We caught up with Scruff founder Johnny Skandros on his trip to Europe to discuss how he is growing his brand using the personal touch
Within two minutes of meeting Scruff founder Johnny Skandros it’s obvious he is one entrepreneur who not only lives his brand but dreams of it at night.
Wearing a t-shirt promoting his company, one of the world’s fastest-growing dating apps (currently boasting more than 6m members), he has come across to Europe from his US base on a kind of goodwill tour to bring his and his team’s personal touch to the Scruff community this side of the Atlantic.
It’s an approach that has proved hugely successful for Skandros and his team since the app’s launch in August 2010. But while he has had plenty of people come up in the street and thank him for creating the online community, some members of the public have been less welcoming.
“I was at the airport once and one of the guys who was working on security called me across and said ‘hey, because of your app my boyfriend cheated on me. It’s your fault’,” he says.
Reasonably, Skandros suggests that it wasn’t really the app’s fault that this unnamed airport worker’s boyfriend cheated on him. And this unfortunate encounter is very much the exception as the vast majority of people have a positive experience using the site.
From the bootstraps
Scruff is the brainchild of Skandros and co-founder Eric Silverberg. Witnessing the success of Grindr that launched a year earlier, they wanted to create their own unique take on the gay dating app. The name comes from a New York trend on the gay scene at the time.
They were soon joined by chief product officer and founding partner Jason Marchant. The three of them moved back to their respective parents’ places for around a year as the app was finding its feet and still pre-profit. When the app did start making money they were all able to move back to New York, where they’d met, and form a more solid base of operations.
But even when working form home, modern ways of being together remotely meant they were still able to operate effectively as a team, according to Skandros.
“Initially we bootstrapped it and didn’t take any money and that was hard,” he explains. “But in terms of working remotely the three of us were able to do it quite easily. There was Skype, email etc and that worked. I took on the marketing and the brand side of Scruff, Eric’s the developer and writes the code and Jason is brilliant as a product manager.”
This clearly well-balanced team of three has since expanded and the company now employs around 30 staff. But although there is a small nucleus of staff in New York, the remote aspect of the structure remains somewhat intact.
“We’re headquartered in New York City so we have seven people working there in the central office, but a lot of people still work from home and are spread around the country,” Skandros explains.
Pounding the streets
The international trip that the team find themselves on now is a long way from the initial marketing strategy, which Skandros explains was “just me going out there in New York City with a Scruff t-shirt that had paste on letters”.
“No-one knew what Scruff was; people laughed in my face. They’d point at me and go ‘what’s that, what’s Scruff?’ And I’d explain that it’s an app I’ve started. It’s really cool, check it out. So those were tough times and its scary to just put yourself out there.
“But I felt for me it was important. I love the gay community and I’m not afraid to face them. So I really branded myself and made a name for myself, literally. As well as my birth name I also go by Johnny Scruff.”
All the hard yards have certainly paid off, and Skandros firmly believes that getting out there from day one and “interfacing with the community” played a huge part in that eventual pay-off.
“I think putting a voice and putting a personal touch behind the app is one of the reasons we became successful,” he says. “People saw that there’s a heart behind this company. And I pounded that pavement and even when I was at home and we weren’t profitable I would try and get out as much as I could.
“I went to San Francisco for two months over one summer. I went there with my Scruff shirt and talked to everyone on the scene. I was always on the app 24/7, chatting with members, hearing their stories, saying hello.”
And soon it wasn’t just Johnny Scruff ploughing a lonely furrow on the pavements of the US. As both the team and community grew, others in the business decided to follow suit.
“Since then other team members have decided to do that too, which is great,” he says. “The more people are out there the better. I’ve always said ‘live the brand’ with your company. It’s got to be the way to go and it’s surely worked for us with Scruff.”
Despite the one blip at the airport, Skandros has never had any serious trouble on the streets, even though his face is recognised by member of the gay community world-over. And he even says the overwhelmingly positive response he receives from the public helps him through the hard times any entrepreneur will inevitably face when growing a business.
“People come up to thank me for starting Scruff. And that always feels good, especially when I’m having tough days. Scruff has been a very hard business to build; physically and mostly emotionally. And it’s the members that have kept me going. Having someone come up to me on the street and thank me is very humbling. I feel very lucky for that to be the case.”
A friendlier place
And the social feel is also an important aspect of the app itself. While there is undoubtedly a hook-up element, Skandros is keen to point out that it is a “friendlier place” than some of its competitors and a lot of men do use it for chat and to feel connected.
A new version of the app has a travel component in which you can find a city’s “ambassador” when visiting. These people are volunteers within the community who will guide newcomers to the town to the best places and activities. The strong events side of the app and community is another element Scruff prides itself on, and the team’s presence in London is an extension of this.
And for Skandros, who didn’t have the money to travel when he was growing up, this trip is an opportunity both to enjoy the success of his business and to perpetuate it. A couple of Scruff events in London and Paris later, including some superstar DJs and a whole lot of new friends, and the team are back to New York to continue building the company and developing the app.
One of those newer developments is the BenevolAds programme, giving away free advertising space for non-profit organisations that benefit the gay community; including AIDS charities and sports teams. In the UK alone they have more than a dozen organisations running BenevolAds and have delivered more than almost 300m impressions.
“It’s our way of giving back,” Skandros explains. “Most of our revenue comes from subscription fees but we do make money from ads too. So this is our way of saying to the global gay community, ‘let’s just give away space for organisations trying to do good’.”
When you’ve met Skandros and spent some time in the mindset of the Scruff community, this philanthropic gesture comes as no surprise. Scruff is a prime example of three friends coming together to build a business that is financially successful, scaleable and a genuine community service.
After five years the team is still pounding the pavements (admittedly now in different countries) and meeting as many users as possible. In terms of living your brand and putting your heart and soul into your company, that is an example any entrepreneur would do well to follow.
Further reading: The social network connecting youth to business