Be You Network launched the role model campaign "Gender Shapers 2020", a worldwide series of gender+ entrepreneurs' portraits. They will share their stories, their business journey and their advice to make your idea a reality, from launch to impact.
This week, we had a talk with Robyn Exton, the CEO of HER, an Award-winning app for dating, chatting and browsing. Robyn told us about her journey from London, her first SketchUps and early adopters, to San Francisco, her $2.5 Million fundraisings, and 6 Million users community. Robyn’s amazing success story did not come without intense work and continuous efforts. She shared with us keys to success and precious advice for every entrepreneur.
“There are always hard times but don’t run away: the most important thing is to face realities as early as possible so you can actually tackle them!”
I am Robyn Exton, I was born in Canada and grew up in Kent, about an hour south of London. I went to University in Bristol, in West England, where I studied Geography, something I really liked, but I mostly was into clubbing! After I graduated, I moved to London.
When I was about to leave University, I was at a birthday party with high school friends, a guy just asked me if I had a job. I did not have a job lined up, so he just offered me one. I graduated on a Wednesday and on Monday, I started working in advertising post-production. We used to work on basically any ad campaign, executing it, translating it for all different platforms and channels from buses, magazines, or newspapers. After two years, I went to work with a branding agency, and with a client in the dating business. He had made a large number of dating platforms, he was looking for different ideas and I learned a lot working with them about the industry.
I was a big nightclub person in London, in Soho first, because you think it’s where the gays are until I discovered the East London scene with amazing events, super attractive people, so cool, so creative and inspiring. I felt really powerful to be part of that community and I loved it! It was 2012 and Tinder had not started yet at that time. I was using this ugly website, that was the main platform women used for dating but it did not reflect at all what I would see in the night scene. The experience was bad and it did not make me feel good using it.
My friend used to be on Grindr and we loved how empowering it was. Gay men had opportunities they never had, that even straight people never had, to find who was also single and connect and chat in the same immediate way. It was a real game-changer and I am still admirative. This sense of immediacy was a big part of the transformation of how people saw meeting someone from the Internet. Before it was always perceived as very dangerous and scary and it shifted hugely to a safe way to meet new people, using the same tool. For women on platforms, the concern for safety is much more important and the reality is that women do not meet up as frequently as men do. In queer women’s space, there is much more online chat and engagement before people meet up.
The very first day, there was no one on the app...
“The first thing we did, was to create a website to collect emails, so I would have a list of contacts I could reach when the app was about to be online. I also would do different marketing things. For example, I went to Pride with a camera, took photos of people, and gave them a card for my website, where they had to give me their email so they could see their pictures.
On the very first day of the launch, there was no one on the app, so I messaged all of my school friends and my queer friends and ask them to create a profile so the app does not look completely empty. It started slowly with two users a day, and then five users a day, and it’s gone up to twenty users a day! In the first couple of months, I knew all of the people. I remember I went to a club and I recognized this girl who had just signed up earlier in the day.
I literally spent every Thursday, Friday, Saturday in night clubs, talking to people, telling about the app. I would buy a bottle of Tequila and give a shot if they downloaded and created a profile in front of me. This kind of acquisition was not particularly scalable and took a long time to get those first users, but I was able to hear a lot more of feedbacks from them and I even could see how they were using the app.
You need to accept you will never see your first 5.000 users again.
They are going to make a profile and then disappear. In our first version called Dattch, we did things like you could not close your account. We just needed to keep every profile as long as possible. It was only after we reached 5.000 users, we started seeing users sticking around for a few months.
Then, you start seeing community momentums, users would start to tell to each other, your organic channels start working. We were an early entry in the App Store to the category, so we had a pretty good App Store ranking that helped us to enlarge our community. Today we have 6 million users.
Opening in America was a major momentum for our growth, as it is a much bigger market. We also had a much higher usage in the US because dating was already a social activity for Americans, while it was not so common in the UK. We launched city by city, doing Public Relations campaigns and localized marketing with existing events producers and we also started launching our own parties.”
Before you have enough users it is difficult to understand their real needs
It was 2013 when we launched the first version Dattch, which was very similar to Grindr. I thought I would have casual sex and women all would want to do that and we just needed a cool brand to feel comfortable doing it and feel empowered... but in reality, it was not the case!
During this Dattch stage, I got in an accelerator in London, raised first-round money, hired first people to join the team and it turned to HER only in 2015. It was a really big learning curve, getting the difference between the conscious level, what people say they want to do, what they think their motivation is, versus what they actually want to do, what their behaviors tell us about their actual motivation. We figured it later on with the testing methods.
At first, and this is something users still express, people said they want to see a map to see where all the women are, so they can have casual hookups. But when we asked when was the last time you did that, people were like “well, I never really done that...”. We learned a lot during the Dattch phase: it was working very much like Grindr but it did not match how the majority of our users were looking to meet and talk to each other.
Our app is based on a Market Place model: people are like the products. You cannot be totally sure, in the early days if you just miss users, or if the product does not provide the right experience. After six months we had around 3.000 users, so we started having an idea of how people were using it and what was happening. We spent a lot of time talking to them, seating together, asking them questions, studying retention metrics like who comes back on day 3 or day 7, how frequently users come back, and if they don’t, trying to figure out why is that.
We tested like three innovations a week for years so we could find a few game-changing feature
“We had seen another gap with Grindr, in terms of browsing behaviors: where Grindr users would come back two or three times a day, womxn would come back 2 or 3 times a week on our app. We also got surprised our users would skip the first and closest profiles. We found out our users did not care so much about the distance, as they were not looking to meet right away or in the next couple of hours but maybe only the next Saturday. Based on the different needs and users journeys we identified, we thought we needed profiles with more information so users have more things to talk about during that time before they meet up.
It was not until we reached 30.000 users that we had enough data to capture users’ behaviors through metrics. Before that, you only can only seat with users and try to figure out what they mean from what they say.
In 2015, it was a period of very hard work and very hard growth, and this is when we made major changes. Initially, we used to have the “double-blind option”. You could not have a match before the other person would say yes as well. There were not many matches, so we shifted to a system in which the person would receive your like and can decide to match back or not. We added options like Facebook and Instagram login, which was very valuable. We tested like three innovations a week for years so we could find a few game-changing features.”
Sometimes the easiest way to fundraise is when you don't have any revenue
“I started off with Sketchup wireframes, learning about the start-up scene and going to all the startup events in London, trying to find a co-founder, learning to code myself, trying to save money, take on extra jobs, I even move to my dad for a while to save on rent… I saved up about £10.000 and I applied to a lot of competitions to get grants. At the time, there was not any LGBT Tech scene, but I joined the ones focused on female founders, like banks holding workshop courses, organizing pitches competitions where someone would win a £5000. Later on, I also won another grant at the first Lesbian Who Tech conference.
After I joined an accelerator in London, I did a small angel round, then I raised my first million. It took me 8 months, pitching to a lot of angel investors. I raised another million when I was with Y Combinator. In total, I raised $2.5 Million, but we are now profitable so will probably not raise money again.
Sometimes the easiest way to fundraise is when you don't have any revenue because the thought of what the revenue could be is much more powerful than the reality of what it actually is, but you definitely always need a plan of what the revenue is going to come from.”
You should analyze your ecosystem, see what they are doing, and replicate that model, and then refine it.
“Dating has a pretty well-established model of Premium features and Premium experiences. In the old model of matches, you use to have a very high threshold: you could even not read a message if you were not a paying customer. People expected to pay for dating. It is always extremely recommended to look at other people within your industry or similar businesses and see how they are monetizing. You don't have to reinvent the wheel just because you have a slightly different type of content. If you are in publishing, for example, there are tons of short story platforms that exist, for teenagers, for moms or erotica... There are great products in this space, you should see what they are doing and replicate that model and then refine it.
I knew we would do Premium subscriptions, I recommend this as a business model to absolutely everyone: it is the most beautiful and brilliant revenue model. It is recurring, consistent, and reliable revenue: you are going to get at least a few months of revenue before the user might cancel, sometimes you have revenue for a few years. “
Testing is key to innovate the right way.
“We could not build all the Premium features at once. We listed all the features that existed in other dating apps and we built up testing metrics to try to understand for our users which should be built now, to start making money as soon as possible. We made those fake purchase features, for example, we would ask "Do you want to buy Premium filters?" and when the users would say yes, they would have to insert their credit card and they would receive a message "Thank you, we will let you know when this is launched, you have not been charged". This is very important to differentiate things people say they would be ready to pay for and things people actually would make a payment for.
We used to make money through our events, now we host online events and we make revenue through sponsorship with brands. We also have in-app advertising but you usually need to wait a long time. One of our advisors said it clearly: "don't even think about advertising before you have at least a million daily active users, otherwise it does not worth your time". We are not there, but we have a very specific audience, that is a very valuable niche to the brands and a lot of them want to connect with our users, so we were able to start advertising a bit earlier. With our events, brands reach fewer people than in-app but it allows them to have deeper connections and conversations with them. “
Work your ass off, but trust your team, and let other people make decisions
“One of my superpowers is that I am very strong-minded: I would work harder, more hours, being more resilient. This is my mantra and it worked really well for my first years. It can also be a superpower being totally ignorant of what you are undertaking, the hardship of it. It is better not to know, keep working, and keep pushing and not realizing the journey you have ahead. You need an incredible determination, keep your head down and work your ass off, as hard as you can. The time you have no money, the only you do have is time: if you can put in more hours and do more progress and in the most effective way, picking the right things at the right time and just keep pushing forward, it’s going to have a huge impact on what you are creating. I think I reached the point after six or seven years where I was tired for the first time, I realized I needed to figure out how to create a better balance.
Now it’s a shift of motivation. Before, I run the company was a lot of what was in my head, and working with other people was about making it happen. I was missing a huge opportunity, letting these other people decide what would be the right thing to do. It took about a year to change the culture in the company and now my job is much more chill, I do a lot less stuff, but I can see all of these other great people doing really cool things in the company and making choice I would have never thought of myself or chosen to do and it is magical.“
Don’t run away from reality. Face it and tackle it!
“There are always hard times, I think I am lucky that my hard times rarely last longer than a day. Basically, I have a really big ego and I cannot accept the idea of failure for this company. When things get bad, if I am having a bad day on it, the next day I am like “I am not fucking lose!”, I would figure out how to make it work. Whether it’s about people, product or finances, I would take myself off for a weekend and really hard digging in to figure out where are the numbers, what is happening, why it is happening. It is very easy to start conversations and avoid the actual truth like we are not making money, people don’t like this product, this is not working. The most important thing is to face realities as early as possible so you can actually tackle it and don’t run away!”
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