A conversation with Bumble’s Chief Operating Officer, Sarah Jones Simmer, on creating a product that builds community with a brand that has a voice and a culture. Engagement in digital spaces is a key part of business strategy, playing a role in everything from product validation to entire business models. But in order to have customer engagement, you have to build a space where people actually want to be. So what does this look like in action? We find out.
[00:08] Welcome to Season 2 of It’s Worth Doing Right. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes: passionate pragmatist, and the Head of Product Strategy at Accomplice. Engagement is a heavily touted metric in the digital space – companies rely on engagement for everything from product validation to their entire business model. But in order to have customer engagement, you have to build a space where people actually want to be. In the world of relationship connections, engagement isn’t just about your product – it’s about creating a culture. Trust is paramount in building a community. Because without trust, there is no engagement. So what does it take to build a brand around trust? How do you evolve a product into a platform that serves the interest of its users in a meaningful way? To get a sense of the effort, we talked with someone immersed in the process of doing just that.
[00:45] Hi, my name is Sarah Jones. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Bumble.
[00:49] We’re really excited to have you today. Just to start with, can you let people know what Bumble is?
[00:54] Bumble has its origins – where most people might know of the brand – as a dating app. We are the female-first way to make connections in your life. We started on the romantic connection side, in the dating world. But we’ve recently expanded into finding friends through Bumble BFF, as well as making professional networking connections through Bumble Biz, which launched in the fall of last year.
[01:19] Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of Bumble’s mission, from where you are today versus how that’s evolved from where you started?
[01:27] Sure. Bumble is the brainchild of a woman named Whitney Wolfe Heard. She was an early employee of Tinder, and saw this opportunity to revolutionize the way that connections were being made in a really digital-first context, and what apps were bringing to us in terms of how we could connect with people around us. After she left Tinder and was starting Bumble, it really was an opportunity for her to think about the pain points in her own life – especially as a woman – and how she can build a product-driven solution for that. That’s where the idea of women making the first move came from. And so on Bumble, unique to other dating apps, only the women can initiate a conversation. So if you match in a heterosexual relationship, the female is required to start the dialogue. In a same sex relationship. either party can speak first. That mission around empowering women, putting them in the driver’s seat, and flipping the gender dynamics in the dating world had a lot of opportunity to be expanded into other ways that people connect in their lives. So one thing we’ve been really excited to explore is how do we think about the most important connections in a woman’s life, and use this tool that we’ve developed on the dating side to help her make connections in other ways?
[02:40] Bumble BFF was the first extension of that. We looked at behavior that we were actually seeing our users do on the app, users that were saying, “I’m not here to date, but I’m new to this city and I’d like to make friends,” or “I’m visiting Montreal for the weekend, and I’d like to figure out what I could do in the city.” They were taking advantage of the efficiency of swiping to connect with people, and making these really localized connections. And they wanted to do it in other ways. So we built the Bumble BFF product to address that really real demand. It’s been exciting to see how now people are taking that in: they’re finding roommates, they’re finding people to go have wine nights with, moms are finding friends as they transition into a new stage of their lives. Something that we’re really excited about which launched somewhat recently is Bumble Biz, which takes that same female-first approach to business networking. We have so much respect for companies like LinkedIn, and what they’ve built in terms of recruiting, and job searching, and helping you develop your professional career. But we felt like there was this big white space in terms of how you build your network locally. This idea of going to one of those awkward networking mixers, where everybody’s wearing a name tag, and you’re trying to rotate around the room and figure out who you need to talk to? That’s such an antiquated way to build your professional network. We literally have the tools at our fingertips to do this far more efficiently, and that’s the vision for Biz.
[04:00] Although end users have wants and needs of any platform, those aren’t the only data points that have to be considered when evolving a product strategically. In order to make meaningful progress, user insight is critical – but the path forward has to be viewed from a more holistic standpoint that includes both data and instinct.
[04:18] I think it’s always a delicate balance of listening to your community and seeing what they’re organically doing. Our users are the lifeblood of this company, right? And if we don’t cater to them and the products that they want to see, the features that they want to see, they have plenty of other options to go find things. So we always want to be at the forefront of delivering to their needs. Then at the same time, there is something to this vision, product-savant type thing – which I think is what Whitney and some of the other people on our team do so well. It’s thinking about what needs – that people haven’t even identified yet – that exist in their life.
[04:55] When we talk about evolution of the brand and of the platform, we really are thinking about Bumble as so much more than a dating app – we’re thinking about it as a social networking platform. It’s the Facebook for people you haven’t met yet. That said, we’re also thinking beyond connections now. I think we’re building Bumble as a brand, not just a platform. And that brand gives us permission to go into users’ lives in other really interesting and exciting areas. So we announced recently that we’re developing Bumble Media. We know that our user, especially our female user, has an incredibly strong desire for content and that she’s going to want to see relevant content that relates to her: her wellbeing, and her lifestyle, and the choices and connections that she’s making. We have a unique point of view to offer to that user, so we’re building out this media property that really serves those needs. And we have a lot of other interesting ideas that are bubbling up in the pipeline. We think about this larger brand designed to empower women, to end misogyny, and to really promote equality in relationships. There are so many directions that can go for us. We’re literally just scratching the surface, and we’re so excited about 2018 and beyond for that reason.
[06:04] Yeah, and it sounds like establishing trust is a huge piece of that. So how does a brand like Bumble go about establishing trust with your users, and what have been some of the biggest victories for you?
[06:18] I think that trust piece is really at the forefront of our minds. It’s that safety element, like you said – our users know that they can rely on Bumble to have their backs, and we do that in a range of ways. So it’s small things, like if we hear from a user that she was stood up on a date, or that she had a really negative experience, there’s limits what we can do in that moment to solve that problem.
[06:42] But we will send her flowers, and we will have one of our senior team members personally and call her on the phone. Every single user’s experience matters so much to us. We really cherish that user feedback and we use it to then develop new features that help to prevent others from having that same thing happened again. Creating that through-line of making our users feel like they’re listened to and that they’re helping us inform what we do next is a great way to build that trust and that loyalty. We have put requirements in place that try to create that culture of trust and safety. So we have a ban on shirtless mirror selfies, for example, because we were hearing from our users that that wasn’t something that they wanted to see in their experience. They wanted to get a better understanding of who you are as a person, not what you look like in a bathroom mirror when you take a selfie. Creating those safeguards so that people trust that when they open our app, the experience that they’re going to get when they’re flipping through is not going to show them something that they’re not interested in seeing. And that’s not our desire to be the prude. It’s much more about us thinking of how we might create this culture of empowerment, and equality, and letting women drive the conversations around their relationships.
[07:51] At the same time, we’ve also taken really public stances on things that we have seen on our platform that we wanted to call out as really inappropriate behavior. Two things immediately come to mind. We issued an open letter to a gentleman named Connor about 18 months ago, who had engaged in a conversation with a female user on the platform. For some reason, based on her line of questioning, he chose to call her out for being a gold digger, for being only interested in his job and his money. And when we reviewed the discussion between the two of them, that wasn’t our understanding at all and we were not going to tolerate him shaming her for those reasons. We’re about a community for empowerment and equality. And this conversation couldn’t stand.
[08:36] So we published an open letter, which is called the Dear Connor letter, that called out that behavior and banned him from the app for life. We have zero tolerance for people like that if they’re not abiding by our community standards. And Bumble holding those community standards in high regard is incredibly important to the way that we build this culture of community for our user base. We’ve put a lot of commitment and dedication into this trust question, and I’m glad that you asked it. We launched a partnership in the wake of Charlottesville with the Anti-Defamation League, and have been working with them to identify hate speech and hate symbols on the app by leveraging things like our visual recognition, artificial intelligence, and and big data, in terms of dissecting language and visuals. We’ve banned hate speech and hate symbols from being included in profiles, and so when were served up a user that’s using inappropriate language or imagery, it allows us to take action immediately. Because again, we take those standards very seriously, and we want our users to know that they’re coming to a place that supports empowerment and equality and these kindness-driven dialogues, as opposed to a place where hate is allowed to spread freely.
[09:46] Absolutely. It sounds like a lot of public accountability as well, on the part of Bumble. If you’re writing open letters and working with organizations to try and improve the platform, that’s a lot of public accountability for you all, which I’m sure further enhances the trust of consumers as well.
[10:04] I think we’re at this interesting moment culturally – and I’ve seen the sea change in the last decade or so – where mission-driven brands, and brands that stand for something more than profitability, are making huge strides in both public consciousness and in their ability to make money and be successful companies. My background comes through investing and strategy consulting, and I spend a lot of time studying what makes companies successful. And investing in successful companies. And sometimes in not so successful companies. I think you’re seeing this emphasis on social good and being mission-driven taking off in a new way, because consumers are demanding it. Consumers want to associate with brands that stand for something more. It’s a badge of honor that they wear by being affiliated with it.
[10:48] So we’ve talked a little bit about the evolution of Bumble from a product into a platform. What, for you especially, is the difference between strategically building out a product versus a platform?
[11:02] I think that’s another really good question. A product, to me, is about identifying and solving a need, and developing a product around that. And so that’s what we saw, for example, when the initial dating platform was launched. It was “how do we create this experience that puts women in the driver’s seat, as she’s trying to make a romantic connection?”. This is an experience that a lot of women have had, like wishing that you had HIS phone number and he didn’t have yours, and that you wouldn’t be judged for making the first outreach.
[11:34] Identifying that very real need and designing a solution around it? To me, that’s sort of the crux of what makes a good product. As we think about what makes a platform versus a product, I think it’s about scale, and reach, and the ability to design and build new products, and new features, and new elements around that – but creating a larger platform that is scalable and sustainable. So as we think about transitioning from a dating app as a product to a social network as a platform, we see opportunity to build a platform for all the different types of connections in your life. A platform where you’re going to be able to find media content that you’re interested in. A platform where you’re going to be able to deepen the relationships that you’ve already built. We’re giving you resources and tools. It’s just a case of taking those products and those features that have worked so well, and scaling in a much larger fashion across something that’s a much bigger vision and potential for the future.
[12:30] You’ve mentioned quite a few bubbles/key differentiators, but what has been Bumble’s biggest competitive edge in a marketplace that’s, at this point, fairly crowded?
[12:46] When you say “marketplace fairly crowded”, I assume that means within the dating app world.
[12:50] Yes. I was specifically talking about dating apps.
[12:56] As we think about our legacy in the dating space, we’ve stayed laser-focused on our core values and our core mission, which has been about empowering women and helping them make the first move in that relationship. We’ve built now kind of a wide and deep moat of the brand around us, where people have come to make that association with Bumble and what we’ve built. And I think that’s a distinct competitive edge. The brand, essentially, is our competitive edge as we look at our peers in the dating space.
[13:28] Absolutely. And for a lot of the work that we do (especially strategically), we know that you can build out a brand, and people can have a relationship with a brand. And you can build out a platform, so that people go to the platform because it gives them access to what they want. But building a brand AND a platform gives you a unique intersection strategically to build a relationship, which is what you’re talking about.
[13:51] Yeah, that’s so true. I’ve never thought about it exactly that way, but I think you’re right. The companies that we admire in terms of building a platform, whether that’s a Facebook or an Instagram, or these places that have become meeting places and formats for people to come together and connect in new and meaningful ways? That’s a distinct group that’s focused on the platform side.
[14:13] There are a handful of brands that we look to and admire on all scales. Whether that’s an Ikea or a Gucci, or emerging brands like a Glossier, we are looking at what they do and how they build customer loyalty and this ferocious attachment to the brand. And we’re trying to build something that marries both of those things in a way that I don’t think any brand has ever done before.
[14:38] Absolutely. It’s also a brave approach, too, because a lot of the reluctance to do that for other organizations or other platforms is this fear of alienating potential consumers. But what you’re talking about is really attracting a very laser-focused attraction of your core demographic, and folks that are really going to resonate with the message that you’re bringing to the marketplace.
[15:00] Yeah, I think that’s right. And for us, that has meant that we’ve built our platform and the brand with women first, and women in mind first, but never at the expense and alienation of men. I think that’s really important for us. Like we want to be a meeting place for people, period.
[15:18] Bumble is a company founded by a woman and with women in the C-suite. And I cannot overstate how rare that is, especially in the tech industry. It’s very rare. So when we talk about impact, and you’ve talked about impact a lot, but specifically in terms of business impact: what impact do you feel that has had on your success as an organization, and what are some lessons that you think other organizations can take from your success?
[15:45] I love talking about this because I think that Bumble has an opportunity not only to develop this incredible platform and brand, but also to really shine a spotlight on how a female-founded, female-led company can do things differently and still achieve an enormous amount of success, by any standard that you would look at in terms of growth, revenue, etc.
[16:09] Because our entire C-suite is female, we really do prioritize issues of, for example: how do we create a culture that is supportive of working motherhood? I have two small children, how do we normalIze this idea of being a badass employee? And also being the committed parent, and how you create the version of success for yourself, and how we, as a company, can empower that. If I need to have my baby in the Ergo carrier in an important conference call with an investor, let’s just do that. Let’s like let’s create a culture whereby that’s welcomed and encouraged and supported in a way that allows us to achieve both our professional dreams and our parenthood dreams.
[16:53] We’ve done a lot of thinking around working motherhood, and created a really beautiful nursing room, for example, in the office. We have policies around maternity leave, and in purchasing a breast pump for women when she comes back from maternity leave, and really trying to lean into those things.
[17:09] I think also by nature of some of the instincts that women have in terms of how we work best together, the ways that we might want to collaborate through decision-making processes, the way that we might try to socialize an idea that is handled differently perhaps in corporate structures that have maybe been designed around more masculine behaviors. We’re seeing the success of that. Our global marketing strategy is led by two people, instead of one. They work together and have an ability to compliment each other’s skillsets, and also call out each other’s blind spots, is a really interesting way to think about how you build a company for success and for growth in the future without inheriting the definitions that we have from the way things have been done up until now.
[18:00] Success is a great testament to the fact that it’s working for you all. So one final question, and this is really about you. We would like to know what you’re currently working on, either personally or professionally, that you’re feeling excited about right now.
[18:14] As I hope you could tell from this conversation, there’s just so much on the Bumble front that we’re so excited about. We recently announced Bumble Media, and that’s a big priority for us in 2018. On the personal front, my youngest is about to turn one, and I’m really hoping she’ll start sleeping through the night. But we can’t always have what we want.
[18:35] To create a brand with a platform that handles people’s most intimate connections, you have to build trust in the most old-fashioned of ways: by being consistent, reliable, and paying attention. You have to hold yourself accountable, both internally and publicly, to the standards that you’ve set for your community. Being tuned-in to the needs of your users is not only good practice – it’s critical in making people feel like valued co-collaborators in your platform. Feeling listened to is an important part of feeling safe, which is a core value of organizations like Bumble. Being mission-driven is good business, and today’s connected consumers are far more interested in engaging with embodied brands than empty products.
[19:15] Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. To see more content from the Accomplice team or leave us feedback, visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.