People want exclusive dating apps to filter people out so they can swipe less

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It’s the season finale of Why’d You Push That Button, and this week, hosts Ashley Carman and Kaitlyn Tiffany discuss exclusive dating apps. Unlike Tinder, Facebook Dating, Hinge, or most other dating apps, these exclusive versions require users to apply and then only approve a select group. The most popular exclusive dating apps include Raya and The League. For this episode, Ashley and Kaitlyn want to know why people spend time applying to these services, and why these apps were created.

To find out, Ashley talks to her internet pal Lina about her experiences on Raya. Then Kaitlyn talks to her friend Paul about his Raya rejection and eventual success on The League. Finally, the two of them come back together to interview The League’s founder and CEO Amanda Bradford about why she made the app and why she thinks it’s essential.

As always, you can listen to the episode below, and follow along with Bradford’s interview, too. While you’re at it, subscribe to the show anywhere you typically get your podcasts. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends and family, too! Steal their phones and sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.

Ashley Carman: Okay. We are back with Amanda Bradford, CEO of The League. Hello.

Amanda Bradford, CEO of The League: Thanks so much for having me.

Ashley Carman: Of course. To start things off, we have talked about The League on the episode, but maybe you can give us the amended history, like when you started it, where you’re based, what The League’s mission actually is for people who don’t have a clear idea.

Kaitlyn Tiffany: I especially want to know where the name came from.

The name is controversial. I started it at the very end of 2014. We launched in San Francisco to about 419 people. I had just graduated business school and was out of a five and a half year relationship. This was my first time jumping into the dating scene, and I didn’t like it, so I decided to build my own dating scene, I guess. We launched in San Francisco and then ended up raising some funding, rebuilt the whole app in the next year, and then launched in New York as our second market in May 2015.

We have been around for a little over three years, and the whole mission of The League was to create power couples. I wanted to build a community where people were ambitious, career-oriented. They liked that about each other. They wanted to date someone with those traits. They were driven. I don’t like to use the word elite or successful because I think there is a lot of stigma associated to that, but to really date someone that shared that same value. Sometimes I joke and say it’s an app for workaholics, but at the end of the day it’s people that are really serious about their career and really want to make some kind of impact on the world.

Ashley: For you, career was the most important characteristic when looking for a potential partner?

I don’t want to say it’s most important, but I wanted to play more that just hot or not. I felt like with a lot of the dating apps out there, it was like, you saw their face and you swiped right or left, and then you had to ask all these vetting questions. I would get really clever at how to ask questions without being super straightforward. I’d be like, “I saw you live in the Financial District. Does that mean you work in finance,” in an effort to just get a better picture of what someone was like, and then I also resorted to stalking them on LinkedIn, and I’d be like, “Oh, he had a picture of Duke in photo five, and he’s a lawyer, and his name is Ben,” so I’m Googling, “Ben, Duke, lawyer.”

Ashley: We’ve been there.

Kaitlyn: That is dangerous.

Yeah, and I think that you can see a little more about what the person’s about and what career that they decided to dedicate their livelihood to. What school did they go to? What did they study in school? With LinkedIn you can even see what extracurricular activities they were in, whether they played a sport. It’s just a much fuller picture of someone than just age, name, and are you hot or not.

Ashley: The League has a proprietary screening system, correct?

Good use of that term. You’re right on message.

Ashley: Are you mostly just taking into account people’s LinkedIn information, or how are you determining who gets to be let into the app?

We use both Facebook and LinkedIn. We actually are the only ones that have double authentication. We require Facebook, then LinkedIn, then we put everyone into a waiting list. It’s similar to a college admissions pool. Everyone goes to a waiting list, and then we try to bring people in that have clearly spent some time on their profiles. Have filled out all the fields, have actually looked like they invested more time than just clicking a button. We try to make sure that the community is diverse. Similar to your college admission system, you don’t want everyone to be studying history or everyone to be a music major. You want to make sure everyone is bringing different things to the table. We try to make sure people’s education backgrounds are different, their profession industries are different. The idea is then we bring people into the community, but it’s balanced and we try to keep all the ratios somewhat balanced and reflective of the community that they’re in.

Ashley: Are you kind of qualifying jobs? Like, this is a real job and this is a not-real job.

I wouldn’t call a qualifying jobs. Think of it like an application you’re putting together, and yes, job and education is a very big factor in the application. Those are similar to when you’re applying to school. Your GPA and the grades you made and the scores you got on your AP test or are important, but it’s not necessarily everything, and so I think what we’re trying to do is less about saying, “Okay, these jobs are great, these jobs aren’t,” and more, “Hey, this person really wants to be here. They put together a really strong application. They’re waiting patiently to get in, and they’ve checked in, and they’re not just trying to check out the talent and see what’s floating by.” They’re not trying to kick tires, I guess, is the way we try to qualify it. You can really tell, honestly, by what kind of effort people put into the application. We actually can see how long people spend on it. If they check back and change their photos, if they don’t, if they just keep the ones that Facebook defaults. There’s a lot of signals in the data that tells you if someone’s really looking for a relationship and really wants to be there.

Ashley: What is the application process?

Well, we tried to make it really quick because I know everybody hates long experiences, especially when you’re not even sure about joining a dating app. The last thing you want to do is fill out 100 questions like on E-Harmony. We pull everything from Facebook and LinkedIn. We let you put in a little bit about your basic demographic information, who you’re looking for at a very basic level, and then we let you put in your interests, and we let you edit your profile to make it stand out if you’d like, and put in an “About Me”. Then we put you on a wait list, and we can see who’s checking back in, who’s referring friends, who’s actually checking out the app and figuring out how it all works, and we use all of that information to predict who’s going to be a good user in the system.

Kaitlyn: As far as demographics, I know there’s been a little bit of discussion around, does this encourage classism, because almost 100 percent of the user base has a college degree, and does it encourage racism because you have to say your ethnicity. How do you respond to that, and how does your algorithm respond to that?

Yeah, so we don’t try to tell anyone what kind of people they should be attracted to, or how they should search to find their partners. I like to say we’re a search platform, and we let people be as picky as they want to be or as not picky. You’d be surprised. Most people who actually join the app are pretty open-minded in their preferences. We do let people say what ethnicity they are interested in, what religion they’re interested in. We used to not have religion, and then I remember we have about 25 percent Jewish people on The League, and the number one feature request from all of them was, “Let me filter on religious views.” We added that because we’re not here to say, “Hey, you guys can’t choose to match with other Jewish people.” We’re not gonna make them have to spend 5x more time searching through people that don’t fit their preferences rather than just serving up the people that match perfectly.

We’re seeing a huge spike in interracial marriages, and the reason that is, is because you tend to be kind of the average of the seven people you hang out with, so if all the people in your town, your small town, let’s say, are white, and they’re all referring you friends to go on dates with that are white, it’s very high likelihood that you might match and marry someone who is white in that case. If instead of going to your community center, or your group of friends, or your church, or whatever, you’re actually going to this melting pot of sorts and getting to say, “Hey, I’m open-minded, send me whoever,” so people are starting to pair up outside of what would be natural in their community.

That’s what we see too, is that people join, and yes, like lawyers tend to date lawyers, and people that with certain religious views tend to match up, but there’s also a lot of people that are open-minded more often than not and are matching with people of all sorts of different backgrounds.

Kaitlyn: Why, specifically, from a tech, a very basic tech level, would I want to have to filter people by race instead of just swiping?

Well, efficiency. Let’s say you’re Indian, and you really want to marry another Indian and that’s something that’s very important in your culture, and your parents really want you to, you want to. If we didn’t have that, you’d have to maybe be on the app 100 days to kind of go through all the Indian men in New York, whereas now you’re going to go through them in in 30 days, and then essentially, we’re giving you your search results front-loaded, and then we obviously relax it. Once we’re out of 6’1” Indian men, we might show you 5’11” Indian men, and then 5’10”.

We relax race as well, so we’ll start to show you other races and other religions, but we try to show you exactly what you want first so that we’re in the business of giving people what they’re looking for and not trying to play big brother and say, no, you should not be searching for that.

Kaitlyn: I think I’ve seen elsewhere that you’ve explained maybe that other apps algorithms can possibly encourage racism because non-white users get swiped left more often and then pushed down in the ranking. Is that accurate? Am I explaining this well?

So yeah, there’s a lot of data on online dating and, yeah, certain races tend to perform at different levels depending on who you’re serving them to. Actually, if you’re serving people, what we do is what’s called double preferences. I always use height as the example, but let’s say you’re a six-foot woman and a five-foot man, and the five-foot man is open to women of all heights, but the six-foot woman is only open to men 5’10” and above. We’re not going to show that six-foot woman to the five-foot man even though she fits his preferences, because he doesn’t fit hers.

What we do is we try to accommodate both people’s preferences and only show you people that actually you have a really good chance of matching, whereas a lot of the other apps will just show you to everybody, and then you might get swipe left on more often because the app is showing you the people that already said, “Hey, I don’t want this kind of person.” Whereas we try to only show you to the people that are already open so, actually, your League Score, is what we call it, is higher in our world because we’re already curating who we’re going to show your profile too.

Ashley: From a business perspective, because like Raya, for example, seemingly turns away a lot of people. I’m curious about The League. You’re filtering out people, but at the same time, isn’t there a business incentive to get more people on the app. One, just to have more people to offer, and also two, to make more money off them?

Totally. In any marketplace you need supply and you need inventory, or however you want to call it. You always want to be increasing that applicant pool. You’re only as good as your wait list in the sense that if we can’t get people to apply to The League, we can’t be selective. What we do is we really try to help people get their profiles ready, so it’s less about, “Oh, you’re rejected. You’re accepted.” It’s like, “Hey, these people are obviously accepted because they put together a really good application. These people need a little bit of work, and we’ll actually coach them.” We have a whole team of concierges that will say, “Hey, have you thought about getting higher resolution photos,” which is a huge deal, or with guys, guys don’t even have any photos without sunglasses, so, “Hey, have you thought about using portrait mode with your friend and going out for a day and taking four or five photos?” So we’ll actually try to coach them.

I like to say we’re not really exclusive, we’re just picky about who we select quickly, and then the ones that don’t get in quickly, we try to do as much as we can to get them to a point where we think they’ll have a good acceptance rate. Because at the end of the day, if you bring in someone that everybody rejects, they’re not going to have a good experience. They’re not going to spend money, they’re not going to get matches, so it’s in both of our best interest to help get their profile up to a minimum level of quality before bringing them in.

Ashley: You don’t care if they’re hot or not?

No. Think about the market for hot people. Most people I know are not classically hot, so I think that maybe Raya does that based on they have to be a nine or a ten, but I think for us, I always say are you good enough to be good-looking in black or white photos.

Ashley: It’s all about the shadows.

Yeah, no. I wouldn’t say it’s good-looking. We want smart, ambitious, driven people that know how to put themselves together.

Kaitlyn: If you do get rejected from The League, how do you find out, what does that look like, and can you try again?

We copied Soho House, and we don’t actually reject anyone. We just keep you on the waiting list.

Ashley: That’s what Raya does, too.

We try to encourage you to make some changes into your profile like, “Hey, pictures one through three could use some help. Do you have some photos without your sunglasses?” The same thing I was saying, so we don’t really reject. It also depends on supply / demand. We actually look at the market dynamics. Let’s say a lot of people are looking for a certain type of guy, and then he happens to come on the wait list. He might get in right away, and maybe no one’s looking for this other type of guy, but then all of a sudden we bring in more people that are, and then all of a sudden he becomes more in demand. There’s sort of like a demand score for everybody, and if you’re in high demand, you might get in faster than if you’re in lower demand.

Ashley: Whoa. I have so many questions. That just sounded like Buffalo Exchange. Whenever they give me that talk when I bring my clothes in, and they’re like, “Sorry, plaid is out this season. Try again in three years when plaid is back.”

Well, I guess my point is, as the community grows and changes as it gets bigger, it becomes almost a little easier to get in, in the sense that you always want to make sure that there’s people in the community that will like the person that they’ll like. If there’s no guys in our community that you like, we shouldn’t bring you in, but if all of a sudden I have 100 of them, now I should bring you in. I want to keep you outside of the club until I have the kind of men you’re looking for.

Ashley: What kind of crazy exclusive metrics could tell someone that there’s no one on the app that matches them?

Well, you guys are in the middle of the bell curve, but take age for instance. We had a 74-year-old lesbian join, and we had to keep her on the wait list for a really long time because she wasn’t going to have a good experience in the app until we had enough people that we felt, ethically, it was good to kind of bring her in and potentially have her pay to be a member.

Ashley: To go back, I’m just curious about the psychology of a wait list versus a rejection. Why go that route?

I think that my hope is we can coach a lot of these people into figuring out what’s wrong with their profile and improving it. I think rejection gives you a really negative feeling about a brand, and you’re like, “Oh, they didn’t want me,” versus saying, “Hey, it’s not you, it’s me. It’s just not right now, and maybe later once I’ve sowed my wild oats,” that kind of thing. I think it’s a messaging that’s more palatable.

Kaitlyn: Do you have an estimate of what percentage of people get wait listed, and then make changes, and then later get in?

Well, our acceptance rate in general hovers around like 20 to 30 percent based on the city, and then of the people that don’t get in that original 20 or 30 percent, a lot of people don’t come back and make changes. It’s humans. Humans are lazy inherently, and so the fact that they even went through the application process, they probably didn’t even update their photos and now they’re not getting in. They’re probably just said, “Fuck it, and deleted the app.” A lot of a lot of people weren’t really there for the right reasons anyway. I like to say a lot of the people that we don’t accept, were probably not the right fit anyway.

Ashley: Just be totally clear, why do you think people want to use a more exclusive, filtered, whatever word you want to use, app?

Well, I think choice is overwhelming, at least in my mind. Going to Cheesecake Factory and looking at that menu, my anxiety levels skyrocket versus going to an awesome restaurant where there’s three or four entrees, you know they’re all amazing. I think that people want help making decisions. If we’re saying, “Hey, we stand behind this person. They have a good application.” We show who their mutual friends are, you can see, basically, their LinkedIn profile, you can see their photos. You feel a lot, I think, safer, and also like you know the person a lot more. You’re more likely to actually go exchange numbers and meet up because it feels like it’s a smaller close-knit community. I think that’s a big part of it, and I also think people like that they won’t see their coworkers or their friends. We use LinkedIn so that you don’t have to see your boss on a dating app. I’ve had that experience myself, seeing a coworker on Tinder, and it’s not something I feel I need to keep doing.

Kaitlyn: To return to a little bit of the stickier stuff. I think, probably, the obvious issue that most people have with exclusive dating apps is that it’s like you’re allowing people to curate based on class and to curate based on race and maybe affirming those as valid ways to sort people.

I wouldn’t say class. I would say, yeah, ethnicity is one of our filters, but class isn’t. I guess if you’re assuming everyone who has a college degree is of a certain class, but I don’t know if I would go that far. I think there’s a lot of people with college degrees in the United States, so that would be a very large class of people.

Kaitlyn: Sure. I guess in general, just the basic idea of self-selecting into a dating app that’s only for people who are successful and ambitious, and the way that we’ve defined that in American culture has traditionally been with money.

Or accomplishments.

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Like graduating college or getting a job at a company people have heard of.

Kaitlyn: Obviously, that’s not what you are intending to do. I’m curious how you guys think about that and discuss that as something that you’re not trying to put forth.

Well, if you look at the data of just marriages, that’s already happening today. Technology and platforms like ours aren’t really changing behavior. We’re actually creating a platform for people to do what they were doing anyway, more efficiently. When you went to a dinner party with your friends, and you met your boyfriend there, that was essentially a sort of mating. When you met someone at Google, and then you started dating, that’s essentially a mating. This is already happening. Work and school are the two most popular ways to meet someone. Now, dating apps are coming up to number three. I’d actually argue that dating apps are the least elitist in the sense of, you’re going much further outside of your primary network that you were already dating from. If you actually compare it to what was happening prior to dating apps, maybe we’re a little bit closer than, I don’t know, going to an app that you just swipe on millions of people in New York City. We’re letting you stay closer to the dinner party type of atmosphere, but we’re still much further to the right.

Ashley: For you, if new apps came on the market, where do you see the line being drawn? If they were just like, “We are only going to cater to Ivy League people,” to you, would that be classism? Or like Raya, where it’s only cool hot creatives.

It’s just basically drawing lines around groups of people. I always say The League is people that value education really highly. That’s why people who went to highly selective universities tend to want to pair up with other people that went to a highly selective universities. The League didn’t create that desire. The League is serving that desire. You talk to any girl that graduates Harvard Business School, and she’d prefer to date someone that also went to a school that she’s heard of, and the reason she wants that is not because she thinks you’re smarter that you went there, she thinks that means you value education. She wants to build a family with someone that values education.

If you actually do the whole focus group and survey and try to understand why this is happening, it comes down into family values. You want to be with someone that values education. I think in the case of Raya, C-List celebrities, they want to maybe create a partnership with someone that values Instagram followers and beautiful photos, and maybe they can go take photos together, and that’s going to be their family dynamic. I don’t think it’s for us to judge. Let’s say two gym rats want to go together, and they want to join the gym super-buff community of people, or the 420 people, they all want to go smoke pot together. I guess I don’t think it’s for us to judge like how people want to self-segregate for someone they’re going to spend the rest of their life with them, that’s a huge decision. Whatever you need to do to even be happy with someone for the rest of your life, and whatever kind of lines you need to draw that is going to cause you to have a partnership that is ultimately to make you happy. I guess I don’t see why we need to judge people for who they select.