It’s hard to write a story without a protagonist, but here goes. In the past week, Tinder’s former VP of Marketing Whitney Wolfe filed a complaint with the California courts claiming that she was sexually harassed and discriminated against at work, stripped of her co-founder title, and unfairly pushed out of the company.
The challenge in telling this story, as is very common with startup origin stories, is that the truth may be far murkier than it seems.
Text-message evidence presented in the complaint appears to show abhorrent behavior from Tinder co-founder and CMO Justin Mateen, who has since been indefinitely suspended from the company. Mateen declined to cooperate with TechCrunch on this story.
It doesn’t matter to me whether Justin and Whitney were in a relationship, friends, broken up, or merely coworkers; there is absolutely no excuse for the things that Justin said in those text messages. And that’s not the only time we’ve seen bad behavior from him.
But without defending his actions, it’s important to look at the different pieces of this puzzle, especially as the case involves accusations against not just Justin, but also Tinder as a company and its majority shareholder IAC.
I’ve spoken to numerous sources who were present at the beginning stages of Tinder, most of whom wish to remain anonymous because of the lawsuit. (Tinder officially declined to comment on this story.)
At the end of 2011, Sean Rad had just left Adly and was starting to think about what he wanted to do next. He and and his best friend Mateen called then Adly CEO (and Sean’s former partner) and current Polyvore CRO Arnie Gullov-Singh to discuss various options for their next venture. They asked Gullov-Singh’s advice on marketing tactics for different ideas.
In late January 2012, Sean was hired into the Hatch Labs incubator (funded partially by IAC and partially by Xtreme Labs) as general manager under CEO Dinesh Moorjani. He was tasked with building out Cardify, a loyalty app that rewarded users points for swiping credit cards. At the time, Justin was selling off his own company SiteCanvas and looking for a new project himself.
About two weeks after Sean started work, he participated in a hackathon within Hatch, where Moorjani paired Sean with Joe Muñoz, a developer who was also working at Hatch.
Muñoz was working on an interest graph back-end that helped match people and local shops based on interests. Sean, meanwhile, had been talking about potentially building out a dating product for a while, so the two were paired together based on the compatibility of their two passion projects. Over the course of the hackathon in February, they built the first prototype of Tinder.
TechCrunch has obtained the original pitch deck from that presentation, where Tinder (then called MatchBox) was presented to Hatch Labs executives and entrepreneurs in the program. It’s dated February 16, 2012.
The man pictured in the presentation is a close friend of Sean’s, and the woman in the presentation is a close friend of Justin’s.
Whitney Wolfe wouldn’t be hired into Hatch Labs until May, and she wasn’t assigned to work on MatchBox or Tinder in any official capacity until September 2012, according to my sources.
After the hackathon in February, the Cardify/MatchBox team grew. Jonathan Badeen was hired in March to take on front-end duties, and Chris Gulczynski joined about a week later to help with design. All four of these people were working on the Cardify loyalty app at the time. Like Tinder — especially its first prototype MatchBox — Cardify’s design was inspired heavily by a deck of cards. Still, however, no swipe.
From March through April, the team often worked out of Justin’s personal office, as the Los Angeles-based Hatch offices didn’t offer the same level of resources as their NY counterpart. Justin was not a part of the Cardify team; he just provided working space.
By May 2012, Cardify was ready to be presented. Hatch and Sean were in the midst of hiring a sales team to get merchants and vendors on board, and Sean hopped onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2012 to unveil the app to the world.
One hitch: Apple wasn’t so keen on Cardify, and it took about three weeks to approve the app.
“They didn’t want to sit around and twiddle their thumbs,” said one source who had spoken with Sean at the time. “He wanted to keep working on things, and had been trying to find the time to build out MatchBox, so he and Dinesh and Adam decided to put the development team on it.”
During the waiting period in May, Muñoz, Gulczynski, Badeen and Rad all went heads down to build out MatchBox. However, they still needed marketing contractors to sell Cardify to merchants for when it was finally approved.
Right around this time, Justin met Whitney. “She was friends with a girl that Justin had been hooking up with,” a friend of Whitney’s tells me. Whitney had a long friendship with Alexa Mateen, Justin’s younger sister, who also knew Sean and was interviewing to help with sales for Cardify.
According to one source, Justin’s decision to introduce Whitney to Sean and set up Whitney and Alexa as Cardify sales reps was one of his first moves as a leader at the company, despite the fact that he wasn’t officially working on the project.
As Whitney and Alexa went out into the field to rep Cardify to merchants, Rad, Badeen, Gulczynski and Muñoz focused on MatchBox.
Whitney claims that after beginning work in May 2012, her responsibilities were focused on college campus marketing for Tinder. However, early Hatch employees claim that she was rarely even in the office where Tinder was being worked on, but rather in the field focusing on Cardify sales.
Contrary to the complaint filed with the courts, Sean and Badeen were bullish about MatchBox, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Through June and July, Tinder began to take shape. Because MatchBox was too similar to investor IAC’s Match.com nomenclature, the team went to work thinking up a new name. It was a Hatch-wide project, meaning that everyone working out of Hatch LA was in on the exercise. That included folks like Hatch Labs manager of engineering Ryan Ogle, Hatch co-founder Adam Huie, co-founder and Hatch CEO Moorjani and the Cardify sales team.
The Tinder flame had already been designed by Gulczynski, so the key was to keep the focus on the flame. FLRT was an option, and MatchBox was still in the running as a backup. Multiple sources disagree on who came up with the name, with Munõz, Wolfe, and Badeen all listed as possibilities.
On August 2, the app was ready for prime time. Tinder soft-launched into the App Store, and Sean started the process of bringing on Justin officially. At first, he was contracted temporarily to lead marketing efforts around the launch for two months.
As one of his first moves, he lobbied to have Whitney and Alexa shift focus from Cardify and help him with his marketing plan for college campuses. They were currently reporting to Yvonne Orillac, who was Cardify’s sales lead, who also declined to comment on the story.
In the complaint, Whitney claims she then left on a marketing trip to her alma mater, SMU, and Utah, where she grew up, to “unveil” the Tinder app. A friend of hers at the time tells us that the trip was primarily to visit someone Whitney had been romantically interested in, not to market Tinder.
In either case, Whitney alleges that Justin, who had just been hired, bumped into her before she left on her business trip and announced he had recently joined the team. However, according to our sources, Justin had already been working on the marketing of Tinder, which included the reassignment of Whitney herself.
“I had a long string of emails with Justin about Tinder marketing in early September,” said Gullov-Singh, the same person that Sean and Justin had gone to for advice before Cardify even existed. “He was excited about implementing a plan around guerrilla marketing and hitting college campuses for events, just like he had done in college.”
When Sean and Justin were attending USC, Justin ran a company called MW Entertainment. He and his partner Jaspar Weir threw parties, booked entertainment, got brand sponsors and charged admission tickets; it ended up being a pretty profitable business.
“Justin and I were partners in a promotion business in college, putting on events across Los Angeles for USC students,” said Weir. “Justin developed and executed a marketing strategy that would target and engage the influencers. For us, this meant individually approaching the fraternities and sororities at USC to announce each event, and personally reach out to anyone we considered ‘influential.’ This was done with the intent to gain exposure and popularity amongst the people we considered to be ‘early adopters’ who would bring everyone else to the events.”
“From our sophomore year to our senior year, Justin would hold these huge parties and it was really impressive,” said an old friend of Justin’s in college. “He made a lot of money doing it, too.”
After Justin’s sister Alexa told him about Whitney’s trip, he gave her advice to employ the same strategy he had used in college. According to friends, Justin gave Whitney clear instructions for the SMU marketing blitz: get 10 girls on the app before ever going to a sorority, so that they see that other attractive people are on the platform.
At the time, Tinder already had a couple of thousand users because of Justin’s assault on his friends, according to a source very familiar with the company at the time.
“I remember one night, a few weeks before Tinder’s big USC launch party, he text messaged three hundred of his friends in a single night and told them to download Tinder,” said a friend of Justin.
An article in GQ confirms this: “Justin ran individual campaigns to encourage people to sign up. He would text each person personally. He targeted what he called ‘social influencers,’ avoiding the ‘awkward crowd’ of people probably most in need of a new way to make friends.”
After returning from her trip to SMU and Utah, Whitney attended the official Tinder launch party referenced above. It was planned by Justin, and held at his parents’ house on September 29. His younger brother, Tyler, was still in attendance at USC and helped get a big group to show up. Hundreds of people flocked to the pool party, complete with inflatable water slide and a massive Tinder sign hanging off of the roof. And all of them were armed with the Tinder app. That was the only way to get in.
One source who was in attendance told us that Whitney left “about halfway through.”
Similar to Whitney’s claim, multiple sources agree that her relationship with Justin began around or after the holiday season in 2012. And by the end of 2012, Hatch had closed as planned and Tinder had begun to stand on its own two feet. The company incorporated in April of 2013, which is when equity was split among employees, just as Whitney states in her claim.
“They were in love,” said one source familiar with the couple. “Even early on, she was talking about wanting to end up with him.”
In the complaint, Whitney claims that Justin pursued a relationship with her. However, multiple sources indicate that she expressed interest in a relationship with Justin before they started dating.
Obviously, the company continued to grow. Quickly, too. Media outlets all over were interested in the hot new dating game called Tinder. Sean and Justin took plenty of interviews. And so did Whitney.
In one interview that was published more recently (the same GQ article referenced above), both Whitney Wolfe and Justin Mateen discuss the origins of Tinder together, and from the article itself, it seems that both played an instrumental role in the marketing of Tinder on college campuses. It’s almost as if they were a tag team. Still, the same article credits Justin with the experience and know-how of event marketing on campuses, as well as hiring reps from local areas.
Inspired in part by the path of Facebook, which launched first at elite colleges, Justin turned not just to the Ivy League but to schools known for their good parties. After seeding USC, Justin and Whitney traveled to schools like SMU in Dallas. Whitney might stand on a table in a fraternity and announce that there were 200 hot sorority girls on the app waiting for the men to sign up, then run to the sorority and tell them the reverse. They left a trail of stickers behind them—in the best campus bars, in the most exclusive nightclubs.
One Tinder employee tells me that Justin and Sean regularly wove in the names of Chris Gulczynski and Jon Badeen as co-founders of the project — Muñoz (who didn’t respond to request for comment) had already left the company to pursue other things.
When Whitney did interviews, she repeatedly asked Sean to let her go by “co-founder,” claiming that the press would take her more seriously if she had that title, according to people in the office.
According to my sources, Sean and Whitney were incredibly close friends (after all, she was dating his best friend and they all worked together) and he did, in fact, give in a number of times.
“Sean knew she wasn’t a founder… we all knew she wasn’t a founder,” one source said on the phone. “But he wanted to help her career, and he knew that having female representation in the press could only be a good thing for the company.”
I personally saw a message from June that Whitney sent to a colleague wherein she says she’ll be using VP of Marketing on her business card, without mention of the title co-founder.
Still, Whitney’s claim includes a business card with the co-founder title on it. According to sources, the business cards were handled by junior designer Sarah Mick, who emailed the company asking for everyone’s titles. I’m told by a Tinder employee that everyone, save Chris Gulczynski, responded to Sarah Mick directly (without CC’ing the rest of the employees) to give their title information.
One employee even recounted an instance in which Whitney said that she knew she wasn’t supposed to be using “co-founder” in her email signature, but would continue to do so until Sean found out.
Shortly after, other members of the early Tinder team also wanted co-founder titles. Folks like Chris Gulczynski and Alexa Mateen, who had been there just as long if not longer than Whitney, were wondering why they didn’t have the same designation, according to an early Tinder employee who wishes to remain anonymous.
The icing on the cake was the actual article Whitney cites in her claim, where Harper’s Bazaar calls her “the woman who invented Tinder.” According to multiple people on the Tinder PR team, Whitney
secured coverage for that article on her own and misled the journalist to the point where the PR team had to repeatedly ask for corrections to the article. It has also been confirmed that Whitney went behind the backs of other leadership at the company with the publication of that story.
Correction: After a quick call with my source on this, Whitney did not secure the Harper’s Bazaar story on her own, though did push Tinder PR to get her connected with the media outlet.
Meanwhile, employees recount Jonathan Badeen, who had been there from the very beginning and was rarely mentioned by the press, seeming noticeably discouraged by the article.
One employee, who was present in a meeting between Sean and Whitney, says that after the Harper’s Bazaar article and a couple of others like it, Sean explained that Whitney should not have been using the term co-founder in the press because it was causing confusion with the media and internally at Tinder.
“It was never part of her actual title within the company, on business cards or email signatures,” said the witness to the meeting. “At least it shouldn’t have been. He thought it would be good for Whitney and for Tinder, but once it started causing problems for so many people, I guess he realized he should have never let it happen in the first place. Even just for the press.”
That same witness says that Whitney sent a series of messages to Sean shortly following the article’s publication in which she expresses that she knew she wasn’t supposed to be going by co-founder for that article.
Throughout most of 2013, Whitney and Justin were dating as the app grew like wildfire. At first, the relationship was a secret to most of the company, but employees found out officially at a company event in June.
“I was a little bit worried about Justin and Whitney, just because I wasn’t quite sure if they should be dating while they’re working together like that,” said a close friend of Justin’s. “But Justin was so happy, and Whitney told me how much she loved him and that she wanted to end up with him and have babies with him. They looked happy, so I left it alone.”
As Whitney suggests in the complaint, the relationship runs into turbulence in the fall of 2013.
Friends of both Whitney and Justin say that the couple had issues with the amount of time Justin spent focusing on Tinder. An employee at a lunch near the Tinder office in October heard Justin say to Whitney that Tinder would always come first.
Still, the details around any official breakup are unclear. Whitney’s complaint states that they were completely over as of December 12, 2013, though friends of Whitney tell me that they continued sending romantic messages alongside hateful ones (the same type you see in the complaint evidence). According to a friend of Justin’s, they continued to have sex fairly regularly through February of 2014.
According to one friend, Whitney said over text messages that she loved Justin and couldn’t stop thinking about him. This was also in December.
None of my sources, a number of Justin and Whitney’s friends as well as Tinder employees, can agree on even a general time that Justin and Whitney broke up. One member of the media, who interviewed Whitney for a story, remembers Whitney saying repeatedly that Justin had broken up with her in the fall of 2013. Some agree on a period around December or January where they were not together, and one even recounts talking to Whitney while she was on a trip to Aspen for Christmas.
The friend said that she was excited Whitney was moving on from Justin now that she had met someone new in Aspen, a man named Michael Herd, with whom she continued a romantic relationship. Michael Herd is the grandson of Bob Herd, and the vice president of Herd Producing Co., an oil company that owns and operates over 400 wells in Louisiana and East Texas.
Though few sources agree on a definite breakup date, many do agree that one of the last times that Justin and Whitney had sex was on February 3, after a Tinder party thrown by Glamour magazine. Witnesses at the party say that Whitney was heavily intoxicated, notably interested in Justin, and even stating out loud: “I’m going to fuck you tonight, Justin.”
A friend of Justin’s who drove Justin home from the party recounted the story to me:
Whitney called Justin and said that people were harassing her or robbing her apartment or something. She said she needed help, so Justin made me drive all the way out to her house to see what was going on. When we got there, nothing was wrong. She didn’t know I was there, and she opened the door naked waiting for Justin. He stayed there that night.
Between February and late March, the status of the relationship between Whitney and Justin was still slightly unclear. One employee remembers an instance in which Whitney approached Justin in a very heated manner and began discussing personal issues in the office.
“Justin kept telling her not to do this in the office, but she wouldn’t let up,” said the employee. “Eventually, Alexa Mateen stood up and told Whitney to not to discuss personal drama in the office. Whitney told her that if she ever got involved again, she would kill her.”
In another instance during this period, Whitney claims that she experienced inappropriate treatment from Justin in front of Josh Metz, the new marketing manager. According to employees at the company, Whitney was later asked about the incident in front of Josh, Justin, Sean and a couple other employees at a marketing meeting and admitted to all of them that she had lied about the fight entirely, realizing that Metz wouldn’t corroborate her story.
Whether Whitney actually lied about the incident, or simply felt pressured to say that she did, is unclear.
Between February and March, two separate sources say that Whitney was considering taking legal action. Whitney’s lawyer, David Lowe, would not comment on whether or not Michael Herd is one of his clients, but he did say unequivocally that Herd is not footing Whitney’s legal bills.
On the evening of the Tinder Malibu party on April 6, friends of Justin say that he had just found out about an affair Whitney had allegedly had with another man while they were together. Whitney knew that he had found out, and was anxious about attending the party, according to one of her close friends.
“When Whitney arrived at the party, she walked through the house flailing her arms and being very boisterous,” said another witness. “She was inside and I was outside so I couldn’t hear her, but there were big glass walls so I could see her coming. Once she was outside, she was screaming about how they were all conspiring against her and talking shit about her.”
By “they,” this witness is referring to a small group of people who were talking in the grass in the backyard, including Sean, Justin, Alexa Dell (Sean’s girlfriend) and Alexa Mateen.
“Alexa Dell and Alexa Mateen went inside and then Whitney started getting physical with Justin,” said a separate source who witnessed the fight. “She was yelling, and then finally Sean tried to separate them.”
None of the four sources who witnessed the scene ever saw or heard Justin call Whitney a “whore,” as she alleges in the complaint. If he did it, he did it quietly. Eventually, Sean asked Whitney to leave the party after Justin removed himself from the situation, and as Whitney was exiting, she stopped in the kitchen.
No one is clear on how the altercation escalated, but Whitney ended up pulling the hair and clothing of Sean’s girlfriend, and to “get free of Whitney,” she spit at her, one witness tells me.
“Whitney kept saying ‘I’m done with all of this’ and ‘I’m done with all of you,'” said another witness at the party.
By all accounts, that is remembered by the majority of the Tinder staff as the night Whitney quit. In her complaint, she claims that she was forced out by CEO Sean Rad, though it seems like her actions on the night of that party in April were taken as a resignation.
As I said at the very beginning of this long story, we have no real protagonist.
There is no excuse for the language attributed to Justin within those text messages in the complaint. No matter the status of their relationship throughout any of it, my opinion is that it was irresponsible to date a subordinate and even less responsible to let the dramatic unfolding of that relationship’s implosion fizzle into the company they both helped to build.
Whatever might have been instigated by Whitney, it’s my belief that, as the superior in the professional relationship, dealing with the personal side of their situation was his responsibility.
From the dozens of stories I’ve heard over the past week, it seems clear that Whitney Wolfe and Justin Mateen had a turbulent, emotional and dramatic personal relationship. Whether she was cheating on him, provoking him or otherwise, I can’t personally show any tolerance whatsoever for Justin letting that relationship potentially affect the workplace. He was, after all, the superior.
Meanwhile, Sean Rad seems to have made his own mistakes. It appears that he got too close to employees on a number of levels. There have been some statements from early employees like Muñoz that indicate Sean’s friendship with Justin affected the latter’s role at the company. But multiple sources expressed that Mateen played an important role in the early success of the app, despite their friendship.
Still, the decision to let Whitney use the term co-founder in the press was probably a bad one. The decision to take it away, as Whitney states in her complaint happened, is potentially even worse. Information from multiple sources, as outlined above, indicates that she may not have contributed as much to Tinder’s early success as she suggests. There’s also evidence pointing to the fact that she may have used the term co-founder behind the backs of other founders and against their wishes, which adds even more fog to the situation.
To bestow the title and take it away again (in any capacity) might have been a mistake that Sean made out of naivety or even good intentions, perhaps to have a female representative of the company out in the press or to help foster Whitney’s career, but it seems like a rookie mistake that may have very grown-up consequences.
Another core complaint that Whitney has against Tinder is the inaction of Sean Rad in response to complaints about Mateen’s behavior. Whitney provides no actual evidence within the complaint that shows inaction from Rad. In fact, within the complaint, she mentions to a friend on April 1 that she has yet to talk to Sean about problems with Justin. That was five days before the Malibu party.
Whitney Wolfe’s complaint paints a picture of a company led by sexists who never wanted her to succeed. According to the accounts I’ve heard, that simply isn’t the case.
I spoke to more than a dozen sources for this story. Not one told me that Whitney spearheaded a campaign to shift focus from Cardify to Tinder. Not one could say definitively who came up with the name. Not one ever told me they saw Sean Rad (or Justin Mateen, for that matter) treat her inappropriately or with disrespect in the office. Most importantly, not one told me that she should be considered a co-founder of Tinder.
With the co-founder claim, there is quite a bit to consider. In many ways, the term co-founder doesn’t mean much. It’s not always the person who comes up with an idea that brings it to fruition. Just ask Reggie Brown or the Winklevii. And in the case of Tinder, Sean Rad actually did come up with the idea. Co-founder isn’t a legal term, and isn’t always included in term sheets and equity documents. In essence, it’s a marketing term.
However, legally speaking, if Whitney were a rightful co-founder who was stripped of that title without reason or cause, then Tinder could be in for a world of hurt.
“It’s not about the validity of the position of co-founder as much as it’s about the perception that she might have been demoted,” attorney Eric Broutman from the Abrams Fensterman law firm told TechCrunch. “The term co-founder brings more prestige, so if it was taken from her unfairly then the claim may be valid.”
Yet, it seems that Whitney was well aware that her use of the term co-founder was for the purposes of doing press for the company and not because she actually co-founded the company. Why else would she ask once to use the title co-founder, all the way back in January of 2013 (as shown in the evidence attached in the complaint), and then again sometime after June when iOS 7 was released?
That’s not to say her early contributions around marketing Tinder with Justin and Alexa Mateen weren’t important to the success of Tinder, but the fact that these conversations played out adds some gray area to the question of whether or not she was unfairly stripped of her title.
It’s easy to see the story of Whitney Wolfe vs. Tinder as yet another cut-and-dried case of alleged sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. But it’s far more nuanced than that.
The case merges two relatively separate issues — discrimination and harassment allegations against Mateen and unfair termination and discrimination allegations against Tinder — making it that much harder to untangle the truth of what happened.
But from what I’ve learned, a few things are unmistakably clear: From the very beginning, Tinder appears to have fostered a company culture that left employees in incredibly close, personal relationships. Rather than maturing as the company grew, the line between professional and personal in this culture apparently became increasingly thin.
Putting the bad behavior of any parties aside, this alone can destroy a company. And it’s unclear in Tinder’s case whether this fire will eventually burn it down.Shutterstock