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Tinder CEO Sean Rad, recalling brief demotion, tells grads getting fired turned out great

Tinder CEO Sean Rad, recalling brief demotion, tells grads getting fired turned out great
Tinder Chief Executive Sean Rad, left, stands with USC Marshall School of Business Dean James G. Ellis. (William Vasta / USC)

When a board member asked Tinder Chief Executive Sean Rad to go on a stroll to talk business in late 2014, the leader of the fast-growing dating app had no idea he'd be taking a walk of shame back.

Tinder's board had decided to dump him and bring in a veteran leader as CEO, he told USC Marshall School of Business students Friday during a commencement address. At the time, Rad had recently settled a sexual harassment lawsuit and was known for making eccentric comments — issues that the board feared might stifle Tinder's progress in connecting with investors and advertisers.

Now, Rad had a decision of his own to make, he recalled: accept a demotion or move on to something else.

"How do you get removed from a company you helped start, especially one doing so well. I was so confused," he told the graduating students. "I felt humiliated, like I wanted to leave and never look back. How could I face the team every day if I felt like such a failure."

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He ultimately stayed at the West Hollywood company, a unit of publicly traded dating giant Match Group. Rad described wanting to be attached to a sense of purpose.

"I would give that title up in a second if it meant I could continue building at Tinder," he said. "I would even mop the floors — well I probably wouldn't, but you get what I'm trying to say."

As Rad tells it, the choice was one of his best ever.

"Not being a leader anymore is exactly what taught me to lead," he said. "Being a leader doesn't mean being an expert with all the answers ... or mean you need to be perfect. It means you're able to chart a course ... and arriving in concert with a team to a destination."

Rad said he felt relieved of having to devise solutions on the fly for everything. Instead, he could research with his teammates to find the answers methodically. He listed famous groupings, noting it wasn't just Steve Jobs behind Apple, but also Steve Wozniak.

"I felt I got my creative energy back," he said.

Tinder Chief Executive Sean Rad, left, with two of the company's board members, Greg Blatt and Sam Yagan.
Tinder Chief Executive Sean Rad, left, with two of the company's board members, Greg Blatt and Sam Yagan.

The lessons came in handy because five months later another board member showed up at Tinder, requesting a walking meeting with Rad. The news? Rad was back in as CEO after his replacement, former EBay executive Christopher Payne, mutually agreed with board members that he wasn't a good cultural fit.

Tinder produces more than 26 million matches a day between pairs who like each other's profiles. It generates millions of dollars in revenue both through advertising and from 1 million users who pay for extra features.

Like last year's USC Marshall commencement speaker — Stanford dropout and Snapchat Inc. Chief Executive Evan Spiegel — Rad never graduated from college. He dropped out of Marshall about a decade ago to pursue a failed tech start-up. Years later, USC served as major incubator for spreading Tinder worldwide.

Rad urged students to place passion and relationships above titles and money. But he may have left them with another lesson too: "When a board member wants to take an impromptu walk, it might be best to run in the opposite direction."

Twitter: @peard33

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