Photography by Owen Jones.
It’s never been a more lonely time to be single. With millions staying home, there are fewer opportunities to socialize and find a romantic partner. Dating apps are now the best way to meet people safely, and singles are showing them some love. For years, Lakewood Heights neighbor Andy Chen has helped spark human connections as senior vice president of +1 Labs for Match Group, which created Tinder and owns Hinge, Plenty of Fish and several other dating apps. +1 Labs is Match Group’s internal in- novation team, which uses data and technology to develop future products. In 2019, Chen’s team launched Ship, a dating app that allows singles to meet while sharing the experience with family and friends. During coronavirus lockdowns, Ship released new features — including virtual backgrounds, group video chat and a Date From Home badge — to help singles date safely from home. Nearly 1 million people have downloaded the app. Chen talks about innovation, the future of dating apps and dating during the pandemic.
How did you start developing dating apps?
I joined an online dating startup called True in Las Colinas. That’s where I cut my teeth in online dating and startups. It didn’t work out, like many startups do. We then started Traxo. The original vision was to take travel and marry it with social media. It was like Tripadvisor meets Facebook. The CEO of Match knew about me when I was at True. She said, “Hey, I’ve heard a lot about you, and you’re doing a lot of cool things with Facebook technology. I want to pick your brain.”
Tell me about your job.
Given the success of Tinder, we need to continue to invest in big ideas. That’s the purpose of my team. We bend light to look around corners and guess what users want in the future. We’re not just competing against Bumble. We’re competing against Netflix and Apple TV. We’re competing for entertainment time. It’s the ultimate form of people watching.
How did lockdowns affect engagement on dating apps?
We’re fortunate that COVID has been just a speed bump for us. COVID accelerated the adoption of online dating, and dating apps have never been more popular. People that weren’t using it started because they couldn’t do anything else. We’ve seen record levels of engagement in female users. With everyone in lockdown, females can have more courtship online before they meet. We saw all these amazing trends: the amount of time on an app, the messages being sent. We need to figure out how to maintain this.
What made Ship so popular during the pandemic?
We knew users were seeking the ability to connect with humans, even if it was online. With young women, if you pick up their phone, they’re already sharing screenshots and having conversations around it. So on Ship, you can match for yourself and your friends, whether you are in a relationship or not. There’s a group chat feature, and there’s a fun activity feed where you can see what friends are doing on the app.
How do you see Ship growing?
There’s a lot of opportunity in emerging dating markets. Dating has usually been localized. We’ve figured out how that happens in Western culture. How does it work in India? How does it work in Southeast Asia? How does it work in a Muslim-dominant society? The adoption of online dating in the rest of the world has really just begun.
“COVID accelerated the adoption of online dating, and dating apps have never been more popular.”
Do you tweak for international use?
You want the system to be as consistent as possible. Facebook is the same everywhere, but dating isn’t the same everywhere. We are very deliberate when we do tweaks. In Southeast Asia, they have no idea how tall 6 feet is. They’re in metric. In Thai- land, they go by the Buddhist calendar instead of the Roman calendar. We were like, “Why are all these really old people joining the site?” Their calendar is like 80 years in the future.
Did you date online?
No. Match started in 1995. I started dating my wife in 1997. In ’95, it was still pretty fringe. Now it’s the No. 1 way people meet. Even five years ago, there was a little bit of stigma. Now if you don’t use it, you’re in a small minority.
What experience did you gain from startups?
Doing my own startup was like getting a Ph.D. The intensity and pace of learn- ing you put yourself through is unlike anything else. When I raised capital and hired a team, it gave me so much confidence. I never felt uncomfortable sitting across the table from anybody. I never had more stress in my life, but I never had more fun.
Do you miss it?
I still get a rush from developing new products from scratch but doing it in the relative safety of a $30 billion company. I’m still a huge supporter of the startup community. When I hire people who have taken a chance, it’s a big sign of credibility in my book.
Why did you move to Lakewood?
I’m a cyclist, so I wanted to move east to White Rock Lake. My wife found this house on Llano and said we should go look at it. One of my best friends — he was a roommate and was in my wedding — I sent it to him, and he said it was four houses down. He thinks we only bought the house because he lives here.