Yes, Michael Belkin has launched a “gay” app. But no, he wants to make clear, it’s not for cruising.
Last week, Belkin re-opened the public beta of Distinc.tt and announced it had become the only gay app approved in the iTunes store for ages 12 and up. Belkin also disclosed that he’s landed funding from PayPal Mafia dons Peter Thiel and Keith Rabois – two of Silicon Valley’s top startup investors, who also happen to be gay.
And next month, San Francisco-based Distinc.tt will officially launch with a Gay Food Initiative that will including the creation of the first LGBT sandwich and a “gayest dessert” contest. “We wanted to have some fun with the launch, given everything that’s happened with marriage equality and so forth,” Belkin, a quiet 27-year-old, told me.
Growing up in Palo Alto during the dot-com bubble, “I always was really passionate about technology,” he said. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, Belkin learned to code at Harvard Business School, with an eye toward developing an app that would fill a gap in the offerings for gay consumers.
“There’s a lot of very specific information to the gay community, and a lot of that information is hidden,” he said. “When you’re in a new city you’re always trying to say, ‘Is there a gym that’s the friendly gym where there aren’t homophobic people?”
And while venerable gay-travel guides and websites like Damron and Spartacus would seem to have a lot of that ground covered, Belkin said Distinc.tt also offers a real-time social experience, combining geo-location, group chat and a proprietary algorithm for ranking a place’s “hotness” based on who’s there and who’s going. An “interest groups” feature on the app also lets users find others near them who, for instance, enjoy running.
Add it up, and Belkin said his is the gay app you can bring home to mother. “We’re not trying to be the hookup app,” he told me. “There are other products out there that are more efficient at that.”
After he graduated from Harvard last year, Belkin and his co-founder enrolled in Stanford’s “StartX” incubator program. They launched the first version of the app, which to Belkin’s surprise ended up snaring more than 100,000 users. But he took it down in June to rework the experience. Going dark for six months seems like a surefire way to turn off your customers, but Belkin said he’s confident that the new app’s bells and whistles will woo them back.
His seven-person company is going after a thriving market: Belkin points to a study from marketing firm CMI that the gay community boasts $800 billion in disposable income in the US alone. And Distinc.tt’s users don’t just hail from “gay friendly” cities, based on data from the early version of the app. “The Castro and Manhattan were almost a popular as neighborhoods in the middle of nowhere,” Belkin said.
He sees Distinc.tt as a “lifestyle brand” that can help big businesses reach gay consumers through sponsorships, corporate partnerships and ticket sales to hot events, restaurants or vacation spots. And one other thing to note: “I’d love for it to be really clear that straight people are welcome,” Belkin said. “We want the app to have something for everyone.”