Tinder reminds us startup origin stories are rarely what they seem

The legal troubles at Tinder reveal more than a series of seriously unpleasant messages.

Prior to former vice president of marketing and apparent co-founder Whitney Wolfe’s legal action, the hookup app’s origin story had been presented quite simply with its success balanced on the shoulders of two co-founders, Sean Rad and Justin Mateen. But a more complex picture has emerged.

Writing for Bloomberg Businesweek, Nick Summers describes how, while reporting a previous feature on the company, he discovered that the “meteoric startup…wasn’t really a startup”. Shepherded into life at an IAC incubator, Tinder is owned and controlled by IAC.

But in the early flurry of press, Rad and Mateen presented the company as a product of their creative inspiration alone. Would the two have made Time’s 30 under 30 list in 2013 as simply employees of IAC?

Whitney Wolfe?

Summer reveals in his latest article that IAC’s PR department had originally described Wolfe as one of Tinder’s five co-founders. In her lawsuit, Wolfe alleges that the title was “stripped away from her because she is ‘a girl’”.

Summer concludes that “Whitney Wolfe was part of the real creation of Tinder, and that deserves to be known”. Unfortunately, it seems her work did not fit with the neat origin myth the Tinder team were trying to sell.

Wolfe is far from the first key member of a startup’s early team to find themselves squeezed out of the creation story.

Forgotten founders

Eduardo Saverin was only restored in Facebook’s official history as one of its co-founders after protracted legal action. Noah Glass will forever be known as the “forgotten Twitter co-founder” after he was pushed to one side, even if he did later benefit hugely from the company’s IPO.

The startup world and the press that reports on it has focused on the idea of the visionary founder for so long that admitting how messy companies can be at the beginning is difficult.

Stories such as eBay being founded to help Pierre Omidyar’s fiancee find more Pez dispensers for her collection or YouTube being created after its founders struggled to share videos of a dinner party online abide despite long ago being debunked. It’s because neat moments of inspiration are more appealing than head-scratching and notepads full of discarded ideas.

True stories are messy

Startups succeed or fail because of many more factors than their founders’ vision. Teams build companies and CEOs lead them. Tinder provides us with a great example of when the press image of a company doesn’t jive with what’s really going on inside. With incredible buzz around the app, it was easy to accept that it was the product of two people.

In fact, the idea of two guys building such a rocket ship was what made the story so compelling to begin with. Summers admits in his piece that he didn’t mention Wolfe as a co-founder because none of the men he spoke to mentioned her by name.

Hopefully the latest chapter in the Tinder story will encourage us all to ask more questions the next time the founders of a hot new startup are being feted. We should be looking at the teams behind these companies more and not just accepting the creation myths offered up to us. The true story of any startup is much messier than the polished PR presentation.