Interview with Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai

Paul S Taylor writes. 

All my life people have assumed I'm gay. I'm not. I've been told many a time that I hold cigarettes in a fancy way and I sound gay when I speak - whatever that means. Even when I was a teenager my mum assured me that if I was gay she'd be totally cool with it and I knew she wasn't just saying that because that's what sane parents have to say, she was honestly saying “I really think you're not hetereosexual”.

People would have said “oh my, you have such a great gay sounding voice, you should totally do something with that,” if that were something socially acceptable to say to someone you've just met. So, eight years ago when I was in my early twenties and needed cash to feed my burgeoning drug habit, I decided to exploit my camp intonation. I somehow found, applied for and secured a job on a gay phone chat service. Don't ask me for the exact details of how it happened because I don't remember a thing... drugs will do that to you.

For those of you who have never used a gay phone chat relay service before, let me explain: It's a network of users each with their own audio mailbox and personally recorded greeting message. Guys listen to each other's greeting messages and if they like what they hear then they'll leave a message in a man’s mailbox. The message recipient then replies, and they message each other back a forth a bit. Eventually one guy would usually reply with an alternate contact number and then they'd get off the phone relay service because it was super expensive. My job was to keep the men on the phone for as long as possible by leaving messages for all of the users and sparking up conversations.

To succeed at this, I created an entire character, with a complex back story involving life in a small town with antiquated attitudes towards homosexuality, and a closet he couldn’t come out of. My character spoke of fear, but it was his playful curiousness that saw him join the phone chat service to explore possibilities and gain confidence by speaking to out and proud gay men. Manipulative? Sure. But I think it would have won me many acting accolades.

You might think it lolzable that anyone would pay anything to do something on a landline telephone today, but this was back in the early 2000's when the internet was a strange and untamed thing and the only smart phones available were the ones without pull up aerials.

I recently tried to track down my old boss to see if I could have my old gay phone chat job back because I'm sick of working in a regular call centre and I figured if I could get rehired, I'd never have to leave the house or get dressed again. But I couldn't find him.

I searched online for gay phone chat jobs. There were a couple of websites who never got back to me. Then it occurred to me; I was looking for a job in an industry that doesn't really exist anymore. The industry has changed and I haven't. There's no more gay phone chat. Today there's Grindr. Grindr, with its millions of users in nearly every country on earth all freely chatting to each other, reaching out and hooking up (some things never change). Grindr took my job, so the only thing left to do was jump on my smart phone and call up Grindr CEO and founder Joel Simkhai to see if he'd hire me.  

Hi Joel. Why make an app (Grindr) when there's a lot of ways to make money from gay men looking to communicate?

For me, this wasn't about making a business out of it. It wasn't about creating a company or anything like that. For me it was just my own frustrations about trying to meet guys, trying to figure out who was gay, trying to figure out who in my neighbourhood was gay, who in my building was gay, who in my gym was gay. I just wanted to find out who the gay guys were and so I created this service.

Back in the early 2000's I worked for a telephone message relay company where guys would call up and leave messages for other guys over the telephone. That cost a lot of money and I was essentially paid to keep guys on the phone. Do you think your application has kind of killed that expensive and cumbersome service and business model?

I don't know about who we killed. I mean, I don't spend much time thinking about it. You know what I do think about it is if you're looking to meet someone, if you're looking to chat with someone, if you're looking to discover who the gay men around you are, there's really no better way than doing it on Grindr.

Did you ever use any sort of telephone message relay service before you came up with the idea for Grindr?

I've probably used every form known to the gay man for trying to meet someone including phone services.

Did you ever suspect you'd be paying to use a service where potentially you could be talking to somebody like me, just doing a job trying to keep you on the phone and you paying for the privilege to do so?

I don't know that I ever thought of that.


Have you thought of maybe adding a second part of the business where instead of just meeting people there's also a sort of gay raunchy chat thing and you could call it Grindr Sparks because you know, it's hot and sparks will fly everywhere?

So, like a phone aspect to what we're doing?


Yeah, with more raunchy stuff and with maybe professional people like that.

For us, I'm more interested in meeting and I'm more interested in real life, you know, showing you the guys that are nearby and letting users kinda see who they are and hopefully letting you meet them. Voice stuff is not something that we do today.

So there's no chance of taking Grindr Sparks to the next level and having a sex chat add-on to the app you've already got?

There's always a chance we'll add other things so I would never rule anything out. But, [I don’t know about] voice chat, to me things are interesting if it helps you meet people and interact in real life.

If you were to employ some sort of extra system would you hire someone like me based on my voice to talk to men, do you think I could do that job again?

I don't think we're ever going to hire. We don't hire, we don't use any professional people, we don't use any big profiles, we try to keep things very, very transparent and honest. All our profiles are created by the users so I think we would apply that same line to anything that we do (in the future).

Looks like I'm stuck working my shitty call centre job.

profile of TheVine