Amid a pandemic that has kept much of the world at home for the past 18 months, meeting and dating strangers might seem the last thing most people would want to do. 

But even the coronovirus has not been able to slow down Austin-based dating app company Bumble.

During the pandemic, Bumble has continued its remarkable growth. Over the past year and a half, Bumble has added features, seen its customer base jump to more than 100 million users — with more of them than ever before willing to pay for the company’s services — and even went public with a $2.15 billion initial offering of stock, the biggest in Austin history.  Bumble, which operates the apps Bumble and Badoo, has more than 40 million monthly users and more than 2.9 million paying users in more than 150 countries.

The company’s namesake app works similarly to dating apps like Tinder, where users swipe left or right on preferences, except it only allows women to initiate a conversation or make contact.

Tariq Shaukat, president of Bumble, said the company’s success during the pandemic has shown that “connection is undeniable and it’s critical to a happy, healthy life.”

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“Even without face-to-face interactions, our community has found connection, friendship, and love. More people than ever recognize the benefits, safety and access that online dating provides. When COVID accelerates and loneliness climbs, people turn to us for connections,” he said.

When CEO and founder Whitney Wolfe Herd took Bumble public in February,  she made it clear the company was just getting started, and that said she envisions Bumble as a “preeminent global woman’s brand.”

“Today is day one of our commitment to our community and shareholders to build out our long-term vision, to be the platform to meet new people, no matter who you might be looking for, whichever life stage or situation you’re in,” she said at the time.

Bumble has been handsomely rewarded for taking risks and upping its game during the pandemic, said Scott Kessler, global sector lead for technology media and telecommunications at New York-based Third Bridge. 

“If someone told you ‘Hey, we’re going to be in the midst of a global pandemic. People are going to be reticent if not restricted from leaving their residences, you are running an online dating business and you’re going to decide you want to go public… With that set of facts a lot of people would be skeptical, to say the least,” Kessler said. “But love finds a way. I think people have used Bumble as a vehicle to put that into practice.”

Booming revenue

Online dating was already mainstream before 2020, but when more traditional dating options became less available during the pandemic, stigmas around meeting online lessened and more people began using dating apps.

A Bumble survey found that more than 90% of people surveyed said there is no longer a stigma attached to meeting someone online or through a dating app since the pandemic began, Shaukat said.

Bumble’s own growth supports the survey data. With more people downloading its Bumble and Badoo apps, Bumble has now topped more than 100 million users, according to the company. 

Apps owned by Bumble rival Match Group also saw huge jumps. Tinder reported 2020 was its busiest year yet, while Hinge tripled revenue between 2019 and 2020.

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Tinder still has more users than any other dating app, but Bumble is now considered No. 2 in popularity, Kessler said.  Across all dating platforms, about 270 million people worldwide used online dating in 2020, as dating app revenue worldwide grew to $3.08 billion, according to industry data tracker Business of Apps.

Bumble now has 2.9 million paying users, according to the company, a 20% increase in one year. In the second quarter of this year, the company’s revenue also shot up 38% to $186.2 million, a number it says it expects will keep growing.

Bumble has long generated revenue through a subscription model, which has free features and charges for additional services, but Bumble launched a two-tier subscription model in the spring, replacing its traditional Bumble coins payment. The company also plans to roll out a new premium package for Badoo.

The company’s first tier, Bumble Boost, lets people see everyone who swiped on their profile, extend their matches and rematch with expired connections. Bumble Premium gives users a queue — called a Beeline — to see everyone who’s already liked their profile, the ability to swipe through people in other cities, the ability to go “Incognito” and only show your profile to someone after you’ve swiped right on their profile and other options.

‘Innovation is pretty key’

Regularly adding options and features for its users has been the norm for Bumble since its founding, and company leaders say that has continued through the pandemic. 

In fact, Shaukat was a pandemic era addition to the company himself, starting work in July 2020.

Shaukat said that during the pandemic, the company has been focused on safety and COVID-conscious features. Bumble has created a COVID preferences Center, which lets people indicate the types of dates they are comfortable with, such as virtual, distanced and masked. The company also rolled out a badge that allows users to show they are vaccinated. 

“In general, there are more people just being explicit about the types of relationships they’re looking for,” Shaukat said. “We’re trying to give them the tools so that they can state that and nobody is surprised. That way, they can meet with people who are most compatible with them.” 

In one of its early pandemic successes, the company leaned into its video chatting offerings, a feature the app has had since 2019. Wolfe Herd pushed users to take dates virtual instead of in person, and the company added features to encourage the behavior, including a virtual dating badge to let users signal they are open to virtual dating. 

Rival Match.com added a video chat feature called Vibe Check that gave members the ability to video call in-app, and Hinge added a Date from Home feature which lets both users tap a button to signal they’re open to a virtual date. Tinder would add a video chat feature that fall. 

Bumble also added and updated features to encourage people to use and stay on the app. It expanded the range users can match with to anyone in the U.S, up from 50 miles, and added features like audio notes and an in-app feature called the question game. The strategy is paying off, Shaukat said.

“We’ve seen that some of the virtual dating behaviors that people learned during the pandemic are sticking,” Shaukat said. “It’s now been normalized to have a quick video chat with your potential date before meeting up in person, and we think that will remain beyond our current pandemic times.”

Kessler said many changes that industries and people have made over the last 12 to 18 months are here to stay. 

“I think some of the ways that people are interacting with each other, whether it’s digital or whether it’s virtual or it’s video. People are now expecting to interact in those ways,” Kessler said. Companies like Bumble have to make sure that they’re providing platforms and tools that enable those things to happen in a way that not only people expect but they want.”

It’s crucial that Bumble’s features keep up with user demand, he said. 

“Innovation is pretty key. If you’re a newly public company I think it’s perhaps even more important, because there’s a perception that if you’re a new company that you have new and fresh ideas and new and fresh features and functionality,” he said.  

Expansion opportunities

Wolfe Herd and other Bumble executives have been clear about their plan to take Bumble beyond its dating-focused roots, and have focused on creating a women-centric space for connecting. The platform has become part dating app, part networking platform that includes friend and business networking options. 

The company’s first move beyond the dating app came in 2016, when it debuted Bumble BFF, a similar concept to the dating app, but geared towards friendship.  In 2017, it launched a networking-focused option, Bumble Bizz.   

While Bumble is still making most of its revenue from the dating side of the app, the company said BFF is growing, and 10% of Bumble’s monthly active users are now engaging with the friend-finding mode. During the first three months of 2021, women spent 44% more time on BFF and men spent 83% more time on the app, according to the company. In March 2021, 90% of women who used BFF also found at least one match.

“The pandemic has been an isolating time for many and fundamentally changed the way people develop new relationships — including friendships,” Shaukat said. 

Kessler said it remains to be seen whether Bumble will be able to expand to where it’s seen as the place to go for all kinds of relationships . 

“It’s going to be a hard nut to crack,” Kessler said. “Even though those efforts haven’t really gained much traction, and I think there’s a fair amount of skepticism around what financial successes will be, I think they’re very on plan. There have been benefits to the overall brand.” 

A potential growth area for the company is to expand internationally, particularly in Europe and Latin America with its Badoo app. 

Historically, companies that have been successful have focused on investing in, acquiring and building out a variety of different properties across different demographic groups, different geographies and in different types of value propositions for users, Kessler said.

Kessler said that will be necessary if Bumble wants to stay competitive with its top rivals.

“It seems like the focus is very much on growth, and so the fact that they’re delivering the kind of growth that they have during a global pandemic and are expected to actually see even more growth is significant,” Kessler said.

What will Bumble do next?

Not all of Bumble’s moves have been made in the traditional business sense. It hasn’t been one to shy away from political issues. Last month, the company announced it was creating a relief fund to support reproductive rights and to help people seeking abortions in Texas.  Last year, the company sponsored a bill in California that would establish protections for technology users who receive sexually explicit images, and started pushing for a similar bill in New York in January. 

It’s this branding and risk-taking that Kessler said users value, and it likely helps drive some of the company’s success. 

“Users really appreciate the way the company kind of goes aboutp roviding its service,” Kessler said. “But I also think they like what the company and the brand stand for.” 

The company also has plans to open a restaurant in New York, dubbed Bumble Brew, which will be an all-day cafe and wine bar. The company has had pop-up spaces called Bumble Hives in the past, including in Austin, but this marks the company’s first permanent physical location.

The company also alluded to using the creator economy to expand its reach, but declined to disclose details on its exact plans.

“Bumble is thinking bigger and they’re taking risks and trying new thing,” Kessler said. “Is this a great time to open up a restaurant in Manhattan? It seems like it would be a challenging time to do that, but maybe it’s a really opportunistic time to do that and clearly, they’re not getting into the restaurant business. You have to think about why they’re doing that and what it represents, and I think a lot of people feel pretty good about that.” 

Kessler said it will be important for the company to focus on the long term, and many are watching where the company may go from here. 

“At the end of the day, they’re making a lot of the right decisions. It’s early days but if you look at the IPO and their position as a company in a broader sense, it seems like there are a lot of positives,” Kessler said. “And there is a fair amount of curiosity about what they may do next.”