In a post-Tinder world, most of us don’t deeply contemplate the broader social significance of two people on a first date. But that’s exactly what Brian Gerrard has been doing.
Gerrard launched a startup to answer a sociology question that had been nagging him. As the Co-Founder and CEO of Bae, a dating app for black singles, Gerrard wants to strengthen communities through quality relationships. Bae isn’t just another dating app startup — it’s a product developed for an underserved market, a community-builder for those left behind, and a thought leader on sometimes-thorny societal issues.
Created by Gerrard, his brother Justin Gerrard, and resident CTO Jordan Kunzika, Bae emerged out of the overwhelmingly negative experiences black individuals have had on mass-market dating apps, where prejudice and stigma often interfere with making connections.
“The impetus for the business was that dating online while black sucks,” Gerrard explained to me during a recent phone interview, as part of a series of conversations I had with him both digitally and in-person as Bae was becoming a member of the Application Developers Alliance.
“Black people are 10 times less likely to have their messages responded to, and 82 percent of non-black men have a negative bias against black women on online dating platforms,” Gerrard said. “So while other people are finding meaningful relationships at a rapid pace and are able to meet and connect with people much faster and use technology as it’s meant to be — this great equalizer — it’s in fact really brought to light that issues of race can persist as reasons why people do or do not date someone.”
Data doesn’t lie, so Gerrard and his co-founders created an app designed to serve as a welcoming space for black singles to find meaningful connections, and push back against historically negative experiences. Unlike mass-market dating apps, Bae prides itself on fostering a large, but niche, community of like-minded individuals seeking substantial relationships.
The app promotes a sense of community through cultural nuances built into the app’s user experience and branding — from the push notifications and cultural references, to the design and even the app’s name itself. More than an opportunity to solve a particular pain point, Gerrard views Bae as a “broader opportunity to create a curated experience” for black individuals.
“Bae” isn’t just a culturally hip nickname for the app and the person you’re dating; it’s also an acronym that captures the business’s focus on quality connections: Before Anyone Else.
“When you’re putting yourself out there and trying to meet new people and find something meaningful … the person you really need to consider putting before anyone else is you — really understanding who you are and what you want,” Gerrard said. But he added, “Bae is also meant to help you find the person that you put before anyone else.”
Bae fosters self-exploration and self-empowerment through specific features across its app, website, and emails to users. Bae’s website offers a subscription service to The Dating Agency, where users can sign up for one-on-one dating advice, tips for improving their dating profile, and strategies to help them understand what they’re looking for in a partner. Bae’s blog covers topics like relationship issues and self-understanding and fosters the Bae community beyond the app.
Bae is a champion for black relationships at every stage in the process, and each relationship formed through the app contributes to Bae’s larger social mission. Gerrard acknowledges that the odds are stacked against black families, with depressing statistics such as “50 percent of blacks will never marry in their lifetime, and more than 70 percent of black children will grow up in a single-parent household.”
There are two main effects of these circumstances. First, the socioeconomic impact of single-earner households means that it’s difficult to build net worth compared to families with two incomes. Second is the emotional impact of not finding the kind of stable, long-lasting love that marriage can provide. And for Gerrard, this second effect is in some ways worse than the first.
“A tremendous part of the human experience is finding love, it’s connecting with somebody … It’s more valuable than some of these economic issues.”
And from the standpoint of technology as a great equalizer, Gerrard believes that Bae can “move the needle for black relationships, black love, and … the black family unit.”
Gerrard is optimistic that real change can happen through entrepreneurial approaches such as Bae, and when it comes to enacting social change, Gerrard said that Bae’s approach is proactive. Rather than tackling systemic failures that impact the black community, such as racial disparities in incarceration rates, Bae aims to confront problems “at point A” — starting with two people on a date, before a family even comes into the picture.
“It’s a fundamentally proactive approach,” he said. “We’re addressing [these issues] through having fun, through being in love. I think people oftentimes forget that those two things are probably the most powerful things you can do to create social change.”
Bae conveys these values through the app’s user experience. Since Bae is designed to foster quality connections rather than convenient hookups, the app has structured swipes accordingly. Users may swipe as many times as they like until they get their first match, which helps the algorithm understand what the user likes and dislikes. After that, users are limited to 100 right swipes every eight hours. Then, they can either wait eight hours for 100 more swipes or invite friends to Bae to immediately receive more swipes. Gerrard notes that this design “keeps a particular culture and vibe about who our users are” since users are “bringing in like-minded folks who also have that same intentionality about meeting somebody in a meaningful way.”
This intentional approach has worked extremely well for Bae so far. Bae has grown 10 times over since its launch one year ago at Howard University, a historically black institution in Washington D.C.
With a marketing budget of just $140, Bae took to Howard’s campus and saw 17,000 downloads in the first month alone, outpacing both Tinder and Hinge when those dating apps were in their infancy.
Bae’s tremendous early success testifies to the high demand for tech products geared toward black consumers, both in the U.S. and around the world. Gerrard points to Bae’s international success: The app is already registered as a top 50 lifestyle app in 20 African and Caribbean countries and is currently the top free dating app for black singles in the U.S.
For all their early success, Gerrard does feel that a lack of diversity on the investor level poses a significant problem for startups targeting people of color. Historical “pattern matching” within the insular venture community has meant that investors mainly focus on projects and people that resonate with their own identities and experiences. And thus, the businesses and products created with their capital reflect the experiences of a relatively uniform group, precluding alternative, lucrative opportunities.
Gerrard has encouraged investors to view opportunities outside of an investor’s own identity or realm of experience.
“An investor who wants to get the highest return on investments and have the widest pool of potential investments to do that from must look at the total addressable market,” he said. “If you ignore things that affect the black community, then you’re ignoring a $3 trillion consumer market in the U.S. alone. If you ignore the African diaspora, then you’re ignoring 700 million smartphone users … and leaving millions of dollars on the table.”
Whether you’re a potential user — or investor — only one question remains: Does this app sound like it could be your bae?
Cross-posted from LinkedIn.