By Peggy Chapman
Northwest Asian Weekly
“When was the last time you experienced joy?”
“What’s a great book to give as a gift?”
“What’s a thing that everyone you know adores, but you just don’t get it?”
These are some of the questions of the day if you are a subscriber to Siren, a dating app that was awarded App of the Year by GeekWire in 2015.
Siren was the brainchild of Susie Lee, the Chief Executive Officer, and was co-founded and developed with Katrina Hess, who serves as the Chief Operations Officer. Siren was most recently awarded as entrepreneur-in-residence at the INC program at the New Museum in New York.
Siren established itself as an alternative to the meat-market feel of traditional dating sites and “swipe-if-you-like-or-dislike” apps by introducing a novel approach. The app provides an option to blur your picture, so a connection can be initiated by response to questions and evolving discussion versus assessing a photo and fill-in-the-blank answers.
“What got me interested in Susie’s idea was that it was a social experiment based on creating a safer online space for women,” Hess stated.
Lee recalled observing a New Year’s Eve that many singles can probably relate to — trying to find a date for the evening. And if not that, frantically trying to find someone to share the New Year’s Eve kiss. It reminded her of the best-pick-answer method that most dating sites emulate with the check-off-the-box formula (Match or OkCupid) or yay-or-nay swiping (Tinder).
“It seems you have to prove why you are worthy of dating,” Lee said. She felt that the existing sites emulated the sense of loneliness she remembers from the New Year’s Eve evening.
Lee wondered how that sort of “shopping for humans” formula could be avoided and addressed utilizing her background as a digital artist. How do people really interact and meet, in natural situations when every day does not reflect New Year’s Eve?
Hence, her concept for Siren.
Lee’s analogy is a conversation at the dinner table: Questions are asked and answered.
Formal conversation and questions transgress into informal conversation and questions, and when things go well, a deeper conversation and interest evolves, which takes time. On Siren, there are no profiles to review — just an online conversation, propelled by the conversation starter (the question of the day) and the option to “connect” with someone if you are intrigued by the answers.
Siren follows the model of an online community, but also with the specificity that it is a forum for dating and trying to meet new people (vs. trading information on a “Help” or “How-to” topic). The focus is on evolution versus immediate resolution — working toward an answer versus getting the answer and backtracking. Lee and Hess did a test run of the app with friends and Lee said it was surprisingly popular, enough so that word spread beyond friends, and it evolved by gaining more subscribers.
Lee, whose parents emigrated from Korea and was raised in North Dakota, was originally on the track to becoming a doctor. She attended Yale and Columbia and earned degrees in molecular biophysics, biochemistry, and science education.
Things didn’t quite work out as expected. Even after all the investment in the degrees, Lee decided what she really wanted was to work with art. (Her younger sister, who was given the nudge to delve into whatever field she desired, ended up being the doctor.) Although art was not financially rewarding, Lee was lauded in other ways. She was awarded the Stranger Genius Award in 2010 for her video portraits.
Now, as CEO and co-founder of Siren, she is combining art and merging it with another field that is a new attempt for her — business and commerce. Lee and Hess’s work is unique in that it incorporates artistic and organic notions of how humans naturally interact, but it also involves all the factors that revolve around creating a successful app — technology, development, and commerce. Can art embrace business? Apparently the New Museum thinks it should be explored, based on Siren’s appointment as entrepreneur-in-residence. Siren has not earned profit for Lee and Hess yet, but as a startup, this is expected. Lee hopes the time with the New Museum will give her the opportunity to introduce Siren to New York and a wider market (currently, Seattle has the most subscribers). It will also help when Siren will be featured on the PBS television show “Start Up” airing later this fall.
“We joke about being startup spouses because our partnership requires making hard decisions and immense trust,” said Hess.
Hess is focused on Siren’s development and design, and handles working out the technical and design glitches. She emigrated from the Philippines when she was 5, moved throughout the United States and Canada 21 times by the time she was 17, and currently lives in Seattle, which she considers home for now. She designed a line of outerwear for bicyclists (Bespoke) in Seattle, and one of her jackets was gifted to Lee, which is how they met.
Has Siren had issues when it comes to being run by women, both Asian Americans? Most negativity was from Silicon Valley, said Lee, where there was resistance to the concept of having the upper hand when choosing to connect with someone on the site. As for being Asian American, Hess said there are some delicate dynamics, especially in regards to being Filipina. “I recently had a conversation with an expert in the Asian market who advised that Susie should be the one to talk to investors in Asia. She does most of our pitches anyway, but that definitely wasn’t the reason for the advice.”
Hess and Lee are currently working on Siren seven days a week, through the glitches and the triumphs.
“Our whole model is about showcasing people’s personalities,” Hess explained. “During an early beta group, we had a user that just rubbed me the wrong way with their responses to our daily questions. I asked Susie who this person was and she said, ‘You don’t recognize that person?! You actually don’t like them in real life.’ We laughed and high-fived since it proved that the model does in fact give you a sense of whether you would get along with someone.”
So do Lee and Hess use Siren? Lee pointed out that because of working full-time on the app, and being an integral part of the app’s development, there is a certain distance that is necessary and required.
“Ben and Jerry probably don’t eat ice cream all the time.”
Peggy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.