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An encounter with Joel Simkhai, founder of Grindr

 

Despite the rising number of countries that have legalized gay marriage, being homosexual is far from easy in many parts of the world today. Numéro spoke about the situation with Joel Simkhai, the founder of hook-up application Grindr.

Portrait by Stéphane Gallois.

 

Numéro: You were born in Tel-Aviv. What’s your first childhood memory?

Joel Simkhai: I must have been three or four. It was Purim, which is like the Jewish Halloween. I was dressed as a rabbit.

 

You were dressed as a rabbi?

No, no, not a rabbi, a rabbit! The rabbi came later. I’ll show you that photo. [Laughs.]

 

You left Tel-Aviv at a young age.

I was three, it was in 1979. We moved to Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. The economy in Israel was pretty bad at the time, and my dad wanted a shot at better opportunities. His older brother had moved to the States, and he wanted, you know, to find the American dream... Times weren’t easy in Tel-Aviv back then, it was only in the 90s that Israel really grew and developed. It was still very agricultural in the 70s.

 

Was there tourism?

I’m sure some Jews went back there at times, but it hadn’t become the  place it is today. We’d go every year and stay at my grandmother’s house, and I’d watch television, but there was only one channel in Israel.

 

Oh my God!

Yeah. And at 11.00 pm it would shut down! So there’d be a movie, like, you know, a 20-year-old movie, and then they’d play Israel’s national anthem and it would shut down. There was very little original content. It was interesting, because each time I went back to Israel I could see the progress. I could see the States by the late 70s and 80s had developed early on and had a good economy. It was cool to see the transition between the States and Israel over the years. And gay life too. When I first started going out as a gay guy in Israel in my early 20s, about 15 years ago, there was only one gay bar, open on Tuesday and Friday nights. There simply weren’t that many options. Now, there are thousands of TV channels and hundreds of different parties and gay bars. So Israel has advanced pretty dramatically over the years.

 

How is homosexuality seen in Judaism?

The same way as in Catholicism: it’s condemned in some of the holy texts, but unless they’re super religious the average Jewish person is fine with it. But at the beginning of my adult life, as a Jew, I was closeted. I only came out at the end of college.

 

Why were you closeted?

I was worried I wouldn’t be able to have a normal life, that I’d be some kind of outcast, not able to get married and have children, or find a job, and that I’d have a marginalized existence. Because I felt that a lot of the gay people I knew at the time were marginalized, lonely...

 

This wasn’t that long ago...

I’m now 39, and my whole coming out process was like from 17 to 22, so, yeah, 20 years ago. Which is a generation ago. And now we have great gay role models. There’s Tim Cook, for example, the CEO of Apple, the most valuable company in the world. There wasn’t that kind of role model when I was growing up. Nor were there any married gay guys with kids. So I had this fear of a lifestyle that wouldn’t be accepted. That’s what kept me in the closet.

 

Were you also scared you wouldn’t be accepted by your parents?

Sure. I think that, like most parents, they wanted me to have kids and get married. And with me it never even crossed their mind. When I told them, my dad said, “I thought your brothers might be gay, but I never thought you were.”

 

Why, are both your brothers gay?

Yeah.

 

There must have been something in the water!

The younger one, Jonathan, is a fashion designer based in New York. My older brother, Amir, is also in Manhattan, and got married to a man about three years ago. And he’s just had kids, a boy and a girl who will be one in a few weeks.

 

Do you want children?

Potentially – I love kids! But it’s obviously a big commitment, it’s life changing, and it’d probably be easier to deal with a partner first... I don’t have one right now.

 

It’d be a good first step, sure!

I mean I could have a child on my own you know, and maybe I will... We’ll see what happens.

 

What business are your parents in?

My dad’s a diamond dealer, he works on 47th and Fifth, the diamond district. He has an office, buys and sells diamonds. Trading. Tel-Aviv was a big diamond capital you know.And my mom’s a jewellery designer. She designs Jewish religious pendants. But when I was growing up she didn’t work, she raised us, she was a house mom. After I graduated, she was a school teacher and then she went into jewellery.

 

Did you have a lot of friends at school?

No, not really. I was feminine, and didn’t play sports with the other guys. I wasn’t doing what the other boys were doing. I had a tough time getting connected to other boys. I gravitated around the girls, but that made it even worse. There was some teasing, and some bullying, and then at about 15 I ran for student government. And that was a pivotal moment for me. I had to go on stage, make a speech. And you’re supposed to be a bit of a leader. That really helped me to kind of come out of my shell, and find my comfort, and myself. I was dating girls at the time, so I had a girlfriend...

 

Oh my god, you dated girls?!

Yeah. To start out with I was straight, then I had a phase where I was bi, and now I’m just gay!

 

What was your first job after college?

Mergers and acquisitions basically. Advising companies on M&A and raising capital.

 

I’m sorry this is Chinese to me.

It wasn’t much fun, it’s true. And then the internet boom hit, and I left finance to work for a start-up. That was a lot of fun, but after that the company fizzled out with the internet bust. That was in 2001, and afterwards I went to work for NBC news. I’m a big news junkie. At the time there was a lot going on in Israel, and they needed someone who spoke Hebrew. It was a pretty cool job, but it didn’t pay very well, which was very hard in Manhattan.

 

And then you launched Grindr in 2009.

Yeah. But in between I started selling magazines online. Then I moved to L.A. in March 2008, and in June of that year Steve Jobs announced the second generation of iPhones with GPS and the ability to develop third-party apps. I immediately knew I wanted to use that to meet guys. I’d already been thinking about easier ways to meet. When I was living in Manhattan I would wonder about the guys who lived around my block, or the guys in the bar I went to – how do I meet them? I wanted to do something with that, really focused on proximity and location.

 

But when they released the iPhone, were you like, “I want to launch a successful app,” or was it more, “I want to be able to meet guys”?

I didn’t think about the business. I just wanted this app, and I wanted to find a way to do it. I didn’t have that much money at the time. So I found a friend who was interested, and then a developer online. To be honest we didn’t have much of a business plan. This was back in the early days of apps. Today it’s very common to start an application, but ours was one of the very first generation of apps, probably number 10,000 or something. To put it into perspective, today there are well over a million apps out there.

 

Was there an advantage in being a pioneer?

Oh yes, there were definitely some advantages to getting in there early. Today if someone were to say, “Hey, I’m going to create an app for gay guys to meet other gay guys!”, the chances of their being successful and making it work as a business are very, very low.

 

Do you think that since Grindr was launched, gay guys don’t go out anymore? People always say that.

I don’t understand why people say that! When I go out I see a lot of people on Grindr. You know when you go to a bar and think, “Ugh, when was this last renovated? Why does it take half an hour to get a drink? Why can’t I find somewhere to sit?” Right? And then the bar closes down and they blame Grindr. Hey buddy, you didn’t invest any money in your bar! And maybe it’s tough for them, and they don’t have the money to invest, I don’t know. I’m not here to pick on bars. But the beautiful thing about Grindr is that it’s with you anytime. You can sit in the park, you can go to a bar, you can take the bus. Before Grindr, you had to stay home! I remember studying in Paris back in 1997, when I was still closeted, and using the Minitel…

 

Oh yes, the Minitel rose…

Oh dear, what a system! You were  totally stuck at home on that thing, in the chat rooms.

 

Are there countries that ban Grindr?

Yes, several. Turkey for example.

 

How do you ban an app?

They ban the cell provider. I actually don’t know the exact details regarding how they do it, but they can certainly control it. I mean the government of a country can really do whatever it wants.

 

Why do you think Grindr is banned in Turkey in particular?

It’s a good question, because Turkey is supposed to be a secular democracy. And there are a lot of other Muslim countries where we’re not banned. But President Erdogan has banned Twitter, he’s banned YouTube and has done quite a lot to suppress freedom of communication in general. I don’t know why they picked on us.

 

And what about China? Is Grindr banned there?

The app works in China. We were banned for a period of time, but we’re not anymore.

 

How did you go from being banned to not being banned?

No idea.

 

Is China a big market?

Potentially. And we now have a Chinese investor.

 

Who bought Grindr, right?

They bought 60% of it. So we think they’re going to be a good partner for us as we tackle Asia.

 

Is Asia going to be a growth area for you?

There’s a huge market out there! You know they’re all on smartphones now, and there’s tens of millions, maybe even hundreds of millions of gay men there who don’t really have gay bars or gay clubs. Maybe in a few cities, but you know, among the billions of people living between China and India there’s probably ten gay bars. Ten gay bars for two billion people! We can certainly help those guys to hook up.

 

What’s this triangulation thing that apparently allows the police in repressive regimes to locate gay men and arrest them via Grindr?

With just a part of the service you share your distance with other people. You can see if somebody is 50 feet away from you. And based on that information you can basically figure out where someone is.

 

Is there a way round that?

We allow two things. One, if you don’t want anyone to see exactly how far away you are, you can hide that information. And then in certain countries it’s fairly dangerous to be gay. So we just hide that information altogether. And that makes it a lot more difficult to find people.

I mean I guess Grindr has a certain moral responsibility towards its users, no? You don’t want to be getting them killed or arrested or imprisoned.

It’s a tough issue, because when you think about it, what exactly is our responsibility in these countries? Should we not be available in these countries? I mean I think we’re doing a big service for these folks, these guys that have no gay outlets. We’re helping them connect, we’re here so they don’t feel lonely. So I think it’s still good for us to be there.

 

Can you do more to protect your users?

We don’t require you to put your photo up, and we don’t require you to put your name up. Other apps require Facebook integration, but we let you stay anonymous. In Cairo, for example, we’ve actually sent out messages which said, “Hey, don’t post pictures of yourself if you’re concerned about your safety. You might be identified.” I think there are ways people can try to be safer, even though it’s challenging. They raided a bathhouse a few years ago and said, “Gay guys should never be together in here ever again.” I mean you just can’t do that, right?!

 

Well I certainly don’t think so, no. But clearly not everyone sees it that way...

We try to strike a balance by allowing users to hide their distance and not forcing them to put their info up.

 

Okay, one last question. When you sold 60% of the company, how rich did that make you?

If you really want to know, you can look up the numbers online.

 

 

Interview by Philip Utz

 

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