How Lust for Facial Hair Became a Leading Gay Tech Business: Interview with the Co-Founder of Scruff

Jason Marchant’s entrepreneurial journey as CPO of a leading dating app for Queer men teaches us to embrace the unexpected in life.

Photo by Sarah Cervantes on Unsplash.

Standing before you is a stunningly handsome man. Upon first laying eyes on your desired mate, there is something about him that captures your interest. Was it his smile? His gaze? Or his confidence? Perhaps you feel tempted by his… stubble? For many, the glorious texture of a man’s beard is all it takes to bring a heart aflutter.

An adoration for facial hair was indeed the focal point of male desire for the founders of a leading Queer tech company. Meeting a charming bearded stranger at a bar set off their entrepreneurial journey when one co-founder mentioned that the man had sexy scruff. The lure of a flirtatious grin nestled under a whiskered face would be the inspiration for a dating app that eventually grew a customer base of more than 12 million users world-wide.

Jason Marchant

Being social creatures, it comes as no surprise that we embrace recent waves of technology that make it easier for us to catch the eye of a suitor. The boom in match making apps like Tinder, Grindr and OkCupid — to name a few — have grown into a multibillion dollar industry that is forever changing relationships and sexuality in our high-tech era. In celebration of Queer Tech Montreal’s first-year anniversary, we had the pleasure of interviewing the co-founder of one company leading this high-tech match-making revolution: Jason Marchant, the Chief Product Officer of Scruff. We share Jason’s story of the challenges his team faced while growing a match-making service for “Bears” in New York into an international platform serving diverse identities of guys who are into other guys. His entrepreneurial journey is nothing short of the unexpected.

Technology to find a husband

Scruff came to light in 2010, born from an initial team of two co-founders, Eric Silverberg and Johnny Skandros. That year marked a turning point for gay dating apps. A year prior to Scruff’s launch, the famed hook-up app, Grindr, made its debut and spread throughout the North American gay community with ardent fanfare. Laden with user profiles of Adonis-like men, it was hard to resist. But several groups within the LGBTQ community did not fit the quintessential Grindr image of eye-candy, beach-tanned guys with feathered highlights in their hair. Do you seek men with burly physiques that don body hair with pride? Sorry, for the most part, you were out of luck.

Eric and Johnny wanted to meet scruffy guys, and Eric in particular had his mind set on finding a husband. With an untapped market niche in sight, the two began building a new match-making platform with a radically different brand image. Eric would become the CEO with a mission of using his technical skills to find the love of his life. This vision remains central to the company’s identity; to this day, both the computer code for the Scruff app and the company’s nickname among employees is termed “husband material”.

Convincing financial backers that the Bear market for a dating app would produce bullish returns proved difficult. Eric and Johnny were able to keep Scruff afloat with their own money only for so long. One day, an unlikely miracle happened. The grandmother of one of the young men decided her darling scruffy grandson deserved support in finding love. From her generous heart appeared a five-figure loan that was better than any venture capital.

“We had denture capital.”

Armed with a vision and financial support, all the guys needed was the right team. Their skills in business and tech were balanced: Johnny filled the role of the team cheerleader that kept spirits high, while Eric was the conservative visionary that knew computer code was the future of match making. Absent from the team was a third co-founder that could advocate on behalf of their customers and be the sage guide on how best to develop the platform.

From unexpected beta-tester to co-founder

The tick-tock of the clock seemed slower than ever. Toiling away at his desk job as a systems analyst in the pharmaceutical industry was taking its toll on his psyche. Thoughts would slip in and out of focus as the summer day rolled by. “Man, I rather be playing World of Warcraft right now,” repeated in his mind like a mantra. It was obvious to Jason Marchant that he needed a change.

Fast-forward to July 25th. It was any other Sunday except it happened to also be the day after the launch of Scruff. Enjoying some free time at a local bar helped quell his dread for the start of the new work week. Feeling relaxed after finishing a couple hard ciders, he was scrolling through his smart phone until something caught his eye: a new dating app for men. Unlike Grindr, this new app had a different allure, an image that mirrored his identity. He began exploring the new app with intrigue and observed that the first version of the app was acceptable, but had several issues that needed strengthening. Jason began taking note of minor quips about design and the user experience, which grew into a bulleted list of comments he then bundled in an email message addressed to the company. With zero pretext, no expectations, or even knowing who might read the message — if anyone — he clicked ‘send’. To his surprise, he received a response the next day.

The eager reply was from Eric. Ample praise flowed forth from the message, thanking Jason for his valuable feedback. A real-world user with a critical eye for building a good product was just what the fledgling company needed. Scruff had no means to pay him with anything but kind words. Nevertheless, Eric offered him to be their official beta tester for the app — and who knows, perhaps this volunteer role could evolve into something more substantial down the line. Before him appeared an opportunity to break away from his current tedium to pursue a new challenge. And as an unexpected pro-bono beta tester marked Jason’s modest entry into Scruff.

This volunteer working arrangement went on for three years. Day by day, the company moved closer towards profitability. Crossing that milestone brought a seismic shift to Jason’s life. In addition to becoming an official employee, the company rewarded his years of hard work and fidelity with a sizable chunk of equity along with the official title of co-founder.

From penis pics to customer support

Those first three years were far from being the most glamorous beginnings. With no staff and basic technical infrastructure, essential tasks to maintain the app platform required long hours of hands-on work and an astute eye. Someone, for instance, had to police the mountain of user content uploaded to the platform to ensure images complied with the company’s code of conduct. For over a year, Jason reviewed every profile picture. You can thank him for the manly faces that greet you when opening the app rather than other images of … umm… manhood.

Image adapted from photo by Luke Glendenning.

With the company’s growth came the inevitable “hair-on-fire” moments when the platform would go down or essential features stopped working. Establishing a customer support channel so customers could inform them of technical problems became of dire importance. Jason happened to have had a brief stint as a tech support guy at his university back in the day. That meant he had the most experience with customer support at the company. The deluge of dick pics was delegated to someone else as he set forth to build the company’s customer support department — from scratch.

Leading this project enabled Jason to keep his hand on the pulse of their customers. Their problems became of central focus and hearing first-hand their wants meant he could advocate on the customer’s behalf. With this knowledge, Jason was well equipped to oversee the look and feel of the Scruff platform as Chief Product Officer. He would now lead decisions to fine-tune the platform as Scruff began to acquire radically different customer segments from around the world.

Image adapted from photo by Luke Glendenning.

From bear hug to group hug

Want your startup business to survive? You better be sure to get traction by conquering a niche market. Your struggles won’t end there: once victorious in capturing the niche, companies often face a dilemma when growing to serve new, larger markets. A key challenge is to expand a customer base while keeping a consistent brand image. The situation for Scruff was no different.

The company had made a name for itself by capturing the Bear market. After passing a quarter million users, the need for further growth pressured the business to cater to markets beyond this segment of their most ardent customers. First to undergo a transformation was the company’s tag line: “Gay bears world wide”, was replaced with the more inclusive slogan of “Gay guys world wide.” Some core customers indeed expressed feeling deceived because of this minor change.

Hurt feelings aside, tweaks to make the platform more inclusive worked like a charm. Marching along the app’s quest to grow a global base, you could see the “face” of Scruff undergo an evolution. Queer men from varied ethnicities and cultures beyond the Western world joined the rows of profile pictures peering back at you as the dating platform slowly morphed into an international social network. Scruff embraced their more inclusive customer base that better represented all types of Queer men, and with time, the platform became available in a growing list of languages.

Jason found additional means to strengthen the Scruff platform by designing means to accommodate both introvert and extrovert personalities. The first version of the app assumed all their members wanted to be really forward when cruising; this assumption left few means for shy or discouraged members to engage with the platform. Hence, we are wrong to assume that the anonymity and impersonal nature of digital spaces strips us of our insecurities and bashfulness. Product design placed emphasis on providing various options to flirt and strike-up conversations that matched one’s mood, all with a distinct Scruff branding. If you were feeling playful and wanted to express interest in a light-hearted way, you could send a handsome stranger a “woof” with its signature sound. Or you could get to the point and ask flat out: “Would you meet?”. If you are feeling somewhere in between, you can tap their profile to say “I’m interested”.

Image adapted from photo by Frank Marino on Unsplash.

Now surpassing one million users, Jason wanted to make space for communities to form within the diversified Scruff network. This may sound straight forward, but promoting the visibility and empowerment of many of these Queer communities is fraught with undertones of political activism. Soon popped up a Trans community, a first of its kind; then a space for veterans and military personnel; in yet another attempt to be inclusive and break down harmful taboos, the platform provided a community group for men living with HIV.

Additional endeavors to design the platform as a digital space for socializing soon followed. The layout for profiles became much longer with additional sections and categories that enabled customers to highlight their unique attributes, likes and pastimes. Expanding beyond the original design that focused on sexual preferences and physical attractions made the new profile more conducive to striking up conversations amongst their members. Here, too, changes made to the profile ventured into contentious territory.

The politics of product design for Queer men

Contention surfaced from the co-founders’ mission to combat ongoing stigma of Queer men’s sexuality. Their mission had them set on breaking down two walls of exclusion. First to come down was the wall of exclusion surrounding AIDS. Leaders at Scruff knew the time was right to counter demonizing people living with HIV by making their platform inclusive of HIV+ guys. Scruff’s product development aimed to normalize HIV prevention and treatment strategies by listing within their members’ profiles various strategies for those living with or without HIV.

Designing this inclusivity into user profiles required a delicate juggling act. The last thing you want to do is ‘out’ members by pressuring the disclosure of their HIV status; rather, the aim was to provide a dignified space to share this information if anyone would care to do so. Being dignified meant the Scruff platform avoided marking HIV+ members with a “scarlet letter”. Instead, the product team provided categories that are reflective of HIV+ people living fulfilling lives, namely by having the option of denoting “treatment as prevention” on their profile. Soon to follow was the option for members to note their use of PrEP. Somewhat surprisingly, this product feature became a key demarcating trait of the Scruff platform compared to its competitors.

Second to come down was the invisibility of Queer men in homophobic regions of the world. Digital platforms have become one of the best means to counter this invisibility because these digital realms — typically developed in more tolerant regions of the world — enables LGBTQ people to interact in a safer space where gays have little-to-no options to meet in public. The digital realm offered by hook-up apps now play a central role in connecting LGBTQ people with information and services in areas of the world where they are often overlooked.

Designing the Scruff platform so that Queer men in repressive countries could escape the shadows required walking a fine tightrope. A too revealing profile could put a user at significant risk of blackmail, harassment, violence and even death. This sordid reality guided product development so that members could select a profile that upheld anonymity and hid their precise geolocalization. Finding the right balance between visibility and anonymity with their user profiles promoted the company’s growth in many unexpected places; for instance, one of Scruff’s current fastest growing markets is in Saudi Arabia where punishments for engaging in gay sex include being stoned to death.

Image adapted from photo by Vero Photoart on Unsplash.

The digital serves the real-world

Nearing the end of our discussion, we asked Jason Marchant what us guys who are in to other guys need to further our empowerment. His answer was a greater sense of community. We need to further establish places that show we are not alone. This goes beyond being sexual or gender minorities, but also as “out” entrepreneurs, or proud gay geeks passionate about technology. It should come as no surprise that someone who led the development of a social app, Jason harped a need to build interpersonal connections both in digital spaces as well as the real world. Looking out at the audience of sanguine faces, he said that we need spaces like those established by Queer Tech Montreal because our strength and feelings of belonging reside in being able to rub shoulders with like-minded folks.

Come join us at Queer Tech Montreal’s monthly events. Keep in touch and be a member of our Meetup group, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by Luke Glendenning.

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Jason Behrmann, PhD

Jason Behrmann, PhD

Marketing, communications and ethics specialist in AI & technology. SexTech commentator and radio personality on Passion CJAD800. Serious green thumb and chef.