Women waiting for men to make the first move has become a very dated concept in today’s world. Now, women are realizing their own space in this world and have become more confident to take on whatever it is they want. In the social connection space, this means more women are now sparking up their own dating life without waiting for anyone. Sarah Jones Simmer, the COO of Bumble, has been overseeing the company’s core business strategy. Bumble is a female-first social networking app that brings kindness and respect back into dating and social introductions. Sarah tells us what the company has done differently among other dating applications, how it is empowering women across the globe, and how it is like to work with the CEO’s vision to help people connect in this lonely society.
Empowering Women Across The Globe with Bumble COO, Sarah Jones Simmer
Sarah Jones Simmer is the Chief Operating Officer of Bumble, the female-first social networking app that brings kindness and respect back into the dating and social introductions. In her role, she oversees core business strategy, growth and marketing initiatives and facilitates the expansion of Bumble’s rapidly growing team headquartered in Austin, Texas, with offices around the world. Sarah has spent her career investing in, studying and operating businesses. Sarah has done public speaking on topics ranging from girls and women’s rights and the future of ethical business. She has a Master’s in Public Policy from Northwestern University, and she used to run marathons and has completed Iron Man. She spends time outside of work raising two amazing young daughters. Sarah and I actually met at an XPRIZE event that was held at a TED conference. I’ve been looking forward to getting you on the show. Thanks for joining.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited about our conversation.
I look forward to this. You said that Bumble has been doing the expansion into India and you were getting ready for some stuff with the Super Bowl. We’ll start with those. Why don’t you tell us how you got into the Bumble? For anybody who isn’t aware, I don’t know where they’ve been hiding, but tell us what Bumble is so they understand that as well.
Bumble is a social network built by women for everyone. We got our start in the dating world, as you rightly said, but have expanded into friends finding through Bumble BFF and also business connections through Bumble Biz. We’ve got 50 million users worldwide. We actually just crossed that number. The company was founded in 2014 by a woman named Whitney Wolfe Herd, who was a Cofounder of Tinder and is no stranger to the social connection space, but I felt like there was an opportunity to build the dating app and social networking platform with women in mind. We get asked all the time, “Why did you enter such a crowded space?” The reality is, of course, there are many other players in this space before, but no one was operating through the lens of what women users want and how we could make the app more approachable, comfortable and empowering for them.
That was Bumble’s stroke of genius, was to build starting with a dating app, but a social connections platform where women make the first move. That’s our core USP. In a heterosexual connection on either the dating side or the biz side of the app, the woman has to make the first move. Once you both indicate interest in starting a conversation with one another, only she can talk first. That was a real game-changer in the space that put the woman in the driver’s seat and helped her feel like she wasn’t bombarded by messages that she wasn’t interested in. She had a bit more control in how she was engaging in those conversations. We’ll circle back to that as we talk about things like India because it has allowed us to re-engineer the way that relationships are formed online and bring a level of kindness, accountability and respect back to those conversations simply by changing the way that the dialogue gets started.
We’ve obviously been excited to see that growth. I have been with the company for closing in on for a couple of years. I actually got the job through a good old fashioned job posting, which I feel like it’s so rare these days. Speaking to the power of networking, when I saw the job posting, I thought to myself, “This is my dream job.” I went and shook every tree that I could come up with that would help me get connected to someone in Bumble. I was looking at who might be friends on LinkedIn or Facebook or otherwise with some of the key players on that early team in order to get my foot in the door. That does make all the difference.
By way of background, I started my career in investment management. I was at a hedge fund in Los Angeles. I was in a fairly generalist role, analyzing stocks and then also the macro-economic condition that was shaping the way that markets looked. This was starting in 2007. It was a wild ride to say the least. I joined the firm right as the subprime meltdown was unfolding before us, and I was there through the crisis of 2008 and all that brought to the market. I love investing. I love thinking about what makes businesses grow, succeed and also what barriers exist to allow enough scale to happen. I got my first exposure to that obviously in the investing world. After I had been there for a handful of years, I moved over into strategy consulting with a focus on social good. I had the incredibly lucky opportunities to work with brands like Gucci, Keurig, Clinique and think about how they could leverage their full asset model as businesses, to create change in the world through their brand.
Through taking advantage of the power of their brand to help their customers, users and consumers connect with causes that mattered to them, which underpins so much of the work that I do at Bumble. I moved to Austin a handful of years ago. I have been on this journey to finding myself at Bumble. This feels to me like such an amazing way to bring to bear the things I’m passionate about. I’m working in the women’s space, thinking about how businesses grow and scale and testing that to the incredible company that was culture forward. It’s thinking about what the future of connection is, and that’s inspired by the vision of this incredibly visionary Founder, Whitney. To join a rapidly growing organization on such an exciting part of its growth curve, I feel genuinely lucky each and every day they get to come to work in this space and work with the teams that I do around the world.
I don’t know where to start. I’ve got about eight different questions already. I can go into Austin, talk about Whitney and the vision, talk about the culture first side of the company, causes and what you’ve pulled from the hedge fund in India. I want to go probably in the wrong direction quickly, but it’s because I’m so intrigued with India. I’ve been there four times. I spent a total of three months there. I have done a couple of big speaking tours. I’ve been to dozens and dozens of cities in India. I’m curious as to how it’s going and what big lessons you have learned in because that culture is so different.
I think that the very nature of the work that we’re doing in the relationship space and whether that’s dating relationships, business relationships or friendships, it’s inherently incredibly localized. There’s no way to do this templatized at scale because the way that people connect and form bonds with one another is dictated by millennia worth of culture that have shaped the narrative around how people come together. You’re right, it’s very much going to the market, meeting with people, building teams in the market, understanding what women in particular in India want to feel comfortable on social networking platforms. What it will take for them to feel like this is a place that they can trust to engage. The way that India came about for us actually was that we had the good fortune of having Priyanka Chopra, now Priyanka Chopra-Jonas, join us for our Bumble Biz launch dinner in New York in October of 2017. She and Whitney connected and started the conversation there that’s been going ever since, which was to think about Bumble as this incredible tool. Women in India would love this as a career builder.
By the way, Bumble has this other important opportunity for them to be able to connect and make meaningful relationships across their lives. How might we think about localizing for the Indian context? That kicked off the journey that I’ve been privileged to be deeply engaged with over the last several months of saying, “How do we think about sizing the market and sizing the opportunity, and whether this makes sense for us right now as a business? How do we think about going to market from a product perspective and what do we need to adapt in the UX and UI, and even essentially on the backend, like server side, how do we adapt ourselves for the predominantly 3G market? How do we think about marketing and reaching the audience there?” There are all of these amazing women that we’ve been privileged to meet in our journey back and forth. How do we create both marketing campaigns and a product tool kit that meet their needs? It’s been an incredibly exciting journey.
I think we always knew that Bumble was going to go to Asia in a thoughtful and strategic way. We have this privilege as a mission-first company to not only say, “Where’s the addressable market opportunity in terms of revenue TAM?” We’re watching incomes rise in a market like India. Obviously, it’s a 1.2 billion-person population. There’s a meaningful addressable market there, but with Bumble, we can also say, “Let’s look at all of the numbers and all that analysis. Couple that with where there is an opportunity to drive real cultural conversation and create opportunities for women, where there’s an opportunity to drive good in the world and bring about the impact of this is so central to our DNA.”
It is one of the top markets on the planet for that for sure.
There’s already a conversation going on around women in India and what the future means for their careers, for their relationships. It’s having a #MeToo Movement to the bone. We are there to just add another tool to the incredible empowerment journey of the women in India, to be a part of that.
It’s almost like you’ve picked the timing of it perfectly though, almost empowered and leveraged it as well.
It’s our duty to serve the women of India and understand their needs. We’re not driving the conversation. They are. We’re here to be another tool in their toolkit and then to give them an opportunity to be in the driver’s seat in some of these key connection areas in their lives.
I met with a CEO over in India years ago and he sells the edible oils and he sells $300 million a year in oil. I said, “How many countries do you sell oil?” He goes, “I only sell in a couple of states in India.” He said, “In America, you might use one tablespoon of oil a day. In India, we use a quart.” He said, “Americans always try to invent these products and try to market them to people who don’t need them.” He said, “In India, we find what the need is and we give it to them.” I think that’s what you’ve identified, a massive need of that marketplace and you’re giving them the tools and they’ll be able to run with that.
Similar to the landscape in the US in 2014, there are tools. There are other apps and brands that we admire for the businesses that they’ve built in that market, but we didn’t see anyone going to market in a truly authentic woman-first way, which is obviously the DNA of Bumble. We felt like there was a meaningful opportunity to deliver on that promise to the women of India. That’s why, frankly, we’ve engaged in like Priyanka herself to help shape and guide that strategy. She can speak so authentically to her experience as an Indian woman and we’re here to try to facilitate the creation of a tool so that women like her can have seen the type of opportunities for empowerment that she has.
What lessons do you think you’re pulling from this India expansion back into the North American markets then?
There were a couple of actual features within the app that we were prompted to build because we were localizing for India that we’ve said, “Actually, we can roll this out globally.” A couple of key examples of that are when we started work at India, it was clear to us that it would be table stakes to have both religion and horoscope in the app as a way for people to be informed as they wanted to make connections, at least within the dating side or the app. We ended up building that functionality, badges and filters, and then dividing to roll that out globally and not just saving it for India. There are some feature sets that we’re building, there are things that we’re learning about marketing that have relevance globally. I think that also shows you how ultimately all interconnected the world is. While we all have such incredible nuances to the cultures and the ways in which we connect and build informal relationships, there’s actually a ton of universality there that makes us all human. More often, the businesses are like, “How do we cross-pollinate?” It’s an idea then.
There’s also a ton happening globally that we’re not necessarily aware of unless we unplug. I was at an event called the Abundance 360. We were talking about what’s happening in China. How years ago the Chinese companies would copy everything in North America, rip off, duplicate, and then all of a sudden, they started to figure stuff out on their own because they’d copied so many companies. They got good at running companies. They’re deciding to innovate and do it on their own. We’re starting to look to what they’re doing or if we’re not, we should be. That’s even happening over in India. You can just see this swell of what’s happening over there, especially with commerce and with mobile. It’s interesting to see you guys pick that market. It’s a smart move. Where did Bumble for business come from and then on the friendship side as well? Walk us through the expansion on that because I wasn’t aware of it, but I saw something on Bumble Business and I almost thought it was spam. I hadn’t seen it yet and it popped up.
Download it and use the app. Both BFF and Bizz came up with so many great ideas too from watching how our users were interacting with the product. Roll back years ago before Bumble BFF was a thing, we saw users in the product were saying, “I’m not here to date, but I moved to Chicago and I’m looking for new friends,” or “I have just landed in Montreal for the weekend. What are the best bars for me to go check out?” They were realizing that there was this efficiency around connection using this mutual opt-in premise and using this localized way of connecting that could have relevance in other aspects of their lives. We saw a real opportunity to do that.
I think one thing that Bumble has done exceedingly well, and this is to Whitney and the early team’s credit in the way they built the brand is they built the brand in such a way that it wasn’t a stretch to think about, “Bumble could be for friends,” or “Bumble could be for business.” It was, “I trust Bumble because it’s creating this environment for our kind, empowered connections that can easily extend to other verticals in my life.” We’re probably the first brand in our space that had the permission to do that in our users’ lives because of the way the brand had been architected from the get-go. It wasn’t known as a place just for casual connections or for hookups. It was known as a place that existed for kindness, empowerment and meaningful relationship. We’ve now been able to take that into other verticals of your life.
I’ll put a stake in the ground in this one. I think your Bumble For Friends will be bigger than any of the dating apps for dating. You’ve actually hit a nerve that is so big. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that there are just so many people out there that are starving for real interactions with real friends and they don’t know how you see it. It’s interesting. I live in a city called Vancouver, Canada and Vancouver are friendly, but everybody I talked to was like, “No, Vancouver’s totally not friendly.” I’m like, “Really?”
All Canadians are friendly.
People are still very lonely. They’re sitting at home and they see what’s happening on Instagram or other social media platforms, they long for these lives that aren’t what they see in social media. They’re longing to go in and have coffee or hang out or go for a walk with somebody.
I feel like we’re living in an epidemic of loneliness. The UK actually just hired a minister within the government focused on loneliness because we’ve become so technologically connected that we become disconnected in reality.
Even if you do get that one date or you’re hooking up with somebody, you’re not going to be hooking up twelve hours a day, but you’ve got the other eleven and a half hours with somebody.
The desire to connect is the very core of humanity. There’s a reason that solitary confinement is the harshest form of punishment. We all desire to be in relationships with one another. What was such an incredible moment years ago when our peers like Tinder, Badoo and others came on the scene was that they normalized this idea of connecting through a mobile interface, or arguably a digital interface. It ushered in a new way of the way people thought about online dating. Everyone was doing it, it was free, or it could be free. It no longer had the stigma that you have to go online to make a connection. Now everyone was doing it.
The thing we see in certain cultures, a stigma does exist around making friends because people feel this pressure of, “Shouldn’t I be able to make friends on my own?” The reality is as an adult, once you get through your education or other places that bring a whole bunch of new people together at once and it’s perfectly normal to make friends, we go through these other experiences like moving to a new city or becoming a parent for the first time where you do need a new friend group. There aren’t resources to help you do that, and yet we have a technology that totally can bridge that gap and we’re excited about the adoption potential for us, for sure.
I think you’ve probably hit on one of the biggest app opportunities of the decade coming up. I remember I moved to Seattle in 1994 to open a company. I parachuted in. I hired 220 people in twelve months, but I couldn’t become friends with them all. It was probably one of the loneliest years of my life. I remember going to this Irish pub by myself a couple of days a week just to sit and try to meet somebody to hang out with and play pool. It was terrible. It was bad because I didn’t want to be going to a bar, being around people smoking and drinking beer every night but I didn’t know where else to go. I couldn’t meet somebody on my own.
What are those tools? I had the same feeling when I first moved to LA, by the way. You’re like, “I can’t spend 24 hours a day with my coworkers, and so there’s this built-in set of friends. How do you build those connections? I think for us, it’s not only thinking about what are the digital tools to do that, which Bumble BFF obviously is but then how do we create opportunities for people to connect in real life as well? We’ve done things like our Bumble Hive series. We did one in Vancouver. We had one in Toronto earlier, we have in New York, LA. They’re popups for sometimes a week or two, sometimes several months that are safe places to go and make connections.
The reality is you know walking into that space that everyone is there because they want to build relationships, whether it’s for dating, for the friendship, whether for business and think how empowering that feels to step into a room and know that everyone is here because they want to connect. You’re not the odd one trying to butt your way into a conversation. You’re surrounded by people who want that as well. It’s about de-stigmatizing this idea that we all want new relationships and creating the right format for that both digitally and in real life to make people feel comfortable pursuing new relationships.
You guys are getting ready for some more accelerated growth. You’ve mentioned a couple of times Whitney with her vision. How do you get on the same page with her and her vision? How does she get on the same page with you and your plans to execute? How have you two decided to divide and conquer? I always talk about the yin and yang relationship between the CEO, COO. How have you guys divided and conquered the business and how do you keep each other on the same page?
I feel like my working relationship with Whitney is one of the things I’m most grateful about in my entire Bumble experience. I feel honored and excited to participate in her vision. That vision is the same one that it was years ago, which is so incredible to meet a leader who understands from the get-go where the business can go and holds that clear as a North Star. I think this gets to the part of the answer later. How do you stay aligned? You stay aligned by having clarity on the vision, clarity on values, which is your way of living out that vision, and in using those as the rubric by which you make decisions.
If you allow that to say as your North Star, then I think it becomes a way for you to be honest with each other and with the goals that you’ve set for the business. It’s a lens on decision-making. This is the most important relationship between any CEO and business leader and someone who serve in a role like mine. There has to be a level of trust and mutual respect. There has to be this ability to push, pull on a day-to-day basis and then a clear understanding of where your lane is, what brings you the most joy and how you’re adding the most value to the business and where that is for the other person.
Of course, no one ever totally stays in that swim lane when you’re operating a business that’s growing as fast as ours does, but understanding for each of us what our points of criticality to the business are and what brings us joy as professionals is important. It’s being clear with one another about what that is. All of it is a journey and as the business grows and scales, that’s naturally going to change until you have to position yourselves for adaptability as that grows. That’s not just a case for Whitney and me. It’s across the entire executive team and the leadership team that we’re building across the business is how do you create clarity, set their expectations at one point and then know full well that those are going to change dramatically in the next six months because of how fast the business is growing and be okay with that. At least quarterly if I’m being honest.
I tried to explain to people how hard it is to bring someone from the corporate world into the entrepreneurial world where change is not only normal, but almost sought after. People in the corporate world, I think they’re craving the entrepreneurial environment, but they’re not used to it. It’s just so different. What do you do that drives her crazy?
I’d be curious what her answer to that is. One thing that I used to do and have now learned to handle better, this probably is normal when you’re dealing with someone as visionary she is, is when she would have an incredibly bold idea of something you could do for the future, I would very quickly go to like, “How does this fit in? The budget is bigger and then where does it go? Get some project to manage it.” That’s my job. That’s the strategy and executor and be like, “Does this work and how do we step in?” I think what I have learned to do is meet and understand that vision first, then meet that enthusiasm and understand why this matters for the company and where it could go before immediately jumping to all of the complicated reasons why it wouldn’t work, why it would be hard or whether all the decision points that we have to make, and unpack the vision first. There’s so much that I’ve learned in trying to be more disciplined about that. That helps me be more comfortable shooting for the stars and being a thought partner with her in that shooting for the stars journey as opposed to feeling like it’s immediately like brass tacks if that makes sense.
I played the COO role three times. You uncovered the core, the essence of the CEO-COO relationship when you can get that two in a box firing. Our job is to be able to figure out the how to all their ideas, but somehow is to keep the enthusiasm high to match their enthusiasm. Just because they have that great idea, it doesn’t mean we have to put it in place. Although they sometimes think they do, our job is to grab it, stay excited about it and then ask the questions later. Have you ever done a Kolbe profile? I started a group called the COO Alliance. It’s the only network of its kind in the world for the second-in-command. We had all of our CEO’s do the Kolbe profile and we had all the CEOs they work with and do one.
The only thing you learned from a Kolbe profile is how you start things. You start things in one of four ways. You either start with a high fact finder, which I’m pretty sure you are. You ask a lot of questions to start a project and you need to ask a bunch of questions, “Where does it fit in the budget? How are we going to pull it all together?” You have to ask all those questions. Once you’ve asked them all, then you can start. The second profile is someone who has a high follow through, but it actually means systems. You have to put a checklist or SOP. You have to put a system or a checklist in place before you can start working on it.
Most entrepreneurs fall into the third category, which is quick start. They basically start. They fire, ready, aim. They plan later, they start first. The last one is the implementer, which is someone who needs the tools or the physical models. It would be like an architect or an engineer would have drawings and prototypes built before they would start. The key is when you have someone like you who’s a very high fact finder, for the CEO is for them to understand that all of your questions, you’re not debating us. You’re merely trying to gather up all this stuff that we’ve probably been rolling around in our head for three months. You might need ten minutes to catch up with us and we never give it to you. It’s worth it. It’s a powerful tool because you figured it out but some people never ever do.
Actually Adam Grant, early on in my journey introduced me to a handful of amazing men and women who have played a role similar to mine as like a COO or president or someone who’s helping to bring the visionary founder’s vision. I get such wonderful feedback and insight just from having mentor relationships like that. That helped me understand the journey that I’m on and be more self-aware of moments like that that I was describing.
I used to struggle with feedback and I used to take it so personally. I always felt like I was working so hard that any feedback I got, I always felt like I was being told I was bad. I felt like I was being picked on at school in grade four again. Did you ever struggle with that feedback or did you always receive it well?
Early in my career, I probably did. It’s hard to not internalize that. Becoming a parent for me was a major lesson in becoming a better manager and also becoming a better recipient of feedback. Let me just think about it. You can cook this beautiful recipe for them and then they can throw on the floor. You can’t internalize that feedback as I’ve failed as a mom. It helps you to start to separate action and outcome from, “Is this me as a human being?” I also think it’s important for me as a leader in this business to try to model that as we’re creating feedback loops and feedback cycles internally. Whether that’s in a formalized process, we ran through a semi-annual review process or whether that’s informally, but I think one thing we’ve focused on that Bumble is kindness is a core value for us. That is something we live out in the way that we engage with our users. That’s something we live out in the way that we engage with one another.
Kind doesn’t mean nice. It doesn’t mean we only ever say nice things. It means that we operate in our interactions with one another from a posture of kindness. That should mean authentic feedback. That should mean the ability to speak with one another with respect and as equals. If I hear feedback from someone because it’s coming from a place of kindness and every interaction I’ve had with them reinforces that we are all treating each other with kindness, it’s a lot easier to receive that feedback for what it is. Learn from it and use it to correct the next output as opposed to using it to shape your perception of yourself or that you’re a failure.
There are many lessons from raising kids that you pull in. It’s interesting, you talked about throwing this stuff on the floor, but I also think about how we raise our children that we would never raise our kids the way we try to grow our employees. We wouldn’t do an annual review with our children. We would praise them every minute and give them criticism every minute. We would grow them differently. I think there’s a huge amount of lessons from that stuff.
I feel like I’ve changed so much as a manager when I had children. I think early in my career, I loved managing people that were like me and that were motivated by the very same things with me. It’s easy to understand. You’re like, “Okay. Great. Now I just have more resources to do things the way that I want to do them and I know how to motivate them.” I remember struggling at times when I would find people with different motivations because it’s like, “It’s your job as an employee to mimic me more closely or to learn my ways of doing things.”
That is totally wrong. When you have a child, you realize quickly, you need to understand what motivates them and use that as a way to positively incentivize good behavior. That totally changed the framework for me and it helped me to understand that it’s my responsibility to motivate my team to do their best work as opposed to their responsibility to satisfy me or some objectives that I’ve set for them. Flipping that framework is such an important leadership paradigm that each of us needs to go through on our own journey.
You may have your book right there by the way, all the leadership lessons from being a mom. I am writing down this list of things that I call the grandmother-isms, which is just all the truisms that I’ve learned from my grandmother that apply in business. Business is so simple. We over complicate it. I was coaching the CEO of a public company in Italy. He was talking about having to fire one of his key people and we were talking about doing it with respect. I’m curious how you guys at Bumble do it with kindness. How do you let someone go with that empathy and kindness that you hired them with?
For so many people, one of the least fun pieces of that business overall is when things don’t work out. I think knowing from the get-go, that the kind approach is going to be what is kind for both of you. If that person is not set up to succeed and not capable of succeeding in the role that is expected of them, that it’s the kind thing for them too to be given a chance to move on and have other opportunities. I remember a time early in my career where I wrestled with having to let someone go and then was able to see that six months later she was thriving in a way that she wasn’t have been able to in the role that she was in. She found a better fit elsewhere. Knowing and letting yourself feel confident that it’s going to be the right thing for both sides if you will go forward with this decision that frankly, sometimes it’s unkind to everyone involved to hang on longer than it’s right.
We’re setting them free.
Not holding them to our expectations that are never going to be attainable for them. Ideally, if you’ve conducted that feedback loop in a kind and thoughtful way all along, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise. There should be transparency. There should be an understanding. There are the occasional times when you know there’s a cause that’s different than what we’re talking about here, which is like performance issues or not being the right fit for the role over time, and not everything is going to go according to the programs, performance and improvement process. If there is an existing feedback loop in place between the employee and their manager and across the team, then those decisions should be a result as an ongoing understanding that things aren’t working and I desire to be kind for both sides.
I’ve got kids as well. They are seventeen and fifteen. Mine didn’t throw dinner on the floor. He decided at fifteen to spread it all over his plate to make it look like he enjoyed it. We know these tricks. What have you learned in terms of balance? They talk about career-life balance. It’s so hard, how have you adjusted to excel, continue to grow in your career, be a mom and raise kids? What have you learned and how have you grown from that? I think there are some big skills that we can pull into the business world from just having to do that.
I have not figured it out and I think that anyone who tells you they have is lying. It’s really hard. I have a two-year-old and a four and a half-year-old, so I’m in the thick of it and I have the little ones having trouble from sleeping. As you would imagine, my hours for sleep are somewhat precious as it is because we’re operating in so many different time zones. The reality is you learn to roll with it. That’s a good lesson for business too, is that there’s nothing quite as unpredictable as a child. If you can learn to deal with that unpredictability, then you can learn to do a whole lot of what business throws at you. This is very much in line with what Sheryl Sandberg outlines in Lean In.
I genuinely think it’s also to my husband’s credit. I have a wonderful partner in life in him and he shoulders more than his fair share of household responsibilities. He’s a wonderful dad. The kids are young, so there’s definitely still a lot that I have to shoulder as a mom that I just can’t yet. They come to mom for comfort. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that he was a major part of what has allowed me to take on some of these new career challenges. I can’t go back and forth to Mumbai as many times as I have without his support. I have so much gratitude for him. I think when you’re in an early stage company, the idea of work and life being in balance is the wrong objective to have.
I think that also pits them against one another. This concept of work-life balance implies that they have to be imbalanced and that you’re picking one or the other at all times. I’ve gotten to know Neil Blumenthal and his wife Rachel, who are both incredible entrepreneurs. She talks about this concept of work-life integration as a parent and they have two small children as well. That’s a better framework to use because it doesn’t comply that the pendulum is always going to be perfectly balanced. It just isn’t. You have to let go of this idea that there is something to be achieved there. For every individual, it’s different. I love my work and I get such joy and satisfaction from it.
I am not watching The Fox during the day thinking, “I can’t wait to go pick up my kids from daycare.” I’m being honest about that, but there are moments that I decide that as a parent and I try to make it a priority to drop them off up well once a week or to take a half a day so that I can be at the Halloween carnival. I have to know what’s best for me in that regard. I do feel like within the culture like Bumble where there are going to be people making choices about their parenting, I assume that that’s also very important for me to model what’s possible and be honest about the difficulties and the tradeoffs, but it’s super worth it. As I think from personal experience, it’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
It’s so worth it. I promise you it gets easier. The taxi schedule gets busier, but it gets easier except every once in a while then it’s like, “Yes, officer. I know my child is a good kid.” That gets harder as teenagers too, lots of fun. I’ve got two more questions for you. One, I want to actually ask you about the Super Bowl, but another one. If you were to go back to the 21-year-old Sarah who is starting in her career in business, what’s a big leadership lesson that you’ve internalized that you’ve learned either from success or failure that you would have wished you’d known earlier?
Maybe the expectations on myself. I remember early on seeing stories of entrepreneurs who were 26 years old that had built multibillion dollar companies and feeling like, because I hadn’t done that yet, that I’ve missed some big opportunity like, “What am I doing with my life?” I think maybe if I had it to do all over again, I would do what I did, which was to spend a lot of my early twenties in a place where I could explore different types of businesses and understand what interests me. That’s what I love about investing, frankly, is I’ve got such great exposure to so many different sectors and can see how businesses operated in different spaces.
I feel like I have a bit of professional ADD, like I need to be engaged with new and different things and just starting with investing and then moving over to strategy consulting. I’ve got to do a lot of that. I think allowing myself to be gracious for that or grateful for that journey and to learn as much as I can without holding myself to this measuring stick that wasn’t me. It’s to be satisfied with my own journey. I try to not be more self-aware in that in terms of the way that I interact with my team and the relationships that I’m building there. Each of us is on our own different professional journey and you shouldn’t hold up other entrepreneurs are incredibly visionary leaders. It’s the only rubric for success.
I don’t think ADD is a disorder. I think it’s an entrepreneurial super power. It’s critical for leadership to have some ADD so they actually see everything instead of being so completely maniacally focused on something. Give us some of the lessons. What did you guys learn from working in doing some marketing with the Super Bowl?
Super Bowl always comes together last minute because I think you have to do with so much under secrecy. You don’t want things to leak before you’re ready for it. It was such an incredible opportunity, Whitney and the early founding team that had a vision of engaging Serena specifically from years ago. One of our earliest marketing tactics was putting stickers on tennis balls that said, “The ball’s in her court.” This is an easy way for people to understand how Bumble works. The ball’s in her court. You can’t talk to her until she makes the first move. It’s using that as a way to help incentivize women to go for it. This is an opportunity. Whitney said to Caroline, Alex and Samantha, her early team members, “Maybe someday if we work hard enough, we’ll be able to partner with someone like Serena.” Being able to years later have seen that vision come to reality is incredible.
There’s no one like Serena in terms of setting the bar for what’s possible of a woman in sports, in life, in her business career as a fashion designer. She is so multi-faceted and so inspiring and we’re honored to get to work with her as a global ambassador for us. She’s so much more than just a spokesperson and a centerpiece of that commercial, although all of that is wonderful. She’s involved in the business on a day-to-day basis and cares deeply about what we’re trying to build, which is amazing. She’s amazing. The journey of getting to do something like that with her and so many of our team members, as you might imagine, Bumble is around a hundred people worldwide. I promise you this touched each of them, which it should. It’s a meaningful investment and an incredible opportunity for us. Every step of it, while superfast-paced, as I implied, was incredibly exciting and inspiring.
One final parting word of wisdom. If you were to leave us with something that you’d like everyone to think about or consider, my guess is it’s going to be tied to something, but I’m not going to lead you. What would you want us all to consider in our roles as leaders?
Right back to Bumble which is to make the first move, to feel empowered, feel like you have this opportunity, especially as a woman leader, to step into the leadership role and then treat yourself and your team with kindness. As I talked about, culture, vision, values and mission is the way that the businesses of the future are being built. There’s a lot that we’ve inherited in terms of our expectations of what Corporate America or corporate culture more broadly should look like. If nothing else, I hope Bumble is helping people to reimagine what that could be. We’re trying to not only build an app with fifteen million users around the world, but we’re trying to build the business of the future which was built from a woman founder, from the female-first leadership team.
There are ways that business in front of our eyes is being reinvented and we want to be a part of that conversation. Being a company that leads with culture, mission, vision and values in a massive piece of that. It dictates how we interact with one another, how we interact with our users and our users feel that. That is what has allowed us to be profitable and to be generating the revenue. All of that is so meaningful and important, but it sets the standard for what is going to be possible in the way that businesses are built going forward. We’re excited to be one example of what that could look like.
You’ve mentioned so often just the role of the woman’s narrative and the woman’s issues and stuff. Have you attended TED Women yet?
I have. It’s every other year, isn’t it?
I think it is every other. I went years ago to the one I was invited to go to, TED Women in San Francisco. It was extraordinary to be inside of the female narrative that we just don’t get as often or maybe we don’t take the time to listen. As guys, it was amazingly powerful. It’s an amazing conference for people to be at.
What’s exciting about this moment of time that we’re living in is the female narrative is not even just one narrative. It’s very nuanced. There are so many intersectional components of feminism and what the global conversation, as we talked about, is looking like. The more that we can allow those differing and important voices to be heard and to engage in conversations in every facet of our lives, I think culture as a whole is going to rise. By empowering 50% of the population, it’s only good for businesses, it’s only good for economies. It’s only good for cultural conversation, for the government. It’s incredibly inspiring to look around and see the momentum building for this, and I’m thrilled that Bumble can be a small part of that.
As our Canadian prime minister said, “It’s 2017. We’re ready.” It’s 2019, we’re ready. The world is ready for this. Sarah Jones Simmer, the Chief Operating Officer for Bumble, thank you so much for joining us on Second in Command. I appreciate you sharing everything with us.
Thanks, Cameron. I enjoyed it.
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About Sarah Jones Simmer
Sarah Jones Simmer is the Chief Operating Officer of Bumble, the female-first social networking app that brings kindness and respect back into introductions and promotes equality in relationships. In her role, she oversees core business strategy, growth and marketing initiatives, and facilitates the expansion of Bumble’s rapidly growing team headquartered in Austin, TX, with offices around the world.
Sarah has spent her career investing in, studying and operating businesses, focusing on mission-driven brands and supporting visionary founders who meet real market needs. She started her career analyzing equities and market conditions at a Los Angeles-based hedge fund, and later moved into strategy consulting, focusing on the intersection of business growth and social change. In that role, she advised clients from established luxury brands (Gucci, Clinique) to startups (23andMe, hint water), as well as high-net-worth individuals and celebrities, on a range of philanthropic and social good initiatives. Immediately prior to her tenure at Bumble, she was the head of business development and a member of the executive team at PHLUR, a venture-backed, vertically-integrated consumer brand focused on sustainable beauty.
Sarah has spoken at SXSW, the Global Partnership for Education, and UN special sessions on topics ranging from girls’ and women’s rights to the future of ethical business. She has a Masters’ in Public Policy from Northwestern University.
She used to run marathons and has completed an Ironman, but now spends her time outside of work raising two amazing young daughters.