Photograph by Owen Jones.
There has never been a lonelier time to be single. With millions of people staying at home, there are fewer opportunities to socialize and find a romantic partner. Dating apps are now the best safe way to meet people, and singles are showing them some love. For years, Lakewood Heights neighbor Andy Chen has been instrumental in creating human bonds as senior vice president of +1 Labs for Match group, who created Tinder and owns Hinge, Plenty of Fish, and several other dating apps. +1 Labs is Match Group’s internal innovation team, which uses data and technology to develop future products. In 2019, Chen’s team launched Boat, a dating app that allows singles to meet each other while sharing the experience with family and friends. During coronavirus lockdowns, Ship released new features – including virtual backgrounds, group video chat, and a Date From Home badge – to help singles get out of their homes safely. Almost a million people have downloaded the app. Chen talks about innovation, the future of dating apps and dating during the pandemic.
How did you start to develop dating apps?
I joined an online dating startup called True in Las Colinas. This is where I cut my teeth in online dating and startups. It didn’t work, as many startups do. We then launched Traxo. The original vision was to travel and marry it with social media. It was as if Tripadvisor was meeting Facebook. The CEO of Match knew me when I was at True. She said, “Hey, I’ve heard a lot from you, and you do a lot of cool things with Facebook technology. I want to choose your brain.
Tell me about your job.
Given Tinder’s success, we need to keep investing in big ideas. This is the goal of my team. We bend the light to look around the corners and guess what users want in the future. We’re not just competing with Bumble. We compete with Netflix and Apple TV. We are competing for entertainment. It is the ultimate form of people watching.
How Did Locks Affect Dating App Engagement?
We are fortunate that COVID has only been a speed bump for us. COVID has accelerated the adoption of online dating, and dating apps have never been more popular. People who didn’t use it started because there was nothing else they could do. We’ve seen record levels of user engagement. With everyone locked out, women can have more courtship online before they meet. We’ve seen all of these amazing trends: the time spent on an app, the messages sent. We have to figure out how to keep this going.
What made Ship so popular during the pandemic?
We knew people were looking for the ability to connect with humans, even if it was online. With young women, if you pick up their phone, they are already sharing screenshots and having conversations around it. So on Ship you can correspond for yourself and your friends whether you are a couple or not. There is a group chat feature and a fun activity feed where you can see what your friends are doing on the app.
How do you see the growth of Ship?
There are a lot of opportunities in the emerging dating markets. The dating has generally been localized. We understood how this happens in Western culture. How does it work in India? How does it work in Southeast Asia? How does it work in a predominantly Muslim society? The adoption of online dating in the rest of the world is just beginning.
“COVID has accelerated the adoption of online dating, and dating apps have never been more popular.”
Are you making any adjustments for international use?
You want the system to be as consistent as possible. Facebook is the same everywhere, but dating isn’t the same everywhere. We are very deliberate when we make changes. In Southeast Asia, they have no idea how high 6 feet is. They are in metric. In Thailand, they follow the Buddhist calendar instead of the Roman calendar. We were like, “Why are all these very old people joining the site?” Their calendar is like 80 years in the future.
Have you had an online appointment?
No. Match started in 1995. I started dating my wife in 1997. In 1995, it was still pretty marginal. Now this is the first way people meet. Five years ago there was a little bit of stigma. Now, if you don’t use it, you are a small minority.
What experience have you gained from startups?
Starting my own startup was like getting a doctorate. The intensity and pace of learning you go through is unlike anything else. When I raised capital and hired a team, it gave me a lot of confidence. I have never felt uncomfortable sitting across from anyone’s table. I’ve never had more stress in my life, but I’ve never had more fun.
Do you miss it?
I’m always in a rush to develop new products from scratch, but to do so in the relative safety of a $ 30 billion company. I’m still a big supporter of the startup community. When I hire people who have tried their luck, it is a great sign of credibility in my book.
Why did you move to Lakewood?
I’m a cyclist, so I wanted to move east to White Rock Lake. My wife found this house on Llano and said we should go look at it. One of my best friends – he was a roommate and was at my wedding – I emailed him and he told me it was four houses down. He thinks we only bought the house because he lives here.