When in 2016, BBC News covered HER, a dating app for lesbian, bi-sexual and queer people, it had 1M users, no revenue and has just moved its headquarters to San Francisco.
Two years later, the company is profitable and a home to the world’s largest – 4M and counting – community of queer women. It’s a far cry from its founder, Robyn Exton’s childhood dream of working behind the till at Sainsbury’s in Kent. “It was the beeping and the buttons. That was a real pleasure for me.”
Instead of a career in retail, Robyn opted for an entry level job in advertising post-production, eventually moving onto one of her client’s brand consultancies. “One of my clients was a dating business and so I learned a lot about the industry and what was happening in the market. Around the same time I had started dating girls and had been looking at different online dating solutions.”
The dating app Robyn was using didn’t meet her expectations: “This is crazy. I’m using this product that is terrible. I had a thought about what it would look like to make a different dating product. I should make something for women.” And that was the beginning of HER.
To save money, Robyn moved in with her father, and worked in a pub on evenings and weekends. With a saved up a bootstrap fund of $15k, including a lottery win, she decided to focus entirely on launching HER. “The day that I submitted the first version of the app to the App Store was the day that I resigned from my job.”
At the beginning, Robyn resorted to unconventional tactics to attract her first app users. “I spent my time in nightclubs and bars. I would buy a bottle of booze and I would give people a shot of alcohol if they downloaded the app.” This approach also gave Robyn an unexpected benefit – a chance to test usability of her app first hand.
Once launched, HER expanded its marketing to LGBTQ+ focused events. At the Manchester and Brighton Pride, Robyn stapled toilet paper to HER flyers and gave it to people waiting in lines for portaporties. “Because there’s never any toilet paper in the porta potties.”
Did it work? It sure did. HER has 4M users in 55 countries, and unlike other dating apps, it operates online and IRL. “We host about 4 to 5 events per month and each one has about 400 to twelve hundred people. So we host about 50,000 people at parties, and that’s our goal as a company – to bring people together. We do that in the app and we do it in real life.”
HER is based in the Mission, with 10 full time employees and 30+ contractors who continue building an always-inclusive and relevant space for women. “We have 23 gender identities, we have 16 sexualities. And we have this huge community section with 12 different communities that all speak to different identities or interests. So whether that is for women of color, whether it’s for trans women or people who are into mindfulness or cooking, you can connect with people around who care about the same things. My ultimate goal is when a queer woman in every country knows that HER is her safe place to be able to meet other people like us.”
HER has already launched in France, and gearing up for launching in Spain and Germany. But its geographical growth comes with a new set of challenges. “The way that people understand their own identity has changed hugely in the UK and US. Even within those markets, there is a huge difference between how someone in New York would talk about gender and sexuality versus someone in South Dakota. Then you’ve got how people in Thailand and the Philippines talk about gender and sexuality and at HER, we only have one core product. We need to be able to strike the right balance in terms of how we talk to people relative to where that person is and what their experience is, and how they understand gender and sexuality.”
Over the last three years, HER raised $2.5M in funding from angel investors including GBx’s board members Michael Birch, Andy McLoughlin and Nicole Quinn, as well as Alexis Ohanian and YCombinator, and more. The company broke even in 2017: “So now we pay people in hard earned cash.”
Tapping into the British community in San Francisco upon arrival not only helped Robyn to raise money for HER, but also made her committed to paying it forward: “Today I had an email from a woman who’s on her second or third startup and who wanted to meet certain VCs. She asked: Do I know anyone? I’m happy to introduce her to the people I know here. And I’m helpful to her because she is a British female founder who’s trying to make it in the US and I empathize with that.”