Joel Simkhai

Interview by
Jamie 'Lee Curtis' Taete
Photography by
Daniel Trese


When I met up with 37-year-old Grindr founder and CEO Joel Simkhai at his office in L.A., he didn't seem too concerned that young men in clubs — many without a clue how to pickup in the flesh — are all just staring into their smartphones these days. Why would he? Grindr turned four this year and is still the most popular location-based dating app around. The app was treated to an extreme makeover this fall (some loyal fans are still grumbling). The logo, initially inspired by tribal masks of Africa and Polynesia, had those buck teeth pulled, which makes it look less like Jason Voorhees' hockey mask from Friday the 13th and a bit more like the Dark Knight.

Jamie: Where in L.A. do you live?
Joel: I’m right by West Hollywood.
You like it there?
Yep, nice quiet area. I lived in Manhattan for a long time… You’re in an apartment that’s a little box and you’ve got boxes all around you, so I like not having boxes all around me anymore.
Didn’t you start Grindr because you had terrible gaydar?
As a gay man, you’re always constantly wondering who’s gay. You guys came in here and I was like, are these guys gay?
What did you decide?
Um, I can’t win on this question!
I don’t think either of us would be offended either way.
Let’s turn on my Grindr and see what we’ve got… I don’t see you guys here, so you might be straight.
Do you have any idea of what percentage of gay men are on Grindr?
It’s almost an impossible question to answer. Back to your original question about how Grindr happened, I constantly found myself trying to find new ways to meet guys. I was living in Manhattan, on 72nd and Columbus, and I used all the services and they were all quite frustrating.
What were the services at the time?
AOL, Craigslist…
Did you ever do any analog cruising? Like, cruising cruising.
At the clubs and stuff, sure.
But never the Rambles or whatever?
I don’t know if I’ve ever been to the Rambles — I think I looked for the Rambles, but I wasn’t able to find them. But New York isn’t very cruisey. There’s tons of different ways to meet guys, but they’re not all that efficient. I respect bars… They serve a role, but they also serve a lot of alcohol which isn’t a particularly great drug.
Do you drink?
I do. But it’s not as if bars are like church — not that I think a church is super special — they’re not something I feel needs to be preserved.
Has Grindr had any effect on attendance in bars and clubs?
Yeah, it’s changed the bar. The bar used to be: I wanna get laid, I wanna meet someone! But what happens now is: you can go to the bar and just kinda have fun and dance…

BUTT - Joel_mia_in-text_web
Every day is Bring Your Pet to Work Day at Grindr HQ! Mia, one of three bitches roaming the office, is a Boston Terrier. Joel's dog Coco, a Yorkie, was taking a mental health day.

Aside from Growlr — I’m into chubby guys, so I mostly use Growlr — or Scruff, what’s the most niche Grindr imitator you’ve seen?
Probably the most obscure one is the lesbian one. I always get asked if we’re going to do a lesbian version of Grindr and the answer is — without any hesitation — no. Gay women don’t socialize in any way similar to gay men. There’s maybe a thousand women in the world who are interested in that.
Have you ever spotted Grindr in a TV show?
We just showed up on 2 Broke Girls. We’ve been mentioned on Saturday Night Live a bunch. Californication…
You know how like on CSI they’ll have a social networking site, and it’ll be called FaceSpace or whatever… Do they use fake names for Grindr when it’s used on TV?
I think CSI actually had one once, but I don’t remember what it was called. There was a movie about a Grindr-like app, too.
When was the last time you met someone outside of Grindr?
My memory doesn’t go back that far.
So in the four years since Grindr has existed, you haven’t hooked-up with anyone in real life?
No. Or maybe that’s not true… I certainly approach less guys now.
I don’t think I’ve ever slept with a guy that I didn’t meet through the internet.
Right. So, do you have a Grindr profile?
I do. I re-downloaded before this interview. I deleted it a while back because it stopped working.
Is it working for you now?
Can I see your profile?
Sure. There’s nothing on it though. I made it yesterday.
That’s one of my perverse things I like.
Snooping at other guy’s Grindr profiles?
Have you ever seen something that’s shocked you?
The profiles are usually pretty tame.
Do you know of any public figures that use Grindr?
Stephen Fry was being interviewed once, and in the middle of the interview you hear the ‘ding’ notification sound.
Did he address it?
He just kept going.
What’s your standard first message on Grindr?
I can’t give that away. That’ll screw up my whole game.
I guess you have to be on Grindr… Is your boyfriend okay with that?
Does he use it?
Yes. Maybe he’s using it to find jobs and talk to his old school friends.
Are you and your boyfriend open?
We’re not currently open, no.
Do you believe in monogamy?
No, I don’t. It works for a period of time, but I don’t think it’s a twenty year thing. You have to find a situation that works. I don’t really understand people who do monogamy. Even in the straight world, I feel it’s all a scam.
What do you mean?
It’s a fallacy. If you ask most straight people who are in committed relationships off the record, have you hooked up with someone who is not your partner, ninety-five percent would say yes.

BUTT - Joel_office_in-text_web
Grindr hosts over seven million curious men on their golden grid, including some in Albania, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Fiji, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Moldova, Samoa, Sri Lanka, Yemen and Vatican City.

Do you keep up with other dating and sex tech stuff?
Such as?
Just developments… Like did you see the story about the Oculus Rift sex simulator?
It’s kinda like a pair of glasses with screens in the lenses that create an immersive 3D image. It’s made for video games… But you can use it with a Fleshlight or something, so you can have 3D sex with an avatar.
Oh, interesting.
Where do you think sex and dating and technology are going next?
Wearable technology is going to get much more advanced, so maybe you’ll be able to detect hormone levels and heart rates and stuff…
Do you think Grindr, or any location-based dating app for that matter, is here to stay?
Yes. We’re at five percent of where we could be — not just with Grindr, but with services across the board. The future is making it faster and easier to meet. If, like you, you’re looking for bigger guys… So how can I just show you those bigger guys? Or how can I show you the bigger guys that are into you? Like, people have deal breakers, right?
Are you gonna add a deal breaker function to Grindr?
Maybe. Why do we need to find out, thirty minutes into the conversation, that the guy’s a smoker?
What are your deal breakers?
Smoking is one of them.
So you would never hook up with a smoker?
I hate kissing a smoker. I hate the whole smell and everything to do with smoking. That, to me, is very unsexy. And if they’re not my type, that’s a deal breaker too, obviously.
What is your type?
I don’t quite have a type, per se. Sexiness can come in a lot of ways, it can be in the smile, it can be in the eyes, it can be in the arms…
Is Grindr in every country on the planet?
One hundred and ninety-two out of one hundred and ninety-four.
Which two countries are you not in?
Two islands in the South Pacific, Nauru and Tuvalu…
Wasn’t Grindr recently banned in Turkey?
Yeah. It might be banned in a few countries. But users find ways of getting around it. Guys there are pretty savvy…
So you have users in like, North Korea?
Yeah, we’ve got a few guys in North Korea, especially in the DMZ, which I assume are service men.
In the past, when I’ve spoken to guys from Iraq or Uganda or wherever, they’ve had these really elaborate ways of going about being gay. Is Grindr changing the way gays are secretly hooking up in these countries?
Yeah, in a lot of these countries Grindr is gay culture. We’re the gay everything — the gay bar, the gay cruising spot, the gay blog… Grindr is their BBM, it’s their WhatsApp. A lot of our users are just using it to just stay in touch.
Does that make you feel like you’re making a change in the world?
I think Grindr has changed the gay world. It’s changed my life, it’s changed the way I meet guys… I was just in Colombia, and there’s tons of guys on Grindr there. I found out where to go and what was going on. And, actually, I have to go…
Okay, what’re you doing with the rest of your day?
I’ve gotta meet my trainer. I’m trying to bulk up. When I go to Grindr and I see all these six packs and pecs, I wanna be competitive… I gotta work out too.
And you view that as a positive thing? Rather than just making people feel more self-conscious?
Well, there are pros and cons. Say you go on a date and you’re on your phone the whole time, and your manners are really poor. Or you’re making no effort… You might’ve been able to get away with that twenty years ago because it was hard to find someone else.
So Grindr’s making you want to bulk up because you’re just a photo and there’s the possibility of getting blocked.
I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with being judged by your appearance. It’s human nature. Grindr is very much a visual experience by design and any decision you make about someone is, at least initially, based on looks. That’s fine. Guys should be aware of what they look like.

Published on 06 December 2013