Mr. (Swipe) Right?
After a year of tumult and scandal at Tinder, ousted founder Sean Rad is back in charge. Now can he — and his company — grow up?
When Barry Diller, the founder of the media company IAC, comes downstairs for breakfast at the Carlyle in New York, the waiter brings him tea and a single fried egg. The charming 73-year-old billionaire has just spun Match Group out of IAC as a public company, and he is pleased with the result — Match Group, which owns dating websites such as Match and OkCupid, was valued at $2.9 billion and then popped 23 percent on its debut day of trading in November. Diller, the former CEO of Fox and Paramount Pictures, has made his fortune by picking winners; today he spends a quarter of each year on his yacht. (“A blessing,” he adds, rapping on a nearby wood panel.)
But there’s a strange crown jewel in his new empire, a company whose name sounds out of place in the gold-plated luxury of the Carlyle’s dining room: Tinder. The hookup app is helmed by CEO Sean Rad, who has himself earned a controversial reputation. “I think (…and fervently hope) that there won’t be a new piece on Rad for the next twenty or so years,” Diller wrote me before our meeting.
Rad, a handsome 29-year-old from a wealthy Persian family in Bel Air, has become one of the most divisive figures in tech today — much like his company. When a member of Tinder’s founding team accused Rad’s best friend and co-founder, Justin Mateen, of sexual harassment, Rad’s texts to the aggrieved young woman, Whitney Wolfe, went viral. Rad was fired.
Then, in a curious twist, the seemingly humiliated entrepreneur was reinstated as CEO about six months later. The redemption tour didn’t start well: In his first published interview in November, with the Evening Standard, Rad ambiguously threatened a female writer who’d been critical of Tinder (he said he’d done background research on her and “there’s some stuff about her as an individual that will make you think”) and bragged about models trying to have sex with him. When attempting to explain that he finds intelligence sexually attractive, he asked the reporter, “What’s the word ... sodomy?” (The word he was looking for, he clarified later, was sapiosexual.)
Tinder, as millennials well know, is a location-based dating app that facilitates sexual encounters by letting users swipe (hot or not?) on headshots of nearby potential mates. If both interested parties “swipe right” — implying that they are interested in each other — then there’s a match, known as “the double opt-in,” and the two can chat. But the app design discourages would-be lovers from getting attached too quickly: “Keep playing?” it pings after each match, prodding members to collect mates like baseball cards. It has been a hit. Three years after its launch, Tinder claims to make 26 million matches a day among its more than 50 million active monthly users and to have been downloaded 100 million times.
Like a lot of people my age, I’ve Tindered. I was using the app as I think it was intended — I was a 24-year-old looking for casual sex — but happened to fall in love, which is pretty common among my friends, almost all of whom use the app or a copycat version. Tinder has changed the way we find sex and (maybe) love. It’s also changed the way we design — the swipe and double opt-in are now common app features. And it’s permeated our lexicon. (“Swipe right on him,” a friend will whisper approvingly to me as we walk.)
Despite these successes, Rad has made more than a few enemies along the way. Some members of his founding team offered searing critiques, telling me stories of Rad making false promises, then trying to separate himself from IAC, then pushing would-be co-founders out. Chris Gulczynski, an early Tinder team member who now calls Rad “a nemesis,” told me, “I’m sure Sean pulled your messages before you met.” Even people close to Rad were wary. “I like him, but I just want to be careful,” one co-founder said. “It’s like someone saying something nice about Bill Cosby, and he comes out in the news two months later with something worse.” Nonetheless, for a whole generation today, Tinder is inseparable from dating; and for many who know the company well, it’s also synonymous with Rad. “The app reflects the personality of Sean,” Gulczynski says. “It’s a 1-to-1 correlation.”
At IAC’s massive L.A. headquarters, the security guard tells me he sees a steady flow of Tinder tourists who want selfies with the logo outside. Upstairs, past the ultramodern Tinder lobby, where a young receptionist is wrapped in a blanket to survive the air conditioning, I meet Rad’s communications director and trusted adviser, Rosette Pambakian, a sarcastic, hilarious, beleaguered executive who will be my constant companion during my days at Tinder.
It’s hard to reconcile the Rad I meet with the Rad I hear about. He’s powerfully charismatic, with sad eyes, unusually long lashes, and a heavy brow. He is muscular and hunches slightly. Today Rad’s annoyed about some photos from his talk at the Web Summit tech conference. He thinks his face looks bloated. (“Not only do I hate all photos,” he says, “but all the photos every article picks up are the worst ones.”) He’s happy, though, with how the talk went. “It was crazy,” Rad says, showing me pictures on his phone. “Look, look at that crowd. Seven thousand people! People were sitting on the floors and pushing.” Rad adds, “I was like, ‘What, for me?’” Tech CEOs may not be celebrities, but they’re getting close. At restaurants, Rad’s had to avoid TMZ photographers; his fellow L.A. founder, Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel, is dating an actual celebrity, model Miranda Kerr.
Pambakian, Rad’s right-hand woman, has been at his side for three years. An L.A. native with long maroon manicured nails, she’s given to eye-rolls and pained sighs. He calls her his “Cookie” — the powerful female lead in the TV show Empire. “I’m a stage mom,” Pambakian says, and indeed Rad seems to need disciplining almost immediately.
“It is common that I ask people to send me Snapchat photos,” Rad says, “and they’re usually themed with one thing in mind. I don’t ask for sexts but —”
Pambakian jumps in. “Sean, will you stop? This is being recorded!”
“Yes, I sext on Snapchat,” Rad laughs.
Pambakian tries again. “Stop, Sean. You’re the CEO of Tinder who’s now saying he’s sexting on Snapchat!”
“I’m a single guy, a young guy. I don’t send; I only receive,” Rad says. “I’m not crazy.”
Rad’s scheduled to appear on a talk show later that day, but he’s come down with a cold. He’s taking DayQuil and is thinking of flaking on the taping. “Listen, there’s a limited window to kill it in life. This is your window,” Pambakian tells him, tapping her nails on the table. “There’s time to sleep later.”
“Now I know what it feels like to be an artist abused by a manager,” jokes Rad.
We eat sushi at the office for dinner, and Rad keeps a bag of Sour Patch Kids in one hand. We have some beer from the beererator (there’s also a winerator and a boocherator for kombucha). There’s an old-style Tron arcade game and a roof deck that looks out onto palm trees and the dilapidated ghost of Tower Records. Rad’s wearing a gold Audemars Piguet watch and a Givenchy suit, his shirt slightly unbuttoned to reveal a hairless chest. “Sean loves clothes,” Pambakian says. “He literally wears $800 Saint Laurent jeans. He gets his suits made at a tailor in London on Savile Row.”
The TV studio has sent a driver, but Rad wants to drive, so we climb into his black Hummer-style Mercedes, a $115,000 G-Class SUV that he calls “The Tank.” A track from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue is playing, but Rad puts on his favorite song, Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Along with us is Jess Carbino, Tinder’s on-staff sociologist. A petite brunette in a tight red dress, Carbino came to Tinder after matching with Rad on the app. “He was like, ‘You know, Jess, you seem nice, but I’d really rather hire you,’” she says. With a Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA — her research focused on facial attractiveness and online dating — Carbino is a canny addition to the company, which is trying to expand to an older demographic and, more crucially, to expand abroad. She’s also, I discover, skilled at public relations, deftly calling up research statistics and scientific jargon to deflate the idea that Tinder is creating a culture of sex addiction. Citing a recent study from the Archives of Sexual Behavior that indicates millennials don’t have more partners than boomers did, Carbino sums up her perspective: “This idea that there’s been this mass hookup culture is sort of bullshit.”
In the car, the three start talking about a travel-themed party Tinder just had at Hangar 8 at the Santa Monica Airport. They tell me about the celebrities who attended: Jason Derulo, Zedd, Martin Garrix. “Jason Derulo took his shirt off onstage,” Rad says. “It was that kind of party. It was the party of the year.”
He’s quiet for a minute. “I cried that night,” Rad says. “To create a brand that was so big and important to society that it deserved that party, I cried.”
The car is quiet again.
“I cried this morning on the way to work,” Pambakian says. “I got really sentimental about Sean. What would we do without Sean?” She adds, “And how amazing it is — what we’re doing, what we’re building.”
Rad asks for some candy (Pambakian carries extra in her purse), and Tony Bennett’s rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight” comes on. “Oh yeah,” Rad says. “I’m Jewish, but this makes me feel like Christmas. I just want to come up next to the fire and play this.” Suddenly, Rad’s mom calls, and the call goes to the car’s speaker.
“Where are you?” his mom asks, sounding worried. “Are you coming home?”
“I’m doing the TV, Mom,” Rad says.
“OK,” she answers. “What are you doing for dinner, then?”
At the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where the show is filming, Rad debates whether he should buy a portrait for his condo of former President George W. Bush made from a collage of porn images. “See, it looks like Bush,” he says, handing me his phone, “until you zoom in.” I zoom in, and there it is: a collage of genitalia and hands and mouths. “It’s in Soho House right now. You can’t really tell what it is,” he says. “We’ll just have certain people not walk too close to it.”
Pambakian starts giving him practice questions. “What do you say to people who say Tinder isn’t for serious relationships?”
“Eighty percent of our users tell us they’re looking for someone serious,” Rad recites.
One of the show’s producers, a shy middle-aged guy who just got out of a long relationship, sneaks in for advice. He wants help setting up a good Tinder profile. Rad flips through the producer’s pictures. “Oh man, you need to show an action shot,” he says.
“Cut out your attractive friend — you want to be the only option,” Carbino adds.
Rad finds a picture of the man with Jay Leno. “Dude, this is the winner.”
“But isn’t that a little douchey?” the producer asks.
“No, dude, I just upped your game,” Rad says, handing back the phone.
After Rad has his makeup on and his hair filled in (“’cause I’m old and bald,” he jokes), we sit in the green room and watch on the monitor as the filming starts. The show, called It’s Not You, It’s Men, is hosted by actor Tyrese Gibson and former Run-DMC member Reverend Run, and involves the hosts explaining to women how to be better at dating. Onstage for the first segment are the Rev in black and a clerical collar, Tyrese in untied leather boots and a very shiny silver button-down, and the actress Yvette Nicole Brown.
“We have a generation where they’re just sending each other body parts,” the Rev says.
“Women used to be the gatekeepers,” Brown says. “With this new ‘Be free, everyone in power,’ women have stopped being ladies. We’ve lost shame. When we lost shame, it became a free-for-all.”
Pambakian and Rad look at each other.
“Shit,” says Pambakian.
“She’s slut-shaming,” Rad says.
Brown continues, “I didn’t ask for nary a penis that I’ve seen.”
Rad balks. “I don’t know if I want to be onstage with her.”
Tyrese, to the audience, says, “Don’t independence your way into loneliness. A lot of women have built this force field against anything to do with a man. It’s like bad plumbing. The pipes get all clogged up … women in bed with a poodle, using rabbits and all kinds of vibrators.”
Rad and Pambakian are both standing now, staring at the TV in silence. When Rad leaves for the set, Pambakian takes his seat, and I ask her if she’s worried. “It’s Tinder. When has anything ever been easy for us?” she says. “It’s a constant shit show.”
Onstage Tyrese asks Rad if he uses Tinder — or, in Tyrese’s words, if he’s “getting high on his own supply.” Rad says he is and coos his main talking point. “All we’re doing is connecting people,” Rad says. “They can decide what to do after that.” This is the great Silicon Valley canard, of course: We’re just the tubes.
It’s still looking like the show will be a disaster when, suddenly, Brown decides Tinder isn’t a part of the problem. “I think you’d really like Tinder,” she tells Tyrese.
Backstage Pambakian starts to clap. Then she says she might cry again.
Rad, who grew up the son of two Iranian immigrants, didn’t always want to be in tech. As a teenager at the private Milken Community High School, he wrote and sang jazzy pop songs, playing at the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go. He almost signed with a label, but his parents wouldn’t give their permission. “They thought I was too young and would get into drugs,” Rad says. Plus they wanted him to make money. He founded a mobile messaging company at 18 and started at the University of Southern California before dropping out to work on a celebrity social media endorsement company called Adly, which eventually launched him toward Tinder.
But that is where Tinder’s founding myth gets a little sketchy. In the company’s short history, there’s not a lot anyone agrees on, even when it comes to basic questions like who founded it or who runs it. In 2010, IAC’s senior vice president of mobile, Dinesh Moorjani, created an incubator called Hatch Labs, funded by two investors: Xtreme Labs and IAC, who invested more and into whose offices Hatch moved.
Rad came to Moorjani’s incubator to do customer-loyalty startups, and CEO Moorjani paired him with Joe Munoz, a talented developer. They built Cardify, a loyalty app that rewarded users for swiping cards. The team grew — Chris Gulczynski and Jonathan Badeen joined, and Whitney Wolfe came on to handle marketing — and they launched the app at TechCrunch in May of 2012. The app wasn’t getting approved in Apple’s app store, but Rad and Munoz had also been tooling around on another app. It was called Matchbox and had already won first prize in an internal Hatch Labs hackathon three months earlier. Moorjani told his young entrepreneurs, who were by that point becoming a tightknit pack, to refocus on Matchbox.
Rad tapped his best friend, Justin Mateen, the professional party-promoting scion of a wealthy real estate mogul, to help market the product. Some who knew them at the time describe Mateen as the cool one, the one who knew all the celebrities, which impressed the quieter Rad, who was more focused on the business. To separate the brand out from the IAC-owned Match, which is geared toward an older audience, they changed the name to Tinderbox and eventually to just Tinder. They built the first version of the app in 23 days in the summer of 2012 and launched it in the app store that August. Mateen spammed it out to 300 of his friends at USC in a single night. Wolfe, who worked with Mateen and whom he soon started dating, would take the app to sorority houses, climb on a table, and talk about how all the hot guys were on it; she’d then run to a frat house and tell them all of Kappa Kappa had signed up.
Online dating was already mainstream at the time, but it was generally designed for older people looking for serious relationships. The average age for eHarmony users, who were required to fill out a 200-question compatibility quiz to register, was in the low 40s. The Tinder founders’ biggest coup, in other words, was starting with the alpha girls of USC and convincing attractive, sexually active college-aged people that they needed online dating.
Tinder took off. It made more than 1 million matches in less than two months. Internally, office romance was common, as were trips to nightclubs. It was no surprise that things got chaotic fast. According to Wolfe, Rad told the early team that they were all co-founders, promising equity to people and intimating that he would be taking the company independent from Diller.
Many who worked with Rad aren’t happy with him. Such messiness is almost inevitable with a startup that becomes very successful very quickly, especially one with such a large, intermingled, and young team. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had the Winklevoss twins; Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel had Reggie Brown, who also claimed to be a co-founder. Both companies were sued.
Some of the first members of the Tinder team say they feel jilted out of stock options. Others say that the issues in the office — specifically around women — were systemic. Tinder co-founder Gulczynski, who now runs a competitor, says he would see his girlfriend, who was then the vice president of design at Tinder, being treated dismissively. “She’d want to come to product meetings, and Sean would say, ‘No, you can’t come in. No girls.’ I remember when she got hired, he said, ‘Oh, we have a new office mom. You gotta start baking cookies.’” In the office, tensions ran high. “Crying and screaming and yelling was a daily occurrence,” Gulczynski says. Other Tinder employees deny hearing Rad make gendered comments. Alexandra Dworsky, who worked on recruiting at the time, says that “when product meetings lacked a female presence, Sean would personally pull me and other female employees into these meetings to get our perspectives.”
Wolfe and Mateen’s relationship began to disintegrate in the fall of 2013. There were shouting matches in the office. The romance remained tumultuous until April 2014, when, at a Tinder party in Malibu, it devolved into spitting and grabbing. Mateen later texted Wolfe, evidently worried that she was dating someone else, “You prefer to social climb middle aged Muslim pigs that stand for nothing,” he wrote. Also: “If I can not get a long with you and it starts to effect my work too much not bc of me but the effect will be that ur gone.” “It’s a fact.” “You always knew that.” Wolfe sent the messages to Rad, asking him to help mediate. (All of the messages came to light during the subsequent lawsuit, which argued that Rad bullied Wolfe into resigning.)
“Email me now saying you’re quitting,” Rad wrote after Wolfe floated the possibility of quitting. He added, “Your employment continuing is not likely an option at this point.” In another chain of texts, Wolfe said she was worried about her stake in the company, and Rad wrote, “You still are cofounder you shit.” Followed by, “And I told you that u could make your title even in FB (Facebook) to cofounder.”
Wolfe sued for sexual harassment, and Tinder eventually paid out a settlement reported to be about $2 million. Mateen was fired, and screenshots of his bile-filled text-message diatribes to Wolfe circulated widely online. Soon after, Rad was pushed out as CEO but kept on as president. Sometimes he’ll say he was fired; other times he’ll say it was just a break. “It was almost a rite of passage,” he explains. “It was a little like when you break up with someone, and when they’re gone, you realize how much you really appreciated them.”
Briefly Diller and the company’s minders tried to bring an adult into the situation. They hired a more traditional CEO, Chris Payne, who came from top roles at eBay, Amazon, and Microsoft. Rad, demoted, was still around the office. Payne, who never moved to the company’s headquarters in L.A., soon left. “He was CEO for five months, but the first three months don’t even count ’cause you’re just learning the ropes. So really only two,” Rad says. “He just wasn’t a fit for our culture.”
Why exactly Payne was fired remains somewhat mysterious — even to Payne, a source close to him says. (Payne declined to comment.) Payne wanted to focus on data analytics and monetization. But Rad galvanized employees, pushed against Payne’s efforts, and eventually won. Rad, according to many who have worked with him, has a sharp eye for product and design, and it may be that Rad, for all his gaffes and antics, is actually an apt CEO for Tinder. The company is, after all, built on its brand image of sex, youth, and energy, on a certain naughtiness that eHarmony and Match don’t have.
There’s still a sourness in the office about Wolfe, who went on with Gulczynski to found Bumble, a dating app similar to Tinder on which only women can initiate conversations. (Gulczynski wryly told me that Rad “created his own competition.”) One Tinder employee said, “In this office, when we say ‘the B-word,’ we don’t mean bitch, we mean Bumble.” Rad says of Wolfe, “It’s like if you say that name — person who shall not be named — in this office, everyone’s like, ‘Ugh, I’d kill her.’”
Every generation panics about young people having sex. How they’re doing it. Why they’re doing it. How often they’re doing it. And Tinder is the latest cause for alarm. There’s something jarring about knowing that millions of young people are finding mates based on headshots. But why? Just because an eHarmony survey takes hours to fill out, does that mean it finds you a better boyfriend? To the Tinder team, the popularity of headshot-based dating just means we’re better at talking about ourselves in pictures than in words. “Education, values, communities, background, ethnicity, personality — we’re really good at reading these things from photos,” says Tinder’s vice president of technology Dan Gould. “Better than in lists of questions.”
One day when I visit the offices, the Tinder team is talking about some tests they’ve been doing on the likelihood that people swipe right with different variables (i.e., if someone identifies as a feminist, are people more or less likely to swipe right?). Badeen, now the senior vice president of product, is wearing an Apple watch, a polo shirt, and a seersucker blazer and chugging a sugar-free Red Bull. He’s a small guy with a surprisingly deep voice who moved from Kansas to L.A. to become an actor: “I was in the background in The Break-Up — I’m like the last thing you see.” Badeen started doing web design for L.A. Casting before landing at Hatch, where he became the inventor of Tinder’s swipe. “I woke up to the swipe one morning,” he says. “It solidified in the shower. I mimed it there first.”
The goal for users, according to Badeen, is that they forget about the person they swiped on within three seconds. But Tinder doesn’t. They study who members swipe on, who they match with. Then they look at “reactivation.” Younger users will disappear for a few weeks and then “reactivate,” or start swiping again. Older users spend more time looking at individual profiles and are more likely to disappear for a few months before reactivating. The average active user spends an hour a day on Tinder, Gould says. (Rad says he’s addicted and spends countless hours swiping.)
Neighborhood patterns tend to be unique. Even people on different blocks in a city will behave differently or be less likely to match. “People naturally sort themselves geographically,” Gould says. And if people travel, their behavior changes dramatically. “We learn all about a person,” Gould says, “and then they go to a different place and act totally differently.”
Gould, whose hair is a little more askew and whose clothes are a little looser than Rad’s and Badeen’s, is in charge of tweaking the algorithm. Which is also to say that matches don’t happen by chance. Tinder is arranging who you’ll see next. And with billions of matches, it has an enormous trove of data. “We’re probably one of the largest recommendation engines in the world,” Rad says.
At first, Gould tells me, the app had a ruling class of “the matching 1 percent,” people who got tons of matches and who made everyone else look bad in comparison. Tinder decided to change the trend by showing these profiles less frequently, especially to users who weren’t in the 1 percent. Now those who get a lot of right swipes (yes) get shown to progressively fewer people, and those who get a lot of left swipes (no) get shown to progressively more people. “I call it progressive taxation — redistributing matches. They’re not truly ours to redistribute, but we try,” Gould says. “It feels right to do that.” The company calls this “smart matching”: bringing justice to the dating world by balancing the playing field and making sure that members less likely to get matches still get some. “Part of the human condition is the struggle. If you’re seeing nothing but Victoria’s Secret models, one won’t necessarily stick out,” Badeen says. “When we introduce people who aren’t suited for you, it accentuates those who are.”
They also change the system for bad actors, limiting the number of swipes per day. “We used to have a bunch of guys who would swipe right on everyone and then not respond, so we added a limit to detect people who weren’t playing the game,” Gould says. “I was surprised, but people actually are smart. They play what they’re given. For the first few days, the guys kept hitting their limit. Then, after that, they began to adapt. Once they did, conversations got longer.”
Gould and Badeen see these interventions as a moral obligation. “It’s scary to know how much it’ll affect people,” Badeen says. “I try to ignore some of it, or I’ll go insane. We’re getting to the point where we have a social responsibility to the world because we have this power to influence it.”
Gould echoes this sentiment: “Listen, architects design buildings that set up how people are going to live. City planners set up towns and roads. As the designers of a system that helps people with dating, we have a responsibility to build those contexts — we’re responsible for a decent percent of the marriages on this planet every year. That’s an honor and a responsibility.”
Rad says he talks to ten Tinder users a day to gain empathy with their experiences. “Every time I get a story about somebody’s life being changed by Tinder, it never gets old. I can’t get enough,” he says. “On Instagram, you’re providing people entertainment. Tinder is bigger. Imagine life without your partner? It’s fundamentally different.” Rad can get cheesy when talking about the app. “We’re what rock ’n’ roll was,” he says. “Rock ’n’ roll was about freedom, and now Tinder’s about freedom. It’s about not having to live in conventional understanding of how relationships form, and it’s about pursuing your desire.” Right now, Rad acknowledges, Tinder is viewed with suspicion. “But in 20 years,” Rad says, “it’ll be like, ‘Tinder, of course, that’s how everyone meets.’”
Rad’s back in power, albeit humbled — and so, too, unofficially, is Mateen. Rad calls Mateen his rock and wears bracelets, reading
FOCUS, that Mateen gave him. They speak by phone every day. When I go out to dinner with the pair, they both order enormous spicy tuna rolls with wasabi tempura cakes on top. Mateen’s wearing an oversize gray sweater and has a short beard. His face is still boyish, and he says he’s smitten with his new girlfriend, whom he met on Tinder. He shows me pictures of her — blond, beautiful. In one picture, they’re next to Mick Jagger. Since leaving Tinder, he’s been investing in real estate, “places with a little hair on them,” turning one-bedrooms into two-bedrooms, investing in startups. Across the table from me, he seems demure, apologetic. I comment that he’s really become the villain of the story. “I think about it every day,” Mateen says. “You have no idea what it’s like.”
The next morning, we drive to Rad’s parents’ house in Bel Air. It’s stunning, ornate. Rad’s soft-spoken father meets us at the door, and his mother comes downstairs in a silk top and red pants, despite Rad’s attempts to get her to dress down and wear jeans. (“I need to look like myself,” she says.)
They’re extremely close, and it shows.
“I’ll never forget when he was born,” she says, “and he was supposed to be a girl.”
“Everybody said, ‘It’s a girl,’” his dad agrees.
“I’m a very high-shooter woman, and in Sean — when I see him and his accomplishments — he’s a version of me a million times better,” she says.
The family just got back from a trip to Rome. “In this trip I felt like a baby — he took care of everything,” Rad’s mother says. “I was so hoping I would miss my flight and could stay longer!” A maid sets out feta, avocado, fried eggs, Iranian breads. Dash, the family golden doodle, jogs around looking for attention. Rad’s mother calls everyone “baby.”
Rad’s been living at home for a few months but doesn’t want to say how many. “It’s fine but annoying at home,” he says. “My mom says I can’t leave the house without giving her a kiss. I say, ‘Do I have to do that in a hotel?’ She says, ‘Do they cook for you in a hotel?’”
Rad has 49 first cousins in L.A. His brother, who’s married to a Persian woman he met at a wedding and who now works for the family electronics company, lives a 30-second walk away. They can see their grandmother’s house from the deck. “Sean, we have a house you should look at in the community,” his dad says, laughing. “And we have a nice girl for you, too.”
Instead, Rad’s been remodeling a vast, modern condo we visit the same day. He asks if I can say it belongs to his parents. I can’t tell if he’s worried people will think he’s materialistic or if he’s worried about offending former co-founders who didn’t make out as well.
“It’s like I’m not allowed to be successful,” he says, looking at the building.
There are two bathrooms off the master bedroom. “For a wife one day, I hope,” he says. He’s often talking about a future wife. “I want to do my wedding one day at Huntington Gardens,” he tells me later. “I’m a romantic.”
Just before my last day with Rad, he gives his interview to the Evening Standard and, in what he says was only an hour-long conversation, manages to explain that he’s a sweetheart because he doesn’t send dick pics; he becomes, as he puts it, “the laughingstock of the internet.” The interview ricochets out, making it into Match Group’s SEC filings and forcing a disavowal from the company.
When I meet Rad again, he’s feeling chastened. Pambakian is paranoid. “There’s a stereotype that people want to corner me in,” Rad begins to tell me in the car.
“I wouldn’t go that route,” Pambakian cautions.
“Listen, I’m human and I’m real,” Rad says. “It didn’t make me proud.”
“It’s humiliating,” he adds. “I’m learning.” Rad, especially in moments like this, comes off as earnest, even sweet. He wants to prove to me that he’s “a good guy” and “not what you read about.” But he frequently says off-color things during our time together, and at moments his persona can feel deliberate. One IAC executive told me that Rad’s a great CEO, but that he’s still too naïve, that he’s the kind of leader investors should keep “on lockdown.”
If Rad hasn’t entered the pantheon of modern tech founders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Uber’s Travis Kalanick, he wants to. He’s recently started doing yoga and meditating with the Headspace app. He wakes up at 6 a.m. and spends an hour in bed going over emails before working out. He’s reading biographies for inspiration. He just finished Howard Hughes’s and is now on to Teddy Roosevelt’s. “Travis has made mistakes. Zuck’s made mistakes,” he says. “People make mistakes every day.”
“Sean’s very motivated,” one co-founder told me. “He’s very confident. He’s a natural salesman. I’ve never said he’s a capable leader, but I think he’s maturing.” Next year, Tinder’s growing, doubling in size to about 150 employees and adding new features. Rad has talked about launching a Tinder for networking, too, something LinkedIn-y or Facebook-y, and during my visit he showed me a demo of a new Tinder iteration that goes beyond 1-to-1 dating. The company is also focusing abroad. Rad says he’s noticed that Americans “are kind of prudes compared to the rest of the world” and that sexuality is more of “a priority” elsewhere. Their next big hire is going to be an anthropologist to help them understand cultural nuance. “In India, a heart might mean something different,” Rad says. “There’s a lot of complexity.” But the most interesting question in Tinder’s future is how they’ll use their data. Rad will be the one guiding those decisions.
We drive back to the office to take some photographs, and Rad steps out onto the roof for a cigarette. He’s started smoking a lot. He kicks his sneaker against the tarmac. Nothing feels quite right, it seems. His hair is too sticky. He had a dentist appointment earlier in the week, and his cheeks are still puffy. He is too tan, he says. He ashes, toes the ground.
The photo shoot begins. Rad starts somberly but quickly lightens up, hamming for the pictures. Pambakian watches from nearby.
“Look sad. Don’t smile. You regret your mistakes,” Pambakian says. “No, not on the hip. Put your hand on your chest. You’re sad. Cry!”
“But I’m happy!” Rad says, laughing, hopping up and down a little. “I’m a happy boy.”