Robyn Exton
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Chief Executive Officer, Her

  • Place of Origin

    Toronto / South England

  • Interview Date

    February 8, 2016

Im a Brit who moved to SF a year ago with my app for queer women, Her. I had no tech knowledge or background, but quit my job, learned to code, built a team, built an app, built a community and now we’re the biggest community of queer women in the world.

Tell me about your early years and where you come from.

I was born in Toronto but moved to the UK when I was two and so grew up in England. I went to a fantastic all girls school and then a mixed school for my last two years which was an international school, which I think was a really big change for me. It was a private, international school that I got a scholarship to, and suddenly I was meeting people from Japan, Nigeria, Malaysia, Colombia and it really started to change my opinion of the world and what opportunities there were out there. I went to University in Bristol and studied geography for no other reason than my sister had done and I thought it would be a sensible choice. When I was thinking about jobs and what to do after I graduated, a friend worked in recruitment and told me to interview for a position he was looking for in marketing. I did that, got the role, graduated from Uni on the Wednesday, and started work on the Monday. It was a post-production agency that was really hard work; late hours, getting paid absolute peanuts. But I was quite quickly given my own stuff to run which I think I really enjoyed. I had a fantastic boss, a woman who was really smart, very inspiring, and I thought she was just super cool. One of my clients at the time was a branding agency who I got on really well with and eventually I moved to join their team. When I got there I just thought it was cool. We were going on photoshoots and working with glam clients. Then, at one point, one of my clients was an internet service provider in the UK, called BE. They were a testing ISP of a larger corporate company but when I started working with them I realized I basically knew nothing about the tech industry and needed to shape up my knowledge.

Tell me everything [chuckles].

I was thinking, “What do tech people do?” I had a team mate working on the account who had all this knowledge, and I was asking, “How do you know this stuff?” He was like, “The internet.” I think he told me to check our Mashable or a site like that. And then I bought a copy of Wired and I remember reading it for the first time so vividly. Literally, cover to cover, more than I’d ever read any other magazine and was like, “This is smart, and relevant, and interesting,” and I got really excited about it. Shortly afterwards we took a new client which was a dating business. They used to run a white label network and we would try to suggest to them new propositions for their portfolio. We pitched some cool ideas, they just didn’t really work out. But me and the friend got really interested in the space, talked about making up our own site, started working on something, the guy who I was doing it with then moved to Paris, so it all stopped for a bit. Then I was in the pub with a girlfriend one weekend, she had split up with her girlfriend, and she was asking me what dating sites I was using and despite everything I knew about about the industry the best website I could suggest to her was this awful one I’d been using for about 6 months. And that was really depressing. So I thought, maybe I could make something better, something for women. So I started to learn to code. I moved in with my dad to save money, and sold everything I owned. I quit my job, ran out of money, went to work in a pub, got into an accelerator in the UK, and then started to hire some people to join the team. Then it all just kicked off from there, and now I’ve been doing this for the past three and a half years nearly.

What were the qualities of the old dating apps that you saw for chicks that were so just so bad? Like what sucked about it?

When I first started I still didn’t know anything about tech or product. I started about thinking of the problem as a branding one. It always confused me how being single was seen as a bad thing. I mean I’m still single now, I love it. I’m a very independent person and I like that like freedom. And I always thought it was weird that all the dating products tried to ‘fix you’ and they were trying to insinuate that it was wrong being single and they could give you the solution to the problem.

When I made Dattch, which was how Her started, it was called Dattch, it was purely about the brand, really. I took exactly the Grindr model and thought, “If that works for guys, it can work for women.” But once it went out, we also started to realize that actually, branding’s great but branding doesn’t make a product, and a community, and actually build it. Actually, we worked out that all the stuff that worked so well in Grindr, just didn’t really suit our user base and what they were looking for, and how they wanted to start conversations. Women are so hesitant about starting talking. They’re really slow at sending messages and they always want the other person to message first. The way Grindr works is, you got two guys that are just going to send each other messages. You’ve got no barriers. Whereas, girls are much more hesitant about it. So, the actual interaction and experience inside of it had to be completely different in a way that worked much better for women, and so that’s what we started to do.

When did you decide to transplant to Silicon Valley proper?

There’s a big conference in San Francisco called Lesbians Who Tech, and in 2014 it was the first time it had been held in the city. I had met the founder in London, who asked if I’d want to pitch at the conference. I did and it was the best reaction I had ever had to the app. I mean, fair enough, it was a massive auditorium of lesbians, it’s going to be a pretty good reaction, but it was just so positive. People were fist-pumping and whooping, and I was like, Oh. My. God, this is crazy.” Dave McClure was judging and he offered me investment then and there. Then a couple of other people offered investment, and I’d never had such an amazing response. I then started moving back and forth between London and SF and in October 2014 we hired our first team mates over here, our designer and a community manager. When we then raised a round of investment over here and it all just started shifting in this direction. We then had more users in the US than the UK and I think I just knew that for the people that we wanted to hire, for the money that I wanted to raise, it made more sense for us to be in America. We did Y Combinator this summer and that was the last push for me so I moved March 2015, nearly a year ago.

What was it like being in NYC and being in Silicon Valley as a non-technical, queer-lady founder?

I think being a founder, the hardest thing is always hiring people and raising money. It’s hard finding the right person that’s ready to join the team, that’s going to be a great culture fit, that’s skilled, that is going to grow with the company. I think that’s been quite difficult. And then investment–  it’s really difficult for dating companies to raise money, let alone one that is totally focused just on the female side of the market. And, frankly, no one’s done what we do, most mainstream dating apps monetize off of men and they build in triggers and an experience that’s really based around men because they know what men will pay for. But we think that’s because the products are built for men, and so they can focus on what men pay on, but when you’re looking at women, it’s just different, and we’re going to show how it will work with women.

But then on top of all those hard bits of being a founder, being a queer-lady founder has its own nuances. I think the best way I’ve heard it being described is that you just don’t get the benefit of the doubt. And that is so so important when you’re starting a company. You need people that will take a leap of faith with you and it takes a lot longer to find those people when you’re a queer-lady founder.

You’ve touched on this, but can you tell me more about what it’s like fundraising for an app for queer women to dudes who are mostly white and straight?

Most of our money has been raised from angels, and so I think because of that I get a lot more honesty from people. I think its probably the same with all LGBT issues, there’s a big lack of understanding. People won’t necessarily know a gay person or a trans person. In the very early days when I was first starting, I’d immediately get asked after pitching, “So are you a lesbian?” And it made me think, if someone’s pitching you a taxi app, is the immediate question “Are you a taxi driver?” It was such a different kind of question because they looked at me and didn’t see what they expected someone that was into women to look like. But I think over time as our numbers started to show how well we clearly knew it, it became less important.

I think some of the weirdest stuff that happened was when we gave an account to potential male investors so they could have a look at the app, and there’s some who would message stupid, filthy stuff to the users. Like super–


Yeah, like sexy stuff. And we’d see it as a team thinking, we can see you doing this. What do you think is happening here? Some people would go through the app in front of me saying, “Oh, she’s fit. She’s hot. She’s hot. She’s hot,” and I’m thinking, “Dude, this is not your dating app to be going through. This is us talking about you investing in the company.” I assume everyone has shitty things that happen when you’re raising money. I have friends who are female founders who have male co-founders and they’ll never get asked the questions. It will always be the guy that gets asked the questions. And I think I’m a single founder and I don’t think anyone has ever questioned whether a woman should be running this company. I think they know that that should be me.

Yeah. So interesting. But have you found investors that you just love?

The investors we have are so awesome. One investor, Ligaya, she’s wonderful. She got it right from the outset. Oe of the first investors we spoke to that knew how to build communities, but in a really practical way. Then Alexis, he’s one of the founders of Reddit. And I think he just understood communities and sub-communities so well, I hadn’t realized how great it was when other people knew what it was like to run a company like ours. Doing YC, they are very, very smart people. And it’s incredibly hardcore, but they’ve been absolutely great. Some of the relationships can depend a lot on the time and availability of a person. I love all of our investors. I really do.

That’s great.

I think I might rely on them more because of being a single founder. If there’s big decisions or things coming up, I’ll bounce off them a lot more.

Totally makes sense.

I think I have six women out of our 30 investors and that’s pretty good.

What have been the most fulfilling, wonderful, exciting things about being an entrepreneur?

I think most of the time – this is me very personally – I don’t realize half the time what I’m doing and so I think all these moments fly by and you just completely miss them and don’t even realize that they happen and then you’ll get the odd moment where you’re like, “Shit. This is pretty crazy. This is so weird that this is what we’ve done.” I just remember last summer, I was driving to meet an amazing women that led Diversity and Inclusion at Facebook. I was driving out to Silicon Valley, in the car and I was thinking, “This is mental. I’m driving to meet Sara, going to Facebook. When did this happen?”. I think the people that you meet are mind-blowing. Smart, charismatic people who I respect so much. Most days or weeks we’ll get messages from users saying, “I’ve now been with my girlfriend for a year. This is amazing.” I think the stories I like the most, are the girls that have discovered their sexuality through the app. They came out, or they realized that they didn’t have to come out, or just found a set of people that made them feel great. I think that, for me, feels more like one of the most fulfilling parts of what we do. I think it’s great for someone to find their partner, and the person that they’re in love with. But to know that about yourself, and to feel comfortable with yourself, and unafraid to be who you want to be, I think that’s pretty amazing.

So where do you think the qualities you have come from, that made you just feel like you could start this company? Like the entrepreneurial—the being okay with risk, being okay with hiring staff and delegating, where does that come from? Does it feel innate or learned?

I think I’ve always been – and I know everyone says this is a bad word, but I’m totally fine with that – I’ve always been quite a bossypants, which was part of a strong determination that I have. And I’ve also been amazingly supported and encouraged by my mum.  She was definitely very focused on me being very independent, and focusing on what I could do, not setting any limitations to what job I could do, which probably gave me the confidence to take riskier steps. I think a lot of people don’t do things because of fear, and I didn’t have a lot of that, I always thought, “Sure, I can do this.”  With hindsight it was probably just a huge level of ignorance, of having no idea of what I was undertaking, and not even stopping to think about it. I definitely rush into things a lot, and too often, and I get told off for that a lot. And I don’t listen to people, I kind of blast on through stuff. If I actually knew what I was undertaking, there’s no way that I would think that I could do it. Because I didn’t know what it was, and I always knew what the next step I wanted to do was, it’s just everything led to the next thing.

Tell me more about the Geek Girl Meetups.

Yeah, Geek Girl Meetup is one of those parts of my life that makes me so happy. It’s a group of amazing women that organize it, awesome women that speak and a great powerful network of people that’s building with it. It used to be an annual conference in London and me and two friends didn’t feel like one conference was enough. There were amazing speakers and attendees and we wanted to see and hear from them more. So we started going for breakfast together to make plans about how we could make this happen more often. Then we invited people on the email list to join. Then we started to get official speakers along. So it turned into monthly breakfasts that would have anywhere between 50 and 100 women. Both men and women come along but we always get female speakers as we thought it was so important for other women to see great role models. If you see someone achieving something it makes it feel like you could be that person or take that path too, and that was really important to us. We did the conference every year and that will be anywhere from 200 to 400 women. Again, lots of speakers. Very interactive. I think it feels different because it is organized by women and we think of things that maybe other ones don’t think of: there’s always a creche, the food is always good and healthy and there’s yoga – just things that we wanted to see at an event. Now, that I’m in SF, we should be setting it up over here. Heidi who originally founded it, she’s over here and so I think we’re going to set it up and start doing it here too.

Other than what you just described, what support networks have you found here in San Francisco?

British people have been a really big support network [laughter]. I think when you come somewhere and you don’t know anyone, you look for a link to meet new people. They were often British founders and so I built quite good relationships with them and then people that I already knew in the London scene who then moved here, they’re people that I stay in touch with quite a lot. The other teams that did YC, the people who were in my batch, I’m really close with some of them. There’s a group of four of us that meet up once a month and exchange the progress that we’ve made. I think I lean on my investors a fair bit if I’m looking for help with something specific, and there’s a few that I’m close to that I’ll probably meet up with like once a month or every other month, one on one, and they’ll. I don’t go to as many of the events I used to do in London, I think because I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started and I had to assimilate a lot of information. Now I’m more focused on specific areas or problems or challenges where I know I need to learn a lot more. I’ll ask to meet a specific person or go to a very tailored event to stay as focused as possible.

Yeah, you know what you need.

In the early days I was just thinking, “I need to meet people.” Because I didn’t know any people. That was the first level. Know some people.

What other struggles have you faced in your time here, either related to entrepreneurship, or living and surviving in San Francisco?

London’s so big, and so diverse, and my friends are from such a different backgrounds and skills, and I think there’s a great upside in people in San Francisco working in the same industry as you, understanding it so well, but then it’s hugely lacking any kind of diversity. There’s not the same racial diversity, there’s not the same cultural diversity, and I think I missed a lot of that when I moved here. I finish work at 10, and if I want to go get a drink with someone and some dinner, I can’t do that here, and that pisses me off, like I want to get late night crazy. I think I just didn’t realize how techy it was. I knew before I came here if you go to Hollywood it’s going to be filled with actors and actresses, and all the marketing will be for movies. I just didn’t know San Francisco was that much tech [laughter].

One of my friends is just starting up a company in London. It’s a restaurant, but I think she’s just firstly starting to realize the sacrifices you have to make — it’s not sacrifices because you don’t see it as a bad thing when you’re doing it, but how your life changes. It’s entirely consuming or it has been for me. I think my way of approaching it has been, “I want to give this everything I have otherwise I’ll feel like I didn’t try hard enough, and if I’m doing this, I really want to know that I tried my hardest to make this work.” Just the concept of normally getting drunk on weeknights or socializing or just hanging out with a friend for dinner, you just don’t really do that anymore. You don’t go out Friday and Saturday. You’ve got to work one day of the weekend so you have to plan your hangovers. All those friends you used to see only at group events, they’re the ones that you don’t talk to anymore. Realistically — if I have one night off per week, all I want to do is sit in my PJs, preferably in bed, and just not to a single thing or talk to anyone. And it means that you miss a lot. And that was definitely a big, big change that I only realized how big it’s been now, with hindsight. I used to go on vacation three times a year, now I haven’t been away for 2 years, it’s all a big change.

Yeah. I saw on the internet a couple of days ago, Randi Zuckerberg who posted about the Entrepreneur’s Dilemma— Work, sleep, family, fitness, friends. You can only have three.

Totally makes sense. It’s a lot.

What is it like using your own app as the founder?

It’s really awkward [chuckles]. I used it a lot more in the early days and [chuckles] I think, I don’t know, I think because it wasn’t a thing then, almost like the user base was so small, I think I felt more comfortable doing it. Now, honestly it’s just incredibly difficult. Like we do so much testing on the app, and I’m constantly using it to test new builds and so I will like some people. It’s not that I’m genuinely liking them, it’s just because I’m testing if the like button works. I use it so aggressively, it’s really hard to remember who the person was that I had wanted to get a date with the next weekend. So logistically it’s actually quite hard. I also get a lot of messages from girls on the app, saying, “Thank you so much, this is awesome.” “Do you have any jobs?” “Can you change this bug?” “Here’s this feedback.” And that confuses me using it for dating!

Have you had any mentors or people that you’ve looked up to for inspiration?

I feel like I have but– the people I’ve had as advisors, it changes, in cycles almost based on what we’re working on and I guess their availability and my availability. I remember, I think my first ever boss was really hardcore and I really liked her and she was very thorough and I think she probably set my mind of the kind of person who I wanted to be. I then went through a phase of messaging every person I wanted to learn from. One of the big TV networks in the UK, called ITV, had a woman that was Head of Digital there, and she was awesome. I remember her talking at an event I’d been at, so openly, realistically and practically. She was an absolute badass and hearing how she made compromises and how she realistically balanced her life made me see how hard but how possible it is to be in that kind of position.

What are your motivators? Like, what drives you?

I find it really hard to pinpoint what it is that drives me. Sometimes I think it’s just a fear of failure, other times it’s the want to do better than the day before. I feel pretty tunnel vision about what we are doing, nothing else seems like an option.

How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What excites you, what frustrates you, what do you want to see change?

All in all I’m really excited about it. The discussion people are having about diversity can only start to have a positive impact, but it’s probably my biggest current frustration. The way the system works is such a game and it’s going to take a while for the new rules to be written. So until then we’ve all just got to play along with the crappy current rules.

What advice would you give to young ladies who are hoping to do something important or build something impactful? What do you wish you’d known in the beginning?

No one is going to make this easier for you or lay down the path for you to step on to. If it’s in you, to build something or start something, you’re the only person that can make this happen. Realize what the worst thing is that could happen if you take that risk, come to terms with it, then step up and start taking the risk.