“Yes ma’am, I’m still in the Airforce,” said Airmen Wight Goforth, who has about eight months to go. For now, Wight works an eight-hour shift at the USAF in Virginia then drives to the 1776 campus in DC where he works as a product design intern at Hinge, the hot new dating/introduction app, until it’s time to “call it a night and go home.” I caught up with Wight on a Thursday night in May as he walked down the hall from Hinge to come to Startup Grind’s fireside chat at 1776 with Capital One Financial Services co-founder, Nigel Morris.
During the chat, we heard what it was like in 1994 to be a 26-year-old consultant with one slightly older colleague trying to convince Signet Bank in Richmond that customizing credit card terms could fundamentally transform the consumer lending industry. “That part was like cheating because we knew the answers before we started,” Nigel said referencing his team’s disciplined, data-driven approach to identifying customer needs. Eliminating annual fees for their credit card later just added to the buzz. After a spin off as Capital One Financial Services, Nigel and the other self-selecting “intrapreneurs” moved North to Tysons Corner, Virginia.
Branding was a whole different matter. “We didn’t know what was going to work,” he said. Eventually, a talented agency team personified their attack on industry inertia with Vikings wreaking havoc on a village crying out: “What’s in your wallet?” About $150 million per year later, everyone knows the product behind the slogan, which can now be uttered equally effectively by Washington Capital’s Alex Ovechkin during the playoffs.
A blissfully terrifying situation
The execution of that strategy, however, which included unfamiliar tasks, like running customer service, was “a terrifying situation,” which sounds self-effacingly clever in Nigel’s British-sounding accent. “I was totally unsuited for it, I was totally unqualified to do it and I had to learn quickly,” he said as several Startup Grinders nodded. His team bridged its talent gaps by reaching out to the best business schools to “hijack talent” before graduates could be recruited by top-notch consulting firms.” By 2004, after 10 years, Capital One Financial Services had made the transition from an emerging startup to a public company with about 15,000 employees valued at over $20 billion. Nigel realized he missed “the excitement and verve” of the rapid learning and retired.
Today, as the managing partner of QED Investors in Alexandria, VA, Nigel focuses on high-growth companies that leverage the power of data strategies and seek to have industry forces behind them like the wind at their backs. “We’re hammers in search of nails,” he laughs. QED is Latin for quod erat demonstrandum, from the Greek “which was to be demonstrated.” The initials are traditionally placed at the end of a mathematical proof or philosophical argument.
After Nigel spoke, I walked briskly past a trio of young men with an eye towards introducing Nigel to 1776 tenant, Scott Keohane, of Perfect, a data-driven restaurant marketing tool. But, as Nigel veered off towards the men’s room, I cut my stride in half just as Wight Goforth caught my eye and said: “Excuse me…hi…we met at my first Startup Grind event at nClude. “I was sitting on a coach by myself, eating pizza, and you told me I was supposed to get up and talk to people.” He smiled, now a veteran of meetup groups such as DC NightOwls, DC Tech , DC Lean Startup Circle, Design Thinking DC, Toastmasters, Idea Fusion and Build Innovate Grow: DC, which he says, helped him integrate into the DC tech scene.
I stopped walking and turned towards the trio. I didn’t recognize Wight at first, his sweat shirt replaced by a tidy blue sweater over a white shirt and slacks, messenger bag slung across his back. Then, of course I remembered him, only now he was standing tall, smiling warmly and simply ready to connect. He was part of the Hinge team and had the glow of an intern at a growing company with great buzz and events to add to the excitement.
Escape from lonely island
Wight first read about Hinge in a Mashable article via TechCrunch earlier this year. He downloaded the Hinge app to his iPhone, as did over 10,000 other active users in the D.C. area. (Android app just released). The core concept seemed good: See available “Friends of Friends”of your Facebook profile and rate their images delivered by the app on a scale of 1-5. Those who have rated you 4 out of 5 will be listed as those interested in connecting. No lengthy, traditional dating site profiles by complete strangers “on a lonely island,” on websites probably accessed on a PC by an older crowd. Instead, Hinge connects self-selecting networks to grease the connecting/dating wheels.
“I travel a lot and, like some fellow airmen, have used online dating services when I come home,” Wight explained. Hinge it solves the problem he had with traditional online dating sites: “Being alone on a date with a complete stranger can be awkward, and sometimes, it can be scary. There were a few times that I felt like I could end up on the back of a milk carton.” It just made sense to limit the dating pool to local friends of friends you’re interested in meeting who have confirmed they’re interested in meeting you, too.
In full CMO mode, Hinge co-founder Bennett Richardson, says: “Hinge is built to match the lifestyles of our social, mobile-focused users age 18-35: the entire Hinge experience is designed so you can complete the entire experience on your phone, and we tap into user’s real life social networks so that they aren’t looking for dates on a “lonely island” like you are with traditional dating sites.
So, after reaching out to meet friends of friends on Hinge, one night, Wight decided to send an email to Hinge co-founder Justin McLeod asking if he could join the Hinge team as a product design intern. Justin, a time-crunched CEO, meets people through Hinge himself and can attest to the relevancy of recommendations. While he was out on the town, Justin matched with his good friend’s cousin, who had just favorited Justin in Hinge as someone she’d like to meet. Justin’s companion mentioned that her parents live in Florida, which brought up something that surprised them both: They both grew up going to Cheeca Lodge, and shared separate-but-wonderful memories of the idyllic resort in the Florida Keys. Hinge’s proprietary algorithm does not predict cute coincidences, but it does bring people together who have people, organizations and interests in common. People with different levels of connections, from close ties to acquaintances from other activities, such as charities, schools and companies linked on Facebook are more likely to find connections that share their interests than completely random strangers.
A few days after he sent the email, Wight became a Hinge intern. Working in the 1776 co-working space meant he could walk around and meet the UX designer of Living Social one day and influencers, even royalty, like Queen Noor of Jordan touring the facility the next.
Being part of a community
Being a part of the DC community has always been important for Hinge’s co-founders. Justin and Bennett were members of the Fort’s first accelerator class and founding tenants of 1776. Today, with 7 employees, Hinge is the largest company that is a full-time resident of 1776. The company has raised nearly $1 million in venture capital from Fortify, 500 Startups and local Piedmont Capital Advisors. They mentor other founders at the Fort/1776, speak at events and in classrooms and have served as judges at the Distilled Intelligence startup pitchfest that resulted in the second Fortify DC class.
“Hinge is an interesting animal,” says Bennett, struck with the diversity of businesses attracted to 1776. “We are a consumer-focused startup in DC. We’re not going after education, healthcare, transportation or any of these government level national industries headquartered here [as other 1776 tenants do], but at the same time we are able to make a substantive impact in the DC startup community by taking our own position.”
As part of the Application Developers Alliance, Hinge is working toward voluntary privacy guidelines through the Department of Commerce/NTIA privacy multi-stakeholder talks. Earlier this year, at nearby congressional offices, Hinge’s Bennett Richardson visited with Rep. Hank Johnson’s staff to discuss privacy and how certain types of privacy legislation can either help or hinder innovation and user experience.
Hinge noticed many of its users are connected with networks in New York City and just launched a Hinge app there on May 28. Though moving towards becoming a national consumer mobile product, Hinge prefers to remain headquartered in DC where it has found it advantageous to be part of the growing startup community.
What’s in Nigel Morris’s wallet?
“An American Express card. As an officer of Capital One Financial Services, the paperwork required to carry a Capital One card was enormous!” He left us laughing at Startup Grind. When Nigel emerged from the men’s room, I introduced him to Scott Keohane to hear what he thought of Scott’s pitch for Perfect, the data-based restaurant marketing tool. He listened carefully, asked a couple of key questions and headed for the elevator. On his way out he said “This was good. I don’t do enough of these things.”
Scott seemed pleased. He said: “I got more out of that few minute meeting than I thought would happen tonight.”
“I attend lots of cool meetups; Startup Grind is my favorite,” Wight says, “You go to these cool events, meet great people and learn all things you can’t find written in a textbook or on any blog [try Google’s blog search] – and discover opportunities. If you work really, really hard and put yourself out there instead of just staying in your comfort zone you might just find yourself becoming apart of something really, really cool as well, like I did with Hinge.