He's at the helm of a matchmaking empire, but Hinge founder Justin McLeod is an unlikely tech guru.
Justin McLeod is flicking through my dating app profile and scratching his neatly trimmed beard. "I'm guessing this one probably gets you the most comments, right?" he says, looking at one of the "prompts" I've included. On Hinge - the fastest-growing dating app in the UK - users are provided with a series of questions to answer and feature on their profile, ranging from the jaunty "most embarrassing song on my Spotify" to the slightly more personal, "I get along best with people who ..."
And he is quite right. My response to "a life goal of mine ..." (to write a cookbook) tends to get the most "likes", while an admission that my karaoke song is Shania Twain's You're Still the One proves less popular.
McLeod edits one of my pictures and tells me to get rid of a couple. I've included all the classics: the moody beach shot, the fun group snap, the "I'm outdoorsy" hiking selfie. As he casually rearranges my images, it occurs to me that I probably ought to be offended by this brutal invasion of my dating life. But seeing as McLeod also happens to be the man who invented the app, I'd better listen.
Imagine the male chief executiveof a multimillion-dollar American tech company and he will almost certainly bear little resemblance to the 35-year-old, Kentucky-born founder of Hinge.
Firstly, there's no bizarrely regimented wardrobe in the mould of Mark Zuckerberg. There is also no hint of arrogance or impenetrable tech dude vernacular. Rather, McLeod is earnest, fashionable and easy to talk to. In fact, the only clue that he is a fully paid-up member of the Silicon Valley set is his lunch: a pot of green tea and vegan gnocchi. But the real sign that McLeod is a different breed of tech magnate comes when he starts talking about his pride and joy - the dating app he began working on eight years ago, while nursing a broken heart.
We'll get to the broken heart but first to the unlikely tech guru. McLeod is, rather incongruously, deeply concerned about the way phones rule our lives in 2019. Hinge's slogan, "Designed to be deleted", sounds like a good marketing ploy, but its founder absolutely believes this should be the aim. Indeed, earlier this month, Hinge revealed a redesign, with a more "sophisticated" look, to encourage less swiping and more meaningful communication.
The technology behind most dating apps is, says McLeod, "literally designed to be addictive. They're hacking your biology and your neurochemistry to keep you coming back. The parallels to addiction are really striking."
In this area, McLeod considers himself a kind of "canary in the coal mine". In his 20s, he battled drug and alcohol addictions, which saw him in and out of rehab. He recalls returning to his liberal arts college in upstate New York, from one particular summer spent in recovery, when he celebrated by "getting wasted and passing out in the stairwell, as one does".
He got sober after college (Harvard Business School followed) and now considers himself adept at spotting addictive tendencies. "Honestly, I probably wouldn't have drunk if we had social media back then," he says. "I would have just been an online addict."
This, he thinks, is the real reason behind widely reported declines in drinking and sex among teenagers. "The drug of choice is now social media, which is free and just as destructive.
"If someone has a drinking problem, they start passing out. [With this] someone just all of a sudden kills themselves one day," he adds. "It's more socially acceptable unfortunately and you don't start seeing the cracks until it's too late."
McLeod's dating app, then, is designed to foster real connections. Unlike others, such as Tinder, Hinge doesn't see users swipe through endless profile pictures. Instead, it gets you to "like" or comment on specific prompts, so that when you match with someone, you already have a good conversation starter. It makes the whole experience far less mindless, proven by the fact that Hinge users typically spend a maximum of six minutes a day on it. "Other apps are like: 'People are using ours for 90 minutes a day!' It's so crazy," says McLeod.
Then there's the limit they impose on the number of people you can "like" and the fact it takes hours to actually set up an account (they lose 20 per cent of users at this stage, McLeod tells me gleefully. "It's a filtering mechanism. We want people who put in the effort and are there for the right reasons.
"We're designed to be deleted, and everyone else is designed to be addictive."
But although Hinge bills itself as "the relationship app," it wasn't always this way. It started out as just another swiping machine but everything changed when McLeod's own love life took a turn. His backstory, you see, is inextricably woven into the fabric of his app.
McLeod met Kate at college, where they dated on and off until graduation, by which time it had all gone up in flames. In the four years that followed, McLeod got sober and yearned for the girl he had let go. He tried to contact her but was (understandably) rebuffed. By then, Kate had a high-flying career, had moved to London and was seeing someone else. "[She] was like, 'Listen, I have a life, I can't trust you, I love this other guy, it's best we don't see each other,'" McLeod recalls.
That was also the week, in 2012, that he came up with the idea for Hinge. "I built it for myself," he laughs. "That was the prime motivation."
A pattern developed: "I would send Kate an email once a year on her birthday and sometimes it would read, 'I'm ready to be friends now, I hope you're doing great.' Then the next year it would be, ''I'll come over with an engagement ring, I'll do anything.'"
Hinge, in the meantime, was flying. McLeod would add Kate to emails whenever he made business announcements. "I think she was like, 'The utter irony that this person who has no idea how to date has started a dating app.'"
Then came an interview with The New York Times. McLeod was talking about his motivation for setting up the app and the whole sorry tale of his lost love came tumbling out. "The reporter was like, 'Holy s*** we have the same story, except we found each other 20 years later. You can't make the same mistake I did. Go and get her.'"
After some deliberation, he shot Kate "one final email". She was now living in Switzerland, but tentatively agreed to a phone chat. "I was like, 'Cancel all my meetings.' I went to the airport and bought a ticket to Switzerland," says McLeod. "She texted me the next morning and was like, 'I'm ready to talk.' I said, 'Cool, because I'm going through Customs in Zurich.'" Seven hours later, Kate had called off her wedding. Before long she was back in New York and moving into McLeod's apartment.
With Kate, he says, his whole attitude towards dating has changed. "I had this moment where I was like, 'This is not the company I wanted to build.' [I realised] it's not about validation, it's about vulnerability and connection. So I went back to my board and said, 'I want to start over. I want to let go half the team; build this thing from scratch.'"
The new version, which launched in 2016, is focused on getting people into meaningful relationships. And it is, by all accounts, thriving. The American company Match Group (which owns match.com and Tinder) announced it had acquired the business in February. Now, McLeod has bigger fish to fry. He wants to lead a movement to get industry leaders thinking about how to make "healthier" tech.
"The people who can make the most change, the most quickly and who bear the most responsibility, are people like me," he says.
As for his own love story? Kate, now his wife of a year, will give birth to a son in August. "That kid is not going to know screens exist," insists McLeod. At some point he might be a little surprised to learn what his father does for a living.
Written by: Eleanor Steafel
© The Telegraph