Over the past decade it has seemed like the number of “social apps” aimed at the LGBT community—in particular the gay community—has increased exponentially: Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, Hornet, Adam4Adam’s Radar, etc. The list is so very long, and has been further expanded as apps traditionally associated with straight dating, like Tinder, have expanded to include same-sex “dating.”
Some might roll their eyes at calling these social apps, demanding that such apps are “just for hookups” or that, at best, one might find a short term fling there at best. And one doesn’t need to interview dozens to find that many people have been turned off, or at least burned, by these apps and the way they are used. That doesn’t mean that they’re swearing off, mind you… A person has to have an outlet, you know.
At least one of these apps, however, has tried to put the social back into their app, both in terms of building a community of sorts and in terms of social responsibility. Industry leader Scruff, and founders Johnny Skandros and Eric Silverberg, have made this a top priority for their company, which has grown from a niche-filling social app to boasting a loyal base that includes not only its original target, bears and otters, but also users from across the gender-sexuality spectrum.
Skandros and Silverberg, who travel the country and the world spreading the word about their app and talking to their customers, are making their first joint visit to Nashville representing their brand.
Scruff of course has made its presence felt in Nashville before, of course—notably when it sponsored the Bingham Cup held here in 2016—but the duo came bearing gifts of swag and beer for Scruff’s most loyal July 23 at Tribe.
In advance of the visit, the two sat down with O&AN to talk about their company, and its mission. When they entered the market, “There weren’t a lot of apps at the time,” said Skandros. “We felt there was a niche market that needed to be served… We started with the bear community, and then just grew as people started hearing about it. As the years went on we got a lot more diverse, but it really did hit a niche in the beginning.”
Key to growth was getting the word out about the new app. “Whether I was out there in shirts, on social media, on the app talking—24/7 my goal was to make sure people knew what Scruff was,” Skandros added. “As the company grew we started to be more strategic about how we marketed, and how we reach our members, but at the beginning it was pounding pavement, for me especially.”
As the target audience expanded and diversified, the company has tried not only to keep up with changing attitudes but also to be on the leading edge of that change. A number of features that have been added or adapted over the years reflect that strategy, which is driven not only by consumer drive but also social consciousness.
“From the beginning,” Skandros explained, “we had trans members, and one especially, a guy named Heath reached out and said, ‘I am trans and you are the first app where I’ve been able to find a friendly face, where people in the community accept me for who I am.’ So that really prompted us to think about adding as many categories as we could to connect people… We were the first app to add a transgender option, and military as well… Even drag we added recently. So it’s listening to our readers and hearing what they need.”
“When it comes to HIV status,” Silverberg said, “we thought long and hard about it because it’s such a sensitive and important subject, and we spent quite a while talking to and listening to our members to try and figure out the best way to let our HIV-positive members feel accepted, included, and welcomed… We added a poz community a couple of years ago. I know in the past other apps have done it differently, but we felt by adding a community it was something our members could affirmatively join, we could bring people together to share more about themselves and connect with other poz members without feeling excluded.”
“We are also proud,” Silverberg added, “to be one of the first apps to allow you to include your safer sex practices in your profile and to help create awareness of the newer options in safer sex practices. I’ve heard anecdotally that the growth of PrEP in different metro areas is correlated with the increased visibility of PrEP, including on apps like Scruff.”
Scruff’s founders take its social responsibility seriously, promoting inclusion as they mentioned but also giving back to the community. A few years ago, for instance, the company started offering “benevolads”—free advertising options for non-profits and community service organizations through Scruff’s platform to its local users.
“It really enables us to say yes to and work with any [qualified] LGBT organization here and around the world,” Silverberg said. “We thought deeply about how Scruff could do the most good with what we had, and that’s why we really invested a lot of engineering time to build in the features that allow organizations to interact directly with our readers. Another option would have been for Scruff to become itself an advocacy or lobbying group, but we really felt that there are so many extraordinarily talented and dedicated LGBT non-profits around the world that we really wanted to empower them and help them do more with our app.”
Another tack the company has taken to increased social responsibility has been through its gay travel advisories initiative. “That really was about keeping our members safer when they travel. We were the first, and I think still only, app that will alert you to local laws and the state of LGBT acceptance in more than 90 countries around the world. So when you land in a country that has a travel advisory, you’ll get an in-app update summarizing the laws and inviting you to click a link providing more information.”
Scruff draws its data for this from information in the public domain compiled by International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). “We took this report that they publish regularly, adapted it for the mobile web, and published it and put it in the public domain. This allows anyone—any app—to include gay travel advisories,” Silverberg explained. “We view this as a public good, something we wanted to do to make sure that people are informed and stay safe as they travel around the world.”
What is the drive behind Scruff’s commitment to serving the good of the community? “We have this platform,” Skandros said, “and we feel a responsibility, like Eric said, to keep our members safe, to keep our members informed, in the best way we can… How can we do a lot of good on a global scale. Part of our mission is connecting members nearby with the global gay community, so we’re doing that… We are always thinking of how we can do good here with what we have, beyond dating and beyond hooking up—how can we give back? It took Eric and the engineering team a year of hard work and we hope other companies follow suit… Why wouldn’t you? This is something that could save lives…”
“One interesting thing we did,” Skandros added, veering toward another example, “was sponsor the first Pride event in New Delhi. Scruff worked with organizers—it was basically a flash mob, if you watch the video people are wearing Scruff shirts and dancing, showing Pride in what I believe was the first large Pride celebration in India. Connecting with the community globally, that’s our mission…”
As Skandros, Silverberg and others travel around, they meet many members, and see the impact the company has had. Skandros said one of his favorite things about these occasions to meet users is meeting “Scruff couples,” people who met on the app. Skandros laughed recalling having been asked to get licensed to marry some of those couples. One couple, the two shared, sent photos of their Scruff-themed wedding.
So Scruff is a business, but it’s more than just business for the founders and their team. It’s people, it’s community, and it’s a way of life. Skandros, who’s made himself the face of Scruff since the company’s inception, jokes, “After eight years, my closet is nothing but Scruff shirts. My friends make fun of me, but Scruff is my identity. It’s a company and brand that I’m proud of, and I want to show that and connect with members… I really am proud of what we’ve become.”