“The next big social app has to be based on memes”

Published on
July 19th, 2021
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Vidya Madhavan is building Schmooze, a meme-based dating app. Another dating app? That’s what she thought too. As it turns out Gen Zers are exchanging 500-800 memes per day.
Schmooze, a meme-based dating app, launched on Product Hunt in May but has been building buzz among college students for the past year, earning the startup coverage from TechCrunch and HypeBeast. The app first launched in beta to 200 Standford students and has grown to over 11,000 users across the U.S. — largely meme-loving Gen Zers.
It would be simple to say that the meet-cute of Vidya Madhavan and her husband sparked the idea for Schmooze and end the story. Doing so, Madhavan pointed out, would be a disservice to the thought, tech, and maker process that has gone into the product so far.

The evolution of Schmooze

Although meeting your partner online is very common these days, it’s safe to say that how Madhavan and her husband met was unique. She was interested in applying to business school and was looking for advice, so she sent out cold emails to ten people. Her now-husband, Raghav Iyengar, was the only one to respond. Over the next couple of days, the two exchanged somewhere in the range of 200 emails, heavy on humor and meme-based playfulness. As they continued their long-distance relationship, humor remained a key ingredient.

As an entrepreneurial-minded maker, a dating app was an obvious idea that had crossed Madhavan’s mind after the experience. Too obvious.

“It was a very, very strong lingering thought, but I didn't do anything about it for a logical reason. I don't want to be the 11th or the 12th dating app in the country.”

She continued fiddling and pursuing other ideas that had (hypothetically) more opportunity. What remained clear to her was that the next big social app would be based in memes. She even wrote her thesis on it.

Not knowing exactly what to do, she went down a traditional route. They interviewed 300 people and collected data on their pain points. From there, they took what can be described as an Instagram-approach. I.e. When Kevin Systrom and team were working on early Instagram, the first iterations had tons of features baked in. As it turned out, most people were only interested in filters, so the team pared back and doubled down.

Madhavan built a sort of super app with multiple functions, supported by memes and AI-powered photo tools. Then, they tested all the features to see what would stick. The answer was clear. Users were asking “Can you connect us with each other based on the memes we like?”

Madhavan remained resistant, uninterested in competing for slot 12 in the world of dating apps. Before entering her second year at Stanford, she stepped back to process her thoughts. Data, her original inkling, and user feedback pointed to the same thing — “let’s just push this out.”

Within weeks, Madhavan could see the feature taking off. Although it had initially been presented as a friendship-making app, talking to users revealed that they were using it romantically. It also revealed a new opportunity. A new dating app might fall to spot 13 on the Apple Store list for dating, but what if it was number 1 for Gen Z?

“It became very clear. For this generation, Tinder is considered a hookup product. Bumble and Hinge are more serious. Where is the dating product for our generation?” she told me. “It’s very surprising because our MVP wasn’t an MVP.”

Learning as you go

Schmooze is Vidya Madhavan’s fifth project. Her first also sounds exciting and ambitious — the first Cameo of India. Although the company eventually shut, Vidya counts it as her first entrepreneurial adventure.

“I've since dabbled with a bunch of things, just waiting to see what gets me excited enough,” she said. And so passed a few projects, an engineering degree, a two-year stint at McKinsey, a growth position at a Sequoia-backed startup, and a LinkedIn meme exchange.

Madhavan could have been discouraged after her first venture, but she’s maintained her curiosity with fiddling and has recognized, book by book, that some of the world’s most beloved entrepreneurs saw their share of failure before success.

“Steve Jobs, Evan Speigel – their most successful companies were not their first. Steve Jobs sold electrical circuits before he made Macs, and people never talk about it. I feel I was kind of readying myself [with this knowledge] until I felt the time was right.”

Madhavan shared one of the biggest learnings she’s taken with her from her first companies. It’s a standard one, but important for other makers who feel lost: Always be data-driven when working on both product and marketing.

“It’s very easy to just get carried away and say ‘I think this will work’ or ‘I just want this to be an element of the product. ”

Experimentation is key.

“You can spend $500 bucks on advertising, but is that too much or too little? How can you really define that? What’s worked for me is to take 10 different approaches to build things. Startups are all about being the first, especially consumer startups. If you’re the first person to do it, be very clear about five things that you want to try out and very clear about how you’re measuring the outcomes. Then, once you know the outcomes, be completely detached and double down on the ones that are working for you.”

A mathematical approach to memes

As fun as meme dating sounds, Schmooze is part built on AI-driven algorithms and part monitored by a team of “meme officers.”

“Every meme is something that can be broken down into components and mathematical-like terms. The meme officers bring in the details: What type of humor is this — dark? Fun? Then there are the topics. The meme officers and the algorithm work together to power our recommendation engine,” Madhavan explained.

She told me that breaking down memes into their components is something other platforms like Instagram have not cared to do, but her cofounder, Abhinav, has won awards for his work in this space. The Schmooze team says applying this compartmentalization and AI to develop meme-based social media is groundbreaking in itself.

The team has found investors who agree — Schmooze recently closed a deal for $270,000 in seed funding from Ulu Ventures.

Currently, Schmooze is working to make the app edgier, and I am personally excited to see what that means. Hundreds of users now are exchanging 500-800 memes.

“People come for the dates and stay for the memes. I often joke that economics will be measured in the number of smiles per hour. You’re either vibing and smiling with your match. Or you’re waiting and vibing with the memes. One thing we don’t want to move away from is this.”

Keep going

Madhavan’s joyful and honest approach makes it easy to root for Schmooze. At Stanford, she’s had the opportunity to hear directly from voices in big tech. She uses their failure as much as their success to keep her going.

“I feel like we have over-glorified some product journeys. Many people in the industry are retrospectively rationalizing, and so you read it and think “what am I doing?” But when most of these products were built, they had no clue what they what they were solving for. In reality, great entrepreneurs just have a strong intuition and back it up with their grit to move mountains and make the world really adopt their vision for the future.”

So she coined her own phrase recently that keeps her inspired through the stumbles: Failure gives up if you fail to give up.
Comments (8)
Andrew Power
A change agent for not-for-profits.
That's quite a long-winded leadup to 9gag
Joel Hansen
LOI Venture | Kernal | Marketing Advisor
I agree with this take
Alex Rudenko
Here to boost your Influencer Marketing
Wow, that makes me feel better A lot of girls on Tinder rejected my messages after few memes
Zuzanna Filipiak
Graphic Designer, Photographer
Im laughing a lot b ut that makes so much sense
McCarthy Owie
I help craft stories with design