus on solving some of the problems that have dented its reputation—and allowed competitors to eat away at its customer base. Its parade of controversial male CEOs devoted little time to understanding the experiences—from receiving unsolicited graphic images to simply not feeling welcome—that drove women and LGBTQ people away from the app. These lingering issues have allowed competitors, like Wolfe Herd’s Bumble, to define themselves in opposition to Tinder, siphoning off users the company would very much like to have swiping away on its own app.
So far, Tinder hasn’t let its rep get in the way of its business. In 2021, the app accounted for 56% of Match Group’s $3 billion in annual revenue. It has also held on to its No. 1 status, with 44% global market share by monthly active users to Bumble’s distant-second 8.6%, according to data intelligence platform Apptopia. (In the U.S., those stats are 38.6% to 14.8%.) Bumble, however, may be catching up; its global monthly active users grew 19% between 2021 and 2022, while Tinder’s increased by 11.8% in the same time frame, Apptopia reports. And Bumble is far from Tinder’s only competitor, with some newer entries, like video- or even meme-first apps such as Snack and Schmooz, hoping to sell Gen Z on a whole different form of digital interaction with potential matches. As Snack CEO Kim Kaplan recently told the L.A. Times: “Swiping is 10 years old now.”
In Nyborg, Match Group hopes to have finally found, well, a match. The new CEO is working to improve the product for those who’ve felt excluded in the past and is tapping her global experience to help the brand expand internationally; she sees particular promise in regions like Asia, where online dating has penetrated less of the market. For Nyborg, Tinder’s future goes beyond dating. She envisions the app’s next decade (century, even, if she’s feeling ambitious) as a globally minded “place to foster meaningful human connections,” be they short term or long term, romantic or platonic, digital or offline.
“Tinder is a brand with a reputation that precedes us anywhere in the world. That’s good and that’s bad,” she says. “I’m keen for us to give Tinder a much more human face.” She sold Match leadership on her vision. Now can she persuade the rest of the world to swipe right as well?
What women want
Nyborg’s own story is something of a microcosm of the global, boundaryless future she envisions for Tinder. The daughter of a Norwegian father and a Dutch mother, she spent her earliest years in Sandnes, a port town in southern Norway. She made her first big move when she was 4, relocating to the Netherlands with her mother and brother after her parents divorced. When she was 15, Nyborg moved again, this time accompanying her father to London as she sought the opportunity to study in the U.K. Two years later, he was ready to return to his accounting job in Norway—but Nyborg wasn’t eager to move back to the tiny nation. She had settled into life as a London teenager, gaining a British accent; a place studying philosophy at Cambridge in English, her third language (she speaks five); and big dreams for her future. So the teen moved in with the parents of a school friend, where she would stay for the rest of her high school experience.
She quickly became part of the family, says David Frodsham, the father figure who took Nyborg in—though that didn’t stop her from addressing Amazon packages to herself at the “cupboard under the stairs.” The joke, a reference to Harry Potter’s orphan upbringing, was typical Renate, he says, putting her adopted family at ease by embracing her outsider status. “She certainly feels comfortable in a lot of different places,” says Frodsham, an entrepreneur and business school lecturer who also served as an early career mentor to Nyborg.
That ease and adaptability has served Nyborg well professionally. She’s spent time in the startup world—in 2013 founding Pleo, an agency that helped large companies develop their mobile strategies—yet also thrived in the corporate sphere, first as an Apple App Store executive, then running Headspace’s European business before she landed at Tinder.
Nyborg has spent her first seven months as CEO with a home base of Switzerland, so that has meant spending extensive time at Tinder offices, especially its Los Angeles main offices, getting to know employees and gaining trust. Match Group CEO Shar Dubey promoted Nyborg to the top job at Tinder in late 2021, when most employees were still working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic—so the idea of a remote or traveling CEO was less taboo than it might have been just a year earlier. But Dubey, who was based at Match’s corporate headquarters in Dallas, will step down at the end of the month, the company announced recently. Her successor is Bernard Kim, an outside hire from the gaming company Zynga, who is based in Manhattan Beach, Calif.—much closer to Tinder’s L.A. base. Nyborg has so far spent half her time traveling to Tinder’s offices in L.A., New York, Dallas, Palo Alto, and major markets like Japan, and half her time at home in Europe. With a Southern California–based boss, that balance could soon shift.
Nyborg has big ideas about what that future Tinder might be and is already noodling on what dating will look like in Web3. In 12 of its Asian markets, the company is already rolling out Tinder Coins, currency for a marketplace of virtual goods like Super Likes and Boosts. The coins can reward good behavior, like fully filling out a profile, but also allow users to pay for profile-boosting services without becoming a subscriber—a new form of monetization for the app. The coins will likely be incorporated into gaming features like “flirty word games” or “emoji games” to help break the ice in a new interaction. Match Group’s choice of Kim as CEO (he’s worked in games since 2006, at Electronic Arts before Zynga) suggests that gaming and emerging technologies will be a priority for the company’s apps in the years ahead.
But before she can dive deep into the metaverse, Nyborg is focused on fixing what she sees as the app’s fundamentals. During her year at the helm of the EMEA business, she quickly realized that improving the experiences women had on the app would be critical to achieving her business goals, which included converting more users into payers. And yet she discovered that no one in Tinder leadership had made much of an effort to understand how women felt about the app and what they wanted from it. “There were baseline experience issues and consumer problems,” acknowledges Tinder senior director of people Natalie Kiel, who has been at the company for almost six years. “And Renate became deeply interested in solving that.”
The question of how technology can better support women isn’t new to Nyborg. Earlier in her career she considered creating what she describes as “Calm for sex”—a meditation platform that would help women discover and explore intimacy. The project never came to fruition, but her passion for the idea, and for harnessing tech to tackle the problems that cause “pain, disruption, and loneliness in relationships” remains. She believes Tinder could play a bigger role in the parts of relationships that happen after users leave the app. “I think we can have a really big impact on happiness,” she says.
To gain insight into why women give up on Tinder—and what might entice them to stick around or come back—the executive set up a cross-functional team to dig into some essential questions: What would add value to women’s time on Tinder? What forms do bad experiences take? And, although Tinder doesn’t like to frame the question this way, what functions or services might women be willing to pay for? (Paying users grew 16% between 2020 and 2021—but the breakdown of Tinder’s overall user demographics suggests that revenue growth mostly came from men. In the U.S., men currently make up 58% of all users, according to mobile insights platform Data.ai.)
The group spent nine months on the project—and what they learned was surprising. Yes, women did have some concerns about safety and crimes like assault and harassment, an issue that has been a priority for many tech platforms that bring people together in person, from Uber to Airbnb. Kathryn Kosmides founded the background and safety check platform Garbo after meeting on Tinder a person who later abused her; Match integrated the startup’s background checks into Tinder in March.
But the more common feedback was that women just didn’t enjoy the time they spent on the app. Female users wanted Tinder to feel fun—like talking about a date with a girlfriend, not swiping through profiles alone while receiving a barrage of sometimes unwanted messages. Armed with this data, Tinder developed “swipe party,” a feature now in testing that allows users to swipe with friends, including friends who don’t have their own Tinder accounts. The company also created a block list, a feature that blocks selected phone contacts from seeing a user’s profile, allowing members to swipe without worrying about encountering an ex or a boss. The company also took a look at who it was tasking with building these new features; between the first and third quarters of 2021, it grew representation of women in product roles by 30%. “We’re getting closer to understanding what are the premium features that will allow more women to find meaningful connections in the way that they want,” Nyborg says.
The process introduced a new approach to the consumer experience. “As we think through Tinder 2.0, where are we underdelivering on consumer expectations?” Kiel asks. “How is the experience of a Black woman on Tinder? How is the experience of our Latinx community? We weren’t intentionally not solving for those communities before—we just weren’t having the conversations on the nuances. How do we deliver against more specific pain points than we’ve solved for in the past?”
Nyborg’s own experience on Tinder didn’t provide her with the answers to these questions; she matched with the man who would become her husband on her very first day on the app. But although her time on the platform was brief, her life experience outside of it readied her for the job too.
Love at first swipe
Nyborg doesn’t like to get into the details, but she says she faced a difficult childhood. A constant through all of it was her younger brother Ruben. The siblings were close; when they were growing up in Dutch tulip country, they would often wear matching clothes—much to the confusion of neighbors trying to tell them apart, says Nyborg. But as adults they had followed divergent paths. Nyborg’s response to turmoil at home was to throw herself into her schoolwork, setting her up for a path as a high achiever. Ruben didn’t finish school. He later taught himself to code—he and his sister always shared a love of technology—and moved to South Korea for a new job as an IT manager just as Nyborg was getting her first startup, the mobile agency Pleo, off the ground.
Two months after Nyborg launched Pleo, Ruben died in an accident in South Korea. She responded to the tragedy in the same way she had always faced adversity: She put her head down and she kept going. “I kept running the business for a year and a half. I didn’t cry,” she remembers now. “Until I woke up one morning and I couldn’t get out of bed.”
She shut down her company, spent some time traveling in Myanmar, and discovered meditation. She also got divorced and, for a time, had no interest in pursuing new relationships. But on a Brazilian vacation to ring in New Year’s Eve in 2015, one of her friends urged her to give Tinder a shot.
Back home in London, Nyborg downloaded the app and uploaded the bare minimum: just one photo and short bio (far from best practices, she says now). Four days into the new year, she was sitting on the couch watching Les Hommes de L’Ombre, a French TV show about political spin doctors, when she matched with a real-life French policy expert. “The icebreaker was instantly there,” she says. Nyborg was working as an App Store business manager for Apple’s Nordic markets, while Grégoire was working for a telecommunications company, so the pair chose a date that was also a career pun: an exhibit featuring Alexander Calder, the sculptor who invented the original mobile.
Today, Nyborg and Grégoire live in Verbier, Switzerland, often spending time with his three children from a previous marriage. But her brief stint as a Tinder user is on her mind as she envisions the future of the app. Take something as simple as her opening line with Grégoire: “We spend a lot of time thinking about how to create icebreakers,” she says. “Icebreakers that are personal to you will give you a much better chance of finding someone and building a meaningful connection.”
While Nyborg’s personal relationship to Tinder wasn’t critical to her hire, it certainly didn’t hurt. “I never question her passion for Tinder’s mission,” says outgoing CEO Dubey. Nyborg’s résumé also offered an irresistible combination. “We knew she had startup backgrounds, and we knew she was scrappy,” says Dubey. “But she had also worked at large companies, and figured out how to take a U.S.-based technology solution and internationalize it.”
For all the chaos of Tinder’s founding, the app revolutionized dating, forever changing how people meet and taking Match Group from the old guard to the cutting edge of the online dating industry. In Match’s earnings reports, Tinder fills half of the revenue pie chart while the other dozen-plus brands get lumped into the categories like “emerging.” Says Jefferies analyst Brent Thill: “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
At this point in its life cycle, the only way for Tinder to notch significant growth is to look beyond the U.S. The app is already available in 190 countries and 45 languages, but Nyborg believes there’s more to do. To begin with, she wants to market and build each international version of Tinder in a way that feels local and attuned to the culture and trends in its home country. As an example, Nyborg points to Sweden, where she says Tinder is now the No. 1 way new couples meet. While leading the EMEA region during the pandemic, she noticed a 500% surge in the words “paddle tennis” on users’ profiles in the country. The game had become so popular that courts were booked for months—so Nyborg’s team built a Tinder-branded paddle tennis court where matches could meet up.
At home in the U.S., Tinder is focused on winning Gen Z, an age demographic that accounts for more than half its user base. Its longstanding popularity with young users also led to its reputation an app for finding short-term flings. “People come to Tinder when they’re 18. Depending on their life stage, they’ll also be able to [later] find love and marriage on the app,” Nyborg explains. “But hookups are great if that’s what you’re looking for. We totally embrace that.”
Building for today’s 18-year-olds requires creating a more inclusive app; the share of users under 30 who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community has doubled in the past three years. So far, the app has introduced 30 different gender identities, nine sexual orientations, and features like “travel alert,” which tells LGBTQ+ users when they might consider hiding their profiles for safety while traveling. Nyborg takes the app’s responsibility to the youngest generation seriously, saying Tinder’s role is “to help them learn how to date.”
But Gen Z’s approach to gender and sexuality—and online dating—represents a sea change. This generation doesn’t want more options on the list of boxes to check, they want to get rid of the boxes altogether. Tinder is tight-lipped about what could mean from a user perspective, but one possibility is that adding your biographical information and preferences to the app could eventually be less about choosing immutable categories and more like setting a daily, or hourly, spectrum of identifiers.
“When we speak to Gen Z, one thing that inspires us the most is that they feel like they can have different identities based on the people they’re with,” Nyborg says. “When you read about young people having five different Twitter accounts or several different Instagram profiles, it simply means they want to be able to express themselves in different ways at different times.”
Match Group picked an appropriate moment to bring in new leadership. In December 2021 the company announced its intention to settle for $441 million a multiyear lawsuit brought by former Tinder founders and employees, who alleged that IAC lowballed Tinder’s valuation. (“I never met the founders,” Nyborg says when asked to comment on the suit.) Closing that controversial chapter of the company’s history could offer a chance at a fresh start—and an opportunity for Nyborg to bring Tinder’s full focus to her vision for its future.
The CEO says that every business decision she’s made at Tinder so far comes down to one question: “How does this keep the magic of human connection alive?” While Nyborg found one traditional marker of “success” through Tinder—marriage—in her own life, she says there’s no hierarchy of outcomes; instead, it’s all about helping users achieve connection, in whatever form they wish it to take. That relationship could last for the span of a set of messages exchanged on the app, a night, or a lifetime.
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