When Ana Kirova first heard the idea that she should become chief executive of Feeld, the dating app, she was “terrified.”
It was 2021, and Ms. Kirova had been working at the company for five years. The suggestion came from Dimo Trifonov, the app’s founder, and Ms. Kirova’s romantic partner. Ms. Kirova had a strong hand in Feeld’s transformation from a niche app to something closer to mainstream. Still, she wondered if it would be smarter to hire someone from the outside.
Over dinner at Seamore’s, a restaurant in Brooklyn, Ms. Kirova, 31, speculated that her hesitation to accept the job was rooted in insecurities that might be tied to her gender. “The more I thought about it, the more it felt like if I were a guy, I would just take it and try,” she said.
She decided to accept the role. “There’s no such thing as a good C.E.O. that is just born that way, that falls out of the sky.”
Feeld, which started as a dating app for couples and singles called 3nder in 2014, has, under Ms. Kirova’s leadership, positioned itself as a go-to for nonmonogamous, sex-positive and kinky people of all sexual orientations.
It’s also acquired a reputation as a space that fosters directness, something of a rarity in the dating-app world.
Amanda Miller, a professor of sociology at University of Indianapolis, said Feeld markets itself as a place to “find your human(s).” “That’s kind of a signal to the user of what types of folks they’re attracting and what types of folks wouldn’t be interested in joining,” Dr. Miller said.
Half of Feeld’s users in the United States identify as something other than heterosexual, according to the company. There are at least 20 other classification options on Feeld, including GrayA, for those who rarely experience sexual attraction, and objectumsexual, for those who have sexual or romantic feelings toward inanimate objects. Choice also abounds when it comes to gender (nonbinary and genderfluid are among the 18 options) and desires (texting, threesomes, watching, foreplay, friendships, bondage and 20 more).
Today, the company, which had about a dozen or fewer employees for many years, has nearly 100, with about one-third of those hired this year.
Since receiving half a million dollars from an angel investor in 2016, Feeld says that it has remained profitable without any additional external support. Since 2015, it has offered subscription memberships that come with various benefits, like the ability to know when someone was last seen on Feeld and to filter other users by their desires. (Memberships are sold at different price points, depending on length — for example, 30 days costs $24.99.) Recently, Feeld has also made the leap to IRL, hosting 31 in-person socials worldwide this year, with about 200 attendees at each.
Feeld would not share how many active users it has or how many times the app has been downloaded. It has about 60,000 reviews in Apple’s app store, while Bumble, founded the same year as Feeld, has 1.4 million, Hinge has 763,000 and Grindr has 295,000. From 2021 to 2022, average weekly active users on Feeld grew by 90 percent, and the app is on track for 65 percent growth in weekly active users this year, according to the company.
For years, dating app companies prioritized user growth, but more recently, the industry has shifted its focus to monetization, according to a report from Morgan Stanley.
In that regard, Feeld is doing “exceedingly well,” said Lexi Sydow, head of insights at data.ai, a mobile data and analytics provider. Ms. Sydow said the amount consumers spent on subscriptions and one-off purchases to Feeld grew by 107 percent between the first three quarters of 2022 and 2023.
And the app may have a certain baked-in advantage to keeping users subscribing. “Feeld is not necessarily about finding someone to marry,” Ms. Sydow said. “It’s not like Hinge, which is ‘designed to be deleted,’” as that company put it in an advertising campaign. “This bodes well for monetization.”
Still, Ms. Sydow emphasized that Feeld is a small player in the market compared with behemoths like Bumble, Tinder, Grindr and Hinge — data.ai estimates that Feeld’s share of global spending on dating apps is about 1 percent.
An Eye-Opening Move
Though Ms. Kirova is not an official founder of Feeld, she has been involved in the app from the beginning, when she inspired its formation.
Ms. Kirova, who now lives in Portugal, was born in Bulgaria, shortly after the collapse of the country’s Communist regime. After high school, Ms. Kirova entered a graphic design program at the University of Greenwich in London. There, at age 21, she met Mr. Trifonov, a fellow Bulgarian, who was then a 23-year-old 3-D motion designer.
Soon after she and Mr. Trifonov began dating, Ms. Kirova fell for a woman. She assumed that would be the death knell for her budding relationship. Instead, Mr. Trifonov told her he wanted her to have the freedom to explore. The experience inspired him to build an app called 3nder (pronounced “Thrinder”) where couples and singles could date.
“It was received with a lot of judgment and ridicule,” Ms. Kirova said. GQ compared it to a “24/7 swingers party” and VentureBeat gave “5 reasons your threesome will be way better if you don’t use this stupid app.” But the press coverage attracted users.
After a legal threat from Tinder in 2016, the app renamed itself Feeld. Around the same time, Ms. Kirova joined the company under the title of Zen Master, leading operations, and was later promoted to head of product.
Around 2017, a researcher at the company observed that many users said they had joined Feeld for a specific reason — to go on a date with a couple — but that as time went on, it became clear that they wanted to engage in a deeper form of self-exploration — for example, to find out what it felt like to date someone of the same sex.
The observation was a revelation for Ms. Kirova. She and Mr. Trifonov began to think about intentionally scaling up and out. Feeld started several major new features: Paired profiles for couples to date together, new gender identity options, and the ability to peruse profiles without making an immediate decision.
That last one stands in contrast to Tinder’s and Bumble’s famous swiping mechanism — left if the person the app offers is a “no,” right if they’re a “yes.” Though this may seem like a minor difference in functionality, Ms. Kirova said it reflected a broader philosophy.
“A lot of apps have a yes or no because then you teach whatever algorithm that fuels this with a lot more certainty,” Ms. Kirova said. “But it’s a false certainty, because what I like right now … it’s like, ask me again in two days.”
She and Mr. Trifonov continue to be romantically involved. Ms. Kirova said that working together was not as complicated as it might sound, and Mr. Trifonov, now the chairman, has stepped away from day-to-day operations. “It can be stressful, but I’ve never known anything else,” Ms. Kirova said. “I’ve never been in such a long partnership with someone who isn’t also my business partner.”
In Search of Directness
Even Feeld’s users who aren’t seeking something unusual say they are drawn in by the clarity that is encouraged on the app.
Adara Bryan, 36, of Weehawken, N.J., joined Feeld in June strictly for monogamous, non-kinky dating — the kind of thing you could get on any other app, in theory. Though she is “pretty vanilla,” she said she has found that the communication around desires, needs and boundaries on Feeld is “far better than on any other app I’ve ever experienced.”
She added that most conversations start with questions about people’s reasons for being on Feeld. “On other apps, it’s coded,” she said. “On Feeld, it’s pretty clear what people are looking for.”
Sometimes that directness can cross the line into aggression or fetishization.
Leia Slosberg, 31, a technology project manager who downloaded Feeld in January, said that though she has generally found Feeld to be a safe space for self-exploration, she has dealt with a number of men who, she said, “think they’re entitled to have sex with you by virtue of connecting with you.”
Kana Higuchi, 26, a New Yorker who has used Feeld since 2020, said that though her experiences with Feeld have helped her “awaken a part of my sexuality,” she has noticed what for her is a red flag: that some people’s profiles specify an interest in young Asian women. “People will ask me, ‘What’s your ethnicity?’” she said. “I say I’m Japanese, and immediately, they’re like, ‘That’s so exotic’ or ‘That’s so hot.’”
“I guess because it’s a kink- and fetish-friendly app, there are people who are more likely to be forward about an identity-based fetish or kink, and that can feel wrong to me,” Ms. Higuchi said.
Users also complain that the chat functions in the app are buggy, sending duplicate messages, taking a long time to load or delaying message delivery. Feeld said it was aware of the issues users have had with the technology and that it was working to remedy them.
And some of the features meant to encourage transparency aren’t universally beloved: Ann Nguyen, 28, who has used the app since it was called 3nder, said she disliked the app’s read receipt feature. “I’ve had people who unmatched with me because I looked at their messages and didn’t reply immediately,” she said. “I don’t like the increased sense of urgency.”
And then, of course, there’s the problem universal to dating apps.
“I can expect to get ghosted over 50 percent of the time no matter what I do,” said Ben Bar, 34, a data manager who has been using Feeld for about two and a half years. “It’s the cost of doing business.”