Shortly after its debut in 2012, Coffee Meets Bagel emerged as a standout leader in a crowded mobile dating space by delivering on a simple but compelling proposition: that the service would offer fatigued digital daters a reprieve from the fruitless swiping known of its competitors by helping them forge more authentic connections. Founded by sisters Arum, Dawoon and Soo Kang, every product decision built into the app — from its user interface design to its reliance on a proprietary data-driven matchmaking algorithm to even the choice to initially use language such as “pass” or “connect” instead of “like” and “dislike” — stayed true to this vision, resulting in user adoption trajectory that put it on the radar of daters and investors alike. During an appearance on CNBC’s “Shark Tank” in 2015, the trio turned down a $30 million offer to buy the company outright, doubling down on their commitment to the vision and recognizing that they should be the ones responsible for bringing it to life.
Having such a strong belief in a vision and core set of principles has provided the sisters with a guidepost for decision-making and has even helped them navigate the shelter-in-place mandates that have kept daters in some major cities from meeting in person. As part of our Office Hours live Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Dawoon to share her insights and perspective on how she and her sisters have been able to guide the company through uncertainty and disruption and ensure that no matter what happens, their commitment to helping people make better connections remains in place.
You founded the company in 2012 with your two sisters – many of our readers have also gone into business with their family members. Would you briefly discuss how you divide the labor between the three of you, and what the dynamics were as the company experienced significant growth? What about now?
We divided the labor based on our skills, strength, weaknesses, and passion. For example, Soo was a graphic designer skilled in and passionate about anything design-related, so she naturally oversaw all creative effort. Both Arum and I had business backgrounds, but Arum previously worked as a Product Manager at Amazon and was more skilled in working with engineers, so she led the Engineering and Product organization. I was a psychology major and always interested in getting to the bottom of the science of love, dating, and relationships, so my title now is Chief Dating Officer. My job is to lend my dating expertise to the entire organization and make sure everything we do is anchored in research and science.
I think leadership and management skills are something everyone, no matter how much raw talent you start with, have to invest in and cultivate — probably for a lifetime — because human relationships are so complicated. There is never an end to the learning.
How did you personally manage the transition from founder to leader? Did you find you had natural leadership instincts, or did you have to learn how to be a good leader? What skills have been most helpful during the pandemic?
To clarify, I believe founders have to be a leader from day zero. To me, a leader is someone who has a clear vision of the future, an unwavering conviction that we can get there, and has the ability to bring their team along.
However, there comes a time when founders who are typically focused solely on vision and product need to also start dedicating their attention to organizational effectiveness and people management – that’s probably when the team gets to be around 20 to 25 people. When you get to that size, it doesn't matter how many rock stars you have, your company will not be able to perform well if they don’t know how to work together as a team. So you need to start investing a lot in this area.
I think leadership and management skills are something everyone, no matter how much raw talent you start with, have to invest in and cultivate (probably for a lifetime) because human relationships are so complicated. There is never an end to the learning. One thing I have noticed is that I am fairly emotionally intelligent – I’m good at sensing my emotions and those of people around me. By the way, even this is a learned skill that I’ve practiced since I was a child because it was emphasized a lot in my household, so I wasn’t born emotionally intelligent. This allows me to be effective in building relationships with people and helps me figure out what’s needed to foster a high-functioning organization.
As for my most effective skill – it’s not quite a skill but I would say the investment we made prior to COVID-19 in cultivating a trusting culture is what really helped us remain strong through these tumultuous times. One of our core values is “Courageous Candor,” and it’s something we’ve emphasized a lot in our organization. It’s about leaning into difficult conversations. It’s about drawing clear boundaries. It’s about creating space for others to be candid and assuming positive intent. I would say that has allowed us to continue working effectively in this new world where we no longer see each other.
Would you briefly describe how dating etiquette has changed? For example, what’s a prototypical first date during lockdown like? Do you think some of these behaviors will continue as we emerge into the ‘new normal?’
When shelter-in-place became the new norm, we were all kind of forced to reevaluate how we date. Daters no longer had the opportunity to quickly rush from match to meet. Instead, they had more time to simply get to know someone – texting, calling, video chatting, and even virtual dates all saw an increase. I think this change of pace meant daters really had the opportunity to slow down and cherish the actual dating process, instead of trying to rush to the finish line. So with this new flow, a first date might actually look more like a phone call or video chat from your respective homes. A casual face-to-face chat like this can serve as a “vibe check,” so you can get a better read on someone before actually taking the plunge and meeting in person. And as we transition into more in-real-meeting and less virtual, I hope this slow dating mindset will carry over! That initial getting-to-know-you stage is so important, and deserves your time and attention.