Whitney Wolfe, a former vice president for marketing at Tinder, the wildly popular hookup facilitation app, is suing the company and its parent, IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI), for sexual harassment and discrimination. In her lawsuit, Wolfe says that Tinder’s chief marketing officer, Justin Mateen, subjected her to constant sexually charged abuse and threats and that both Chief Executive Officer Sean Rad and his corporate supervisor, IAC’s Sam Yagan, looked the other way. IAC has suspended Mateen indefinitely. In a memo to employees, Rad called Mateen’s communications “unacceptable” while also calling Wolfe’s complaint “full of factual inaccuracies and omissions.”
The behavior Wolfe alleges in her complaint is awful: She says that Mateen, whom she dated, called her a “desperate loser” who “jumps from relationship to relationship,” a “joke,” a “gold digger,” a “disease,” a “whore,” and a “slut” who needed to be “watched” if she were to keep her job. Text messages Wolfe submitted to the court show Mateen disparaging “middle age Muslim pigs” and depicting IAC Chairman Barry Diller “as a penis.” Tinder CEO Rad, Wolfe says, dismissed her pleas for help as “dramatic” and told her that if she and Mateen couldn’t get along, she would be fired.
This conduct would be abhorrent directed at anyone. What gives these allegations even greater sting is Wolfe’s contention that she was not just any employee but a Tinder co-founder—and was stripped of the designation as a result of the treatment she endured. This isn’t just adding insult to injury; it’s adding injury to injury, since a co-founder of a hot startup can be expected to attract better career opportunities than someone who was a mere early employee.
Was Whitney Wolfe a co-founder of Tinder? I think the answer exposes a different, quieter, but no less punishing form of the sexism that is pervasive in the startup world.
I spent a short and intense two weeks last summer reporting out a Tinder feature for Bloomberg Businessweek. What I found was a meteoric startup that wasn’t really a startup, owing to the fact that Tinder was born in an IAC incubator, and IAC owned and controlled the company. Rad and Mateen seemed to be playing make-believe in a lot of ways. They were keen to hide the IAC arrangement (“They’re sort of our partner in this”) and pretend that they were living the dream of being wined and dined by Silicon Valley moneymen (“We are being bombarded by venture capitalists … it’s very overwhelming”). When I talked to their minders at IAC and the incubator, executives were often dismissive of the two youngsters—happy to let them spin grand visions and soak up founder acclaim, while telling grownups, i.e. Wall Street analysts and investors, that Tinder was simply a lure to get millennials to pay later in life for IAC’s profitable dating service Match.com.
One big way in which Rad and Mateen seemed to be off in their own world was the malleable—even fictive—way they thought they could tell the story of how Tinder was born. In their version of the story, the two of them thought up Tinder before either worked for the IAC incubator and were responsible for the app’s success. This is no more true than the idea that Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss invented Facebook (FB). Many location-based dating apps were already on the market, and more were bouncing around as ideas in entrepreneurs’ heads. Here is the truth as I see it, having spoken to nearly everyone who was involved in the project: What made Tinder Tinder was the work of a team: Joe Munoz, who built the technical back end; Jonathan Badeen, who wrote the iOS code; Christopher Gulczynski, who created the design; Rad, who played point.
And Whitney Wolfe, who ran marketing.
In the summer of 2013, with their app taking off, Rad and Mateen—who was hired after Tinder was designed, coded, and available for download in Apple’s App Store—wanted to present to me a modified version of the truth of how Tinder got off the ground. It didn’t have room for the contributions of a bunch of people working under IAC’s roof with salary and benefits. That bothered me, but I didn’t have the space to tell the whole story in the magazine. I mentioned the app’s killer look and coding—an attempt to credit the work of Gulczynski, Badeen, and Munoz—but did not give their names. And I didn’t mention Wolfe, for an entirely different reason.
None of the many men I spoke to had mentioned her name. In my notes is a single reference to “Whitney”—from a preliminary phone call with Rosette Pambakian, Tinder’s PR rep, who described her as one of five company co-founders. (Take note, Wolfe and IAC legal teams.) No one ever brought her up again, and the name simply wasn’t in my brain when I wrote the story.
What makes someone a “co-founder,” vs. a mere employee who makes a key, early contribution? This is not just semantics; it matters. After more conversations with people present at Tinder’s birth this week, I’m convinced that Wolfe has as much right to be called a co-founder as the others.
Getting an app to critical mass is not simple or easy. In 2012, when Tinder was still an unknown app, Wolfe thought up and executed a plan to promote the service at a half-dozen key sororities. “We sent her all over the country,” Munoz told me this week. “Her pitch was pretty genius. She would go to chapters of her sorority, do her presentation, and have all the girls at the meetings install the app. Then she’d go to the corresponding brother fraternity—they’d open the app and see all these cute girls they knew.” Tinder had fewer than 5,000 users before Wolfe made her trip, Munoz says; when she returned, there were some 15,000. “At that point, I thought the avalanche had started,” Munoz says.
Mateen was only then hired by his longtime friend Rad, as chief marketing officer—Wolfe’s superior. Wolfe had been at the IAC incubator, Hatch Labs, since May 2012, working on projects that were shelved when the team sensed Tinder was its best shot at a breakthrough success. In her lawsuit, Wolfe says she was the one who suggested the name “Tinder” to Rad.
“She never got credit for [her contributions],” Munoz told me. “She never got credit for it. It got taken away, and marginalized in favor of the friend.”
Munoz started to say that Rad hadn’t done this solely because Wolfe was a woman. But I asked him if it wasn’t the case that Rad had shunted aside a good, if not excellent, female employee in favor of someone whose main qualification was being his “bro pal.” Munoz laughed. “I think that’s a fair interpretation of events,” he said.
“When I left [Tinder], I wrote Whitney a very long e-mail, telling her to believe in herself, that if she hadn’t done what she did for Tinder, it wouldn’t be where it was today,” Munoz said.
Wolfe says in her lawsuit that after breaking up with Mateen, she saw her co-founder title “stripped away because she is a ‘girl,’” and she left the company in April 2014, after a Tinder party at which she says Mateen called her a “whore” in front of Rad.
Monkeying with the truth about who did what and airbrushing entire people out of history is common to popular startups—think Facebook and the Eduardo Saverin feud; Twitter (TWTR) and Noah Glass; Snapchat and Reggie Brown. Given what we know about Tinder’s male-dominated, chauvinistic culture, it seems obvious that in Wolfe’s case, gender played a role in her being brushed aside.
As Tinder has gained more and more notoriety, there have been numerous examples of Rad and Mateen’s poor judgment—more of them Mateen’s. Last summer, I noticed that both had posted a screenshot of a new Urban Dictionary term, “Tinderslut,” to their Instagram feeds. When I mentioned this to them and asked if they were mature enough to run a company, Rad was embarrassed and told me he was scrubbing the post from his account, while Mateen said, “I don’t think you should delete it. It was an exciting day for us.”
“Tinderslut” was no aberration. Mateen’s Instagram feed was filled with that kind of thing. Here are some screenshots I took:
A photo of an overweight black man looking joyful on President Obama’s reelection night—Mateen joked in a caption that he was happy about “4 more years of food stamp” [sic];
A video of women in bikinis cavorting at the pool of the Hotel ZaZa, with the caption “Dallas bimbos” (I’ve blurred their faces);
A photo of two topless women at an art-themed club of some kind, captioned “2 of my favorite things in this world”;
A photo of an artwork—a Trojan Magnum-brand condom box about 4 feet square—captioned “A little too big for me”;
And more artwork, usually depicting naked women.
Wolfe says in her suit: “Although it is tempting to describe the conduct of Tinder’s senior executives as ‘frat-like,’ it was in fact much worse—representing the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups.”
Mateen, Rad, and Yagan did not respond to requests for comment. Wolfe declined to comment, via her attorney. In his memo to Tinder employees, Rad wrote in part, “We did not discriminate against Whitney because of her age or gender, and her complaint paints an inaccurate picture of my actions and what went on here. We take gender equality very seriously.”
In the summer of 2013, Rad was harried and difficult to get ahold of. But he made time to call my cell phone when he learned I had been asking around about the contributions of Munoz and others. He was concerned I would credit too many people with helping to start Tinder—that is, take credit away from him. Rad struck me as overwhelmed at the task of maintaining an image of sitting astride a startup rocketship, and because I knew I wasn’t going to include it in my story, I did not have the heart to tell him that I had found out that his first startup, a messaging service called Orgoo, had been shut down after an FBI investigation into users storing and transmitting child pornography on its servers.
I’m sure Rad hates for anyone to know that. But the truth is the truth. Startups fail and succeed because of the real actions of their workers, not because of an agreed-upon myth created after the fact. Whitney Wolfe was part of the real creation of Tinder, and that deserves to be known.