In San Francisco, a British entrepreneur finds investors more welcoming to Her lesbian dating app

By Dan Raile , written on April 7, 2015

From The News Desk

Robyn Exton spends a lot of time discriminating against people because of their gender – it’s crucial for her business. The CEO of lesbian dating app Her estimates that she and her five employees – three women, two men – dedicate 15% of their time filtering the catfish out of the app’s dating pool, ensuring that its users can find each other in a completely man-free zone.

Exton, who is featured in the British documentary series “How to be a Young Billionaire” which debuted Monday on Channel Four, is a recent transplant to San Francisco. Like many of her cohort she is here to run, and find funding for, an app-based business. Her timing is impeccable – she has arrived in Silicon Valley during a moment when venture capitalists are keen to prove their egalitarian bona fides and distance themselves from the image of clubby misogyny that has beset their industry.

And the timing may be apt for spawning a lesbian online dating empire in San Francisco, with the local lesbian community still smarting from the impending closure of the Lexington, one of the city’s few remaining female gay bars, which has been purchased by the PlumpJack Hospitality Group, the restaurant, winery and nightlife developer founded by Gavin Newsom and currently helmed by his sister. 

The idea for Her was hatched during a conversation in a London bar in 2013, Exton tells me. At the time she was working in marketing, and had a dating service client. Her initial concept was a female-only version of Grindr, the gay male dating app that took the pre-Tinder world by storm in 2011. Exton began taking coding classes, and that fall launched Dattch, a portmantue of ‘date catch’, not some bawdy Britishism as I’d assumed. The original product was a swipey, geosexual affair, with overt feminine aggression. (Exton demonstrates this tone with a tongue extended between splayed fingers.)

She says she soon learned, with some disappointment, that this simply wasn’t what the market wanted. 

“The original Dattch was more in your face. It was cool and confident, but ultimately a failed hypothesis,” Exton tells me over coffee in the Twitterloin.

In the ensuing year, Exton says she has learned that there are some key difference in the ways gay men and women date. Of course, this is not a new observation. But at the outset she had hoped it would prove otherwise, and only arrived at Her’s current formula through solicited user feedback, A/B testing and an analysis of the data. 

“The average number of messages before a meetup for us is 45. For straight sites that number is 12,” she says.

Other insights were that the ‘closest user to you’ function was mostly irrelevant to her targeted audience, simple profiles don’t spark good conversations, and the most popular photos were of user’s pets.

“What makes women attracted to one another is different than for men,” she says.

Exton, 28, has never taken a gender studies course, and came to these observations in the course of developing her business. She says that Her (which, being a man, I haven’t been able to try for myself) classifies users as lions and gazelles – the hunter and the prey. She says this is complicated in the lesbian community, because women are conditioned to be gazelles and the inner lion must be cultivated.

Dattch moved away from the Grindr model in the direction of Pinterest. The new visual-heavy display is aimed to make women feel more comfortable. Her now offers original content and event information geared towards the specific communities where it is available – “local feeds to seed a great community.” Her is currently live in the United Kingdom, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Miami and, as of last week, Phoenix.

From here on out, Exton and her team will roll out in areas from which they receive the most requests, and there might be some surprises. 

“We have seen a lot of demand from Wichita,” she says.

So far, Robyn Exton’s Silicon Valley experience has been a happy one. She has raised her first million in seed funding – from 18 sources including a founder of Reddit, a partner at Y Combinator and Michael Birch, the founder of Bebo who also participated as mentor in the British TV show.  She says that in London, potential investors were more skeptical of her foray in an unproven market.

“They were tough. Like, 'show me. Prove it.' [In Silicon Valley] people have been like ‘that’s brilliant!’ It’s the American Dream, I think, that can-do spirit,” she says.

She says she’s also found our local venture class investors to be more open to alternative gender identifications and the spectral graph of sexual orientation than in her home country. There, she says the attitude was well demonstrated by a potential investor who told her, “But you don’t look like a lesbian.” In spite of the general openness, she has encountered six different “no’s” on religious grounds, something she says just doesn’t happen in the UK. Most of these ran along the lines of “I really love it, but my partners…”

Exton did not set out to be a political hero for gender issues. She set out to make a female-only dating app. But as Her expands to regions less welcoming to things gay, she acknowledges that the business takes on a social activism role. As such, she believes that the new iteration, with its comforting, welcoming, social flavor, will encourage women to be open about their orientation in parts of the world that discourage such realizations.

But for now, Exton and her team will continue to develop their offerings in their current cities, and continue to clamp down on the unending stream of “hustling straight men” who come to the app with delusions of threesomes. That process has been dealt a blow by a British “journalist” working for something called Techno Guido, who hacked their screening process with a little social engineering and published his results.

Ack, men.

[Photo credit: Channel 4]