As I stood in line for coffee on Saturday, five minutes into my first date with someone new, I suddenly had a sinking feeling. Rooting around in my purse, I realized I'd broken the most important rule of first dates: I had forgotten my wallet.
But while being unable to afford even a latte might usually be a death knell for a relationship, luckily for me, I wasn't on a traditional date. Instead of meeting a potential romantic partner, I was meeting a potential platonic lady friend. Who I had found on an app.
Yes, you read that right – there truly is an app for everything these days, including one for women meeting other women. The app, Hey! Vina, launched in January, but only reached Houston in late May. Though Hey! Vina is now available in more than 500 cities worldwide, Houston is one of its top 10 most active cities, said Hey! Vina co-founder Olivia Poole, with large numbers of Houston women using the app frequently.
If you've ever used Tinder, you know how to work Hey! Vina: Swipe left on profiles to “skip,” and right to say “hey.” Profiles include your Facebook profile photo – as the app syncs with your Facebook account – age, job, alma mater and a short bio. You can also answer questions about your guilty pleasures and what you like most about yourself, and describe yourself in five emojis. Plus, you can connect the app to your Instagram and show off your latest snaps.
Chats also start off with a standardized message from co-founder Poole, urging you not to over-think and to start making plans to hang out immediately.
“I think the most important advice that we can give is honestly not to make a big to-do about your first meeting,” Poole said, explaining that users often wait for the other person to make a first move. “Just throw something out there, just something really low-key, just so you can meet up and get to know each other.”
After moving to San Francisco seven years ago, Poole realized just how difficult it was to make new friends as an adult woman. She tried to find friends online, using dating sites like OkCupid, but few people were looking for platonic buddies. Even when she made what she thought were innocent compliments – like, “You have really nice eyebrows” – people interpreted her words as flirting. There was simply no space where she could look for purely platonic relationships, she said.
Poole knew then that she could create that space. What she hadn't anticipated was just how many other women would want to be in it. Within two weeks of launching, Hey! Vina was flooded with more than 100,000 users, according to Fast Company.
“A lot of things were broken right away,” Poole admitted, because the app's technology simply wasn't built to handle so many users yet. “The biggest surprise to us was...how global this need was and how kind of thirsty we all were for a solution to this really big problem. That was something that Jen [Aprahamian, Hey! Vina's other co-founder] and I could never have imagined, that we'd take off so quickly and have such enormous levels of interest.”
The tech industry is also interested. Earlier this month, Hey! Vina raised more than $1 million in funding. Competitors have also sprung up: In March, the dating app Bumble launched a “BFF” mode. Now, Bumble users can toggle between looking for dates and looking for friends. (Men, if you're feeling left out, there's a friend app for you too. Its name is Wolfpack, but as of June 2015, it had only about 8,000 users, who mostly lived in L.A., according to Vice.)
So why are so many Houston women so interested in the app? Cities with universities – and Houston has several – tend to have more Hey! Vina users, Poole said. Women might arrive as new students, graduate or want to stay in the area post-college, but they need friends for each new phase of their life.
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I actually used Hey! Vina soon after its launch, while living in New York. At the time, the app was sometimes slow or quit unexpectedly. Now, the experience is much smoother (though it still lags occasionally). But what I found in New York still holds true here in Houston: The app only helps women take the first step. It's up to users, or “vinas” as Poole called them, to actually put in the work to stay friends.
After grabbing brunch with one woman I met on the app, we promised to stay in touch. But now, our friendship consists primarily of liking each other's Instagram photos. We're not even Facebook friends.
Poole knows that friendship can often fall by the wayside. “After age 25, you lose more friends than you gain every year. And so I really hope that Hey! Vina can change that,” she said, citing a study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. She added, “As women, your friends are not just friends; they become like your sisters.”
Well, my Saturday friend date didn't end with us feeling exactly like sisters. Yet despite my wallet fail, we ended up having a fantastic time. My friend graciously bought me a latte, and we talked for more than an hour about everything from working as food servers, to getting revenge on evil roommates, to managing our anxiety issues. And, best of all, we made plans to meet up again.