“The most inspiring person you’ve ever met could be sitting under this ad,” read the signs plastering the walls of New York’s subway cars this winter. An oversized finger pointed downward—straight at said inspiring commuters. “Say hello now…or later on Shapr.” (Considering how much of a faux pas it is to chat up strangers on the train, of course you’ll say hi later, on Shapr.)
The brainchild of Ludovic Huraux, a French entrepreneur best known for building a popular French dating site, Attractive World, Shapr is an app that helps you meet new professional connections. It launched in 2014 as a thinly-disguised version of LinkedIn, allowing users to add second-tier contacts—friends of friends—to their business circles. “It was a complete failure,” says Huraux.
So he went back to the drawing board and came up with an idea that modeled his first success: the dating app. Every day Shapr pairs each of its users with 15 new connections, selected via algorithm through matching interests or career success. Like Tinder, its users swipe right or left to signal the matches they’re interested in meeting. Since it quietly re-launched in the fall of 2016, Shapr has grown to a network of 600,000, with 2,500 swipe-happy professionals joining each day, according to the company.
Shapr is just the latest startup promising that the tools popularized by dating apps are the key to expanding your Rolodex without leaving the office. For example, the dating app Bumble has been developing its own swipe-based business networking app, BumbleBizz, which debuts in early October. (It aims to allow women to network, more pointedly, with contacts that might be otherwise difficult to interact with. It also helps to avoid the harassment that some women experience on sites like LinkedIn by allowing women to control the messaging.)
Though it’s too early to suggest that either app will get it right, they can both tell us a lot about how and why we get to know each other—and what kind of introductions spin relationships into professional gold. Because there is nothing as valuable as meeting the right person at exactly the right time. Dating apps work because we are desperate for success in our romantic lives—and just one good match can lead to a lifetime of happiness. But professional apps can work the same way. What if you were a coder who met Mark Zuckerberg in 2005? Or a writer who met a rising star editor just before she took over Vanity Fair? Careers have been built on these precipitous connections. Maybe technology should be able to strip the luck, sport, and bias for extroversion out of networking and make it more efficient.
Yet there’s a venerable graveyard of businesses that have tried (and failed) over the last decade to make it easier to forge professional connections online. In the interim, a few things have happened to make the climate for a netoworking app a little more promising. The first is the rise of dating apps, which have permeated the culture to such an extent that it now feels normal to meet and even sleep with someone introduced by app.
The other factor is that work is changing. Job-hopping millennials change employers frequently, sometimes swapping full-time employment for an ever-rotating mix of freelance and contract work. Pair that with the old adage that most jobs—or at least the best jobs—come from word of mouth rather than advertised postings, and, well, you do the math. To succeed today requires a constantly expanding network, one that LinkedIn, the reigning giant of professional networking with a reputation as a vault of resumes, has struggled to facilitate. (To add someone you don’t know as a contact on LinkedIn requires scrolling past coworkers, colleagues, and classmates to click on the semi-sketchy “I don’t know this person” description.)
For the right founder, that leaves an opportunity. But to sell people on social networks for professional networking, first you need to sell them on professional networking. Which, as it turns out, is a little more difficult than selling them on sex.
When Tinder launched in 2012, its main innovation was a motion: The swipe. The finger flick mirrored the unconscious motivations that cause people to hit on one another in bars. It was casual and instinctive, sort of like dating. It worked. It’s harder to imagine the interaction that could create the digital experience of networking. What action mimics the feeling of standing, sweaty and panicked, next to a half-eaten cheese plate? Is that something we really want to replicate?
Yet as Tinder has matured as a dating site over the last few years, the company has tried to expand into other forms of networking in an effort to spur growth. In 2015 it partnered with Forbes to create a networking app for recipients of the magazine’s 30 under 30 award. The next year it acquired Humin , a startup that organizes your contacts according to relationship—a sign, some predicted, that the company was thinking about brokering relationships of the non-romantic variety.
Once the Humin team joined Tinder, it explored applying the swipe to acquiring friends and business associates. But according to Ankur Jain, Humin’s co-founder, the research wasn’t promising. With dating, users are open to meeting different types of people—there’s less concern about common contacts, or socioeconomic status, or job history, as long as the person is attractive. But for professional networking, the bar was a little higher. “You don’t typically walk up to people on the street and say, ‘Hey, tell me about your job. Do you want to do business together?’” says Jain.
And, as anyone who has ever been hounded by recruiters and PR pitches on LinkedIn can attest, a large chunk of the people who network want something. They are looking for a job, or good coverage for their startup, or an introduction to an investor. Given the opportunity, everyone will hound the prosperous CEO; no one wants to talk to the struggling founder. But it’s hard to get the kind of contacts that wield real power to join a networking site. Jain always thought of Humin as a tool to strengthen relationships you already have—an easier task, he says, than forging new ones. Ultimately, Humin’s team decided the task wasn’t worth pursuing, and Tinder didn’t expand to professional networking.
“My favorite quote—this is one of the things I said to the team—is a Jeff Bezos line: ‘Everyone is wondering what’s going to change over the next five years,’” says Jain. “What they don’t ask me is what’s not going to change. And that’s human behavior.”
Shapr’s leaders would be the first to point out that for their app to succeed, they need to change human behavior. “People had to be trained to use a dating app,” says Mandy Menaker, head of PR for Shapr. “10 years ago, people were like, ‘Wow, you’re on JDate.’ It’s the same thing for us.”
The way Huraux sees it, stopping at 15 swipes is key to forcing people to come back daily. “The limit creates a habit,” he tells me. “And that’s what we want to do with Shapr: Make networking a habit.”
On dating apps, most of the decisions to swipe right are determined by pictures—so adapting the action for networking takes translation. Though BumbleBizz works almost exactly like the Bumble dating app, Alex Williamson, Bumble’s head of brand, said that each landing page has some details about the person’s career, and clicking through takes a user to extended professional information and career highlights.
Shapr adapted its algorithm to include interests (both personal and professional) as added by a user, and career level as determined by a combination of human moderators and a machine learning algorithm. (I asked Huraux to tell me what ranking my Shapr profile had earned; he declined, saying, “It’s changing all the time.”) A separate program draws information about the user from the web, and uses it to further narrow their matches. “You didn’t tell us that you liked tennis, but we see on your Facebook or Twitter you are tweeting a lot about tennis or the US Open—this will be added to your profile,” Huraux says.
It’s easy to see how that might excite someone like Huraux, who loves networking. No, really, he loves networking. His CEO schedule is busy, but he tries to meet at least two or three new contacts each week. “I don’t like to read books,” he tells me, “so the best [way for me to] learn is to meet new people in different industries. It’s a very, very good way to understand people.” Though many networking groups, such as Meetup, have succeeded by siloing users by interest, Huraux believes deeply that connecting with people outside of your normal interest groups is the key to professional success. Therefore, Shapr wants to be for both the entrepreneur looking for investors and the lonely freelancer looking for community; the intern looking for a leg up and the curious middle-manager looking for professional serendipity.
After all, any contact could be the one that changes the trajectory of your career. At least, Shapr needs you to believe that for it to succeed.