All entrepreneurs have faced obstacles in their life, but nothing will ever compare to the crazy journey of a gay entrepreneur. Try coming out of the closet at 12-years-old in South Jersey to start. Add surviving in Manhattan, finishing college, and starting a business and you already know you need to be one hell of an entrepreneur to come out of it alive. Well Justin Maxx, founder of Mench’d, came out of it looking fabulous, and he’s only getting started.
Last week in New York, Justin launched Mench’d, the first gay dating app of its kind for men focusing on finding long-term relationships as opposed to one-night stands. Inspired by the idea of reducing the stress of online dating, Mench’d offers users unique features you can’t find on any other gay dating app. By finding matches not just by looks but personal compatibility and the option to make a 30 second video profile, gay online dating has never been more meaningful and honest while still looking sleek and stylish.
Mench’d has so far only spread by word of mouth. Forget about outside investors, Justin Maxx is singing “My Way” by Frank Sinatra right now. Launching within eight months on funding out of his own pocket, Justin shared with us the intimate details of building Mench’d. His story also gives us a glimpse of the emerging generation of gay entrepreneurs, a topic not widely discussed but so unique that we could all learn from it. Does being gay help you as an entrepreneur? Absolutely. Is the gay community supportive of our generation’s trend in entrepreneurship? You’d be surprised.
We had the great pleasure of chatting with Justin over the phone where he shared some really interesting points on how he built Mench’d by himself in eight months, being a “fierce and fabulous” gay entrepreneur, and what it’s like balancing school and a business, all while trying to make his mark for a better world.
What is Mench’d? Tell us about breaking into the gay dating market.
“So Mench’d is men matched with men and it’s the first app to ever be focused around gay men finding long term relationships which is a lot different from the other apps that are on the market. There are tons and tons of apps on the market that are based off hookups which is very common in gay culture and my community. So since there were so many of them, there has been a growing market with marriage equality and I think our community is kind of now understanding that times are changing and sex doesn’t always have to be the very first thing that people bond over. It can be relationships and similarities and how compatible you are with someone’s personality before you just jump into bed with them. Mench’d doesn’t necessarily say don’t go and have sex or anything like that, it’s just saying, hey, before you go sleep with them, why don’t you go and grab coffee or why don’t you go grab dinner, or something like that. So we kind of definitely push on and off blind dating which is a huge thing, and we just launched in Manhattan on Friday so it’s a pretty new business.”
What are your thoughts on Grindr? How does it affect gay dating culture?
“I think that Grindr is perfect for what it does. Grindr is an amazing app for hookups and if that’s what gay men want then that’s perfect for them. My whole thing with Grindr is that sometimes when you base a relationship just purely off sex, down the road you are going to turn to your significant other and be like, ”You know what, sex is great, but who are you? What do you like, what are your likes, what are your dislikes?,” and I think that’s something that Grindr doesn’t push and it makes people forget that just having anonymous sex, hooking up with ten guys in a week, is totally okay. So for me, I’m all about spreading the love and wanting people to find the romance and to find the love of their life. I think a lot of people, a lot of gay men, don’t get to find the loves of their life because some people aren’t okay to go and just have hookups. I think that newer generations of gay men are now understanding that it’s okay to go and have a boyfriend in high school, and that wasn’t the case before. Prior, it was like hiding in clubs, like a haven, and when you get involved, it’s just dancing. So I think that’s what Grindr stands for, it’s just hookups and encounters and they do a very good job at that. Do I think they are ruining the gay community? No. I think they enhanced what the gay community stood for at the time that Grindr was created and I think that they’re attempting to change now along with the time.”
Let’s talk about launching Mench’d. How did it all start?
“So [when] Mench’d started, I was at a little cafe in the East Village and I just got out of a breakup and I started going on all these dating sites for straight people. I went on OkCupid, Match.com, even Dating-Genie, then I tried the gay sites like Grindr just to see what it was like, and I really couldn’t find anything. There really wasn’t people out there like minded as myself and so I decided to create my own. It all started on a napkin in a cafe in the East Village and I just started writing questions down that I would ask on my next date. Then I thought I wanted to share these questions with everyone and that’s kind of how it started. I wanted to build an app that wasn’t just based on men that were next door to you, I wanted you to see men that not only were near you but also connected with you on certain levels. That’s what Mench’d does. Mench’d is the only app for gay men that sorts the users by compatibility. When you go on the app, not only are the guys in proximity to you, but it chooses the guys who connect the most with you, so its really important on Mench’d to pick the right picture, answer all the questions, and fill out your entire profile to get the best results.”
“We just launched a new feature- we’re the first app to do a video profile. Every profile gets 30 seconds of video time and that allows the users to interact with each other in a way to see their smile, get to know their personality, and hear their voice. These are things in dating you normally wouldn’t do if you didn’t have your camera phone ready to upload. I think these are really cool enhancements. Are you familiar with an MTV show that’s all about how people kind of hide their appearances on dating websites and it turns out that you were talking to a totally different person than you thought you were? This is one of those ways for that not to happen and I think that we try our best to make sure each user gets every piece of information they can ask for to make the dating experience that much easier and less stressful because lets be honest, dating is totally stressful. I think in the gay community this type of long term relationship dating is kind of, not rare, but there hasn’t been a perfected technique and that’s what Mench’d is trying to do, it’s trying to help everyone out there to find love in a really efficient way.”
How did you put your startup together? Tell us about the Mench’d team.
“So I wrote the business plan myself and I was starting to shop around for different investors and I got a couple parties that were interested but at the end of the day, I had to really choose. Is it worth it to give the equity away to people who believed in the business but don’t necessarily have the time to put in to it? So for me, I was looking for a partner who could really dedicate the time and at the moment I knew that I had to really rush the process with Mench’d because I knew that this was an idea that probably wasn’t going to stay current for long and others were going to jump on board. There are tons of dating websites for gay men and they’re kind of dated, so that’s why I’m the first on a mobile platform. So at the end of the day I decided to stick with 100% equity, I used my own money that I raised from my savings, and started the venture. I started with two Columbia students, they were my first two developers, and I did all the graphic work and they did the coding and once they graduated they moved on to amazing positions and I wish them luck. I hired a development team out of Princeton, New Jersey and [now] I do 100% of the marketing, 100% of the graphics, all the user acquisition and outreach, and I do have a team that helps with coding.”
So you totally bootstrapped Mench’d? How difficult was that?
“Right, 100% me. It definitely been a journey. My background is in fashion marketing so when the idea came to me I kind of just ran with it. The idea of having an educated partner that knew the tech industry and knew dating and the LGBT market was definitely something in the back of my mind, but luckily I’ve had a lot of support from fellow entrepreneurs and I’ve been able to stand on my own at the moment and ride it out. I’m definitely going to let you guys know, you are the first, that I’m talking to a bunch of big people that are interested in Mench’d currently. Since the launch on Friday we’ve had a very quick growth and there are a lot of people that would like to jump on board and that’s very exciting for a young entrepreneur. I own my own production company which Mench’d is a brand under and it’s just really cool to create something and to see it have so much success so quickly. It really is a dream come true so I’m really excited to see where Mench’d goes and how it impacts everyone.”
Congratulations, that’s amazing! What about the gay community? Any support there?
“So from the gay community, if I’m going to be honest, I haven’t had as much support as I wanted especially when it comes to PR and press. Everyone’s been very selective and it’s definitely a sin, I wished that the press, gay media, and young gay entrepreneurs would be a little more supportive of my venture and that wasn’t the case. I really had to hustle and throw myself into vulnerable situations to really show that this is me, I’m not a huge corporation trying to push this, and it’s small. I’m literally living in a Manhattan studio trying to build this dream and I think that when it comes down to gay entrepreneurs, from friends that are stylists to friends that work in technology, they have been very supportive in giving me as much detail, tricks and tips that I needed to get Mench’d rolling in the right direction. The older gay community is definitely more excited about it than the younger generation. I think the younger generation, once they find out about it, they are really going to love it. But currently it’s all been word of mouth and my [age] demographic is 28-42. I think that once I get it out there and more press is coming my way, more people are going to jump on board. The user interface is really luxurious, it’s really fresh, and it’s easy to use. I really want to make sure that when people are on it, they feel like they are using a quality service, a quality product, and when someone’s using something that feels like it has quality, they think they are going to get someone that’s quality out of it. So the next boyfriend is going to have quality, he’s going to be a great guy, and that’s the kind of brand perception a lot of people are having. It definitely hasn’t been the easiest thing being on my own and doing this. A lot of people who have similar businesses to me have changed from 10 to 40 people handling marketing and user outreach, and it’s been a totally crazy experience. I’m still in school, so I haven’t graduated college yet and I’m doing this all at the same time. Its definitely been a journey for sure.
Where do you go to school?
“I’m at LIM college in fashion marketing; it’s awesome, I graduate in May with a Bachelors in Business Administration. The school has definitely been supportive in helping me get ready, helping me with the business plan, to make sure that when the time comes that not only will we be successful but that we’ll actually make a profit and we’ll be able to help grow the business so we can help more people. Currently we’re just with the Apple App Store, but we hope to get to the Android and the Google markets by Valentine’s Day.”
Do you look up to any gay role models in business?
“I do have a couple of gay businessmen I look up to, one of them being David Geffen. David is a great guy and I learned about his story and career early on. I remember hearing this story about how he wanted to work with WMA, which is a talent agency out in California, and they wouldn’t hire him. So he began his career in the mail room and one day he totally went in to someone’s office and this guy asked for help and he’s like, “Should I say I’m the mailman or should I say I can do what he’s asking for?,” and the next thing you know he does the task and he did such a great job, he got the position and his career took off. But if he didn’t take that chance and just showed that employer that he can do the task that was given to him, he wouldn’t have been in the position he is in now being one of the wealthiest men in the world and one of the wealthiest gay men that has ever lived. I think that’s a really cool story of just taking that chance, believing in yourself, and taking risks. When you are an entrepreneur, taking risks is something you see on a daily basis and I think it’s just really important to know that you just have to believe in yourself, so for someone like David who’s just been so successful with Dreamworks SKG, Geffen Records and all his philanthropy work, it’s just something I look up to. I’ve always wanted to be a face for the gay community, for the younger generation.”
“Somebody else who I really admire in the industry is Simon Doonan, he’s a pretty awesome guy. I read his book a while back in 2010 called “Gay Men Don’t Get Fat,” and it was a really funny title and I picked it up because I knew his husband at the time who was this amazing designer and I was like, okay, I need to read this stuff. So, the whole idea and premise of the book is to take your chance and different life experiences and how gay people are driven by being fierce and fabulous. It’s one of those things that really gives you tips for everyday life and how you can be a brilliant person in whatever industry you are in, but at the same time you can look good and feel good mentally, not just physically. I think that was really cool, and since then I’ve met Simon and being one of the creative directors of Barney’s, to be someone that’s so creative and creates such great works of art, it’s truly a great inspiration…”
Have you faced any obstacles in business because you are gay?
“I think being gay, I’ve had obstacles all my life that I’ve had to overcome and I think being an entrepreneur has given me a little bit – more actually – self-confidence in business settings. Do I think that I get judged and do I think people don’t necessarily hear my ideas because they are focusing on my sexual orientation? I do. Truly, I think that times are changing, times of ignorance will slowly dissipate, and these obstacles are nothing that I can’t overcome.”
What is the greatest lesson that you’ve learned in building Mench’d?
“I know this is probably what everyone would say to this question, but I truly believe this because I don’t think I’d be where I am – living in New York, going to school, supporting myself, starting a business – if I didn’t go with my gut. I think that everyone in their lives has had at least one person tell them no or try to steer them in the wrong direction and I think it’s really important to not let others truly change their decisions or mind-sets in any way. So for me, I’d have to say it has to just be trusting myself and loving myself. That’s probably one of the main lessons I learned, it’s just to believe, and I think that when you have that and you put out that positive energy, anything can really happen. I think that I’m kind of a great example of that, just not really giving up and sticking to what I believe in to try to make something happen. I made Mench’d in less than eight months and I did it all on my own and its kind of insane that here I am talking to someone like you on an entrepreneur blog when literally eight months ago I was just a marketing student in New York. It might not be a big deal to other people but this is me making my mark on the world. I think that Mench’d is international and it’s really helped me so much to be a better person and a better entrepreneur in the business world.”
So what do you have in store next? What is the future of Mench’d?
“Yeah, so like I said, my background is in Fashion Marketing and I have been asked… I can’t really give away details, but I can definitely tell you that you’ll be seeing me in some media projects really soon and I’ve been involved in some really great television projects that will be airing shortly. So besides that, I’m definitely going to expand Mench’d, I’m going to take this concept that I’ve proven with gay men and take it to the lesbian market, take it to the straight market, and really expand this world of online dating. They say its going to be a $6.4 billion dollar industry and so I hope to have a huge hand in that market, in that $6.4, and I think that just with this short success with Mench’d, I’m going to keep it going, I will not stop, and I’m going to try to expand to other markets.”