Hinge CEO on overcoming addiction and building a multimillion-dollar dating app

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where ,CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

Justin McLeod, co-founder and CEO of Hinge originally created the dating app "to solve my own problem."

"I originally started [Hinge] for me," McLeod, 37, tells CNBC Make It.

In 2011, McLeod was attending Harvard Business School. He had recently committed to stop drinking after struggling with addiction for years, and he was having difficulty moving on from his college girlfriend.

While trying to stay sober and struggling with heartbreak, he decided to create a solution. "I was heartbroken, and then I had this idea," he says.

McLeod created Hinge to be a dating app geared toward young people like him. But after launch, it wasn't working; users weren't finding lasting relationships.

Still, "I was confident that it was going to become a thing," he says.

Since McLeod was actively using the app himself, he saw its issues firsthand and decided to pivot.

McLeod and his team completely rebooted the company in 2015 and again in 2016 ⁠– by 2015, Hinge had raised $26.35 million, according to PitchBook, and to fund these shifts, Hinge burned through most of its funds, McLeod says. Rather than focusing on growth, engagement and users' time on the app, Hinge started to prioritize getting users on dates, according to McLeod. For example, the company created Hinge Labs to help users navigate their relationships beyond their initial match, he says.

"We started over from scratch. We let go of half the company and we tried to build a new app," he says.

The change improved business, McLeod says. That year, Hinge had an estimated valuation of $75.5 million, according to PitchBook, after raising $17.5 million in a Series A seed round led by Shasta Ventures.

Hinge didn't help McLeod find his soulmate — he ultimately married the college girlfriend he was heartbroken over after they reconnected. But the app is now reportedly used by millions. (Hinge declined to reveal its number of daily or monthly active users.)

In its growth, Hinge caught the eye of Match Group, which owns some of the biggest dating apps including Tinder. In 2019, Match Group announced that it fully acquired Hinge for an undisclosed amount.

"I think a lot of times, success is born out of just a tremendous amount of failure," McLeod says. "I've experienced that in my personal life, and I was able to bring that to Hinge."

Here, McLeod shares his experience overcoming addiction and failure, how that shaped his leadership and more.

On overcoming addiction: 'I learned the practice of discipline'

I stopped drinking at the very end of college because I had pretty significant drug and alcohol addiction problems. So I quit the day that I graduated college.

I was not good at staying sober in the beginning. I went to a lot of 12-step programs and meetings and all that stuff, and I was always kind of in and out.

When I really got scared and really started to get serious about it, I learned the practice of discipline, of doing things that you don't feel like doing. It taught me so much about basic human skills. I was not very disciplined person. I was not a very goal-oriented person. I think it just really taught me how to see what went wrong last time and what can I do differently this time.

For me as a leader, I would say that [overcoming addiction] shaped such a huge piece of my personality, going through the recovery process and becoming a believer in continuous improvement. I think that continuous improvement is really built into Hinge ⁠– not just into the product but very much into the culture.

On handling failure: 'It was so depressing'

We experienced so much failure in 2012 that we rebooted the company twice in 2015 and 2016.

Hinge was just not living up to [expectations] ⁠– it wasn't effective and people hadn't been able to find their partner.

I realized that our culture was not very strong, that our product was not doing what I originally envisioned. It was so depressing.

I remember I went out to lunch with my chief brand officer at the time, and I was just like, 'I wish I could just tear this whole thing down and start over from scratch.' And she looked at me and she was like, 'What's stopping you? Why don't you?' And I realized there's nothing stopping me.

It's a really scary thing, but I think sometimes, you just have to look and admit what's not working and be willing to change, even if that means taking a pretty bold leap into the unfamiliar. You have your initial spark of inspiration that you think is going to be such a great idea, and then there's the messy middle, and then hopefully, you come out the other side ⁠– I'm still waiting for that moment.

We had to really work fast to pivot pieces of the app. Around that time, honestly my darkest time, we were running out of money. We raised a huge amount of money and then we sort of burned through all of it going through this reboot. But I knew I was starting to see some signs of life.

We were not the leading dating app for very long time, but we really built that muscle, getting stronger and stronger with each failure, and learning until we became a very strong company with very strong culture.

On his routine: 'I usually wake up with a lot on my mind'

I've got a pretty standard routine that I do most days.

I wake up naturally on my own between 6 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., depending on the day.

I make myself a little chai latte in my blender and then I journal for a bit. I usually wake up with a lot on my mind, so I'll sit and journal to burn off steam or ideas or emotions or whatever is going on that morning.

Then I usually work out for a little bit. I just put a little rowing machine in the basement. I [also] stretch out, do a little bit of yoga and 20 minutes of meditation.

On staying motivated: 'The pandemic has really been a struggle'

As someone who gets motivated by a team, the relationships, building culture and coaching people, the pandemic has really been a struggle for me as a leader.

Despite everything my team has really pulled together, it's still hard to really feel like I have my finger on the pulse of the company. I can't walk around and talk to people, and cross paths with people that I wouldn't normally be in a meeting with.

It's just been a struggle for me, and so, I'm really looking to the light at the end of the tunnel this year. Hopefully we are back together in person again soon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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