When it comes to the sea of dating services, there are plenty of fish. From Match to OKCupid to eHarmony to Coffee Meets Bagel to Tinder and more, there is certainly no shortage of tools with which people can find companionship. After being single for what seemingly was eons, I personally can attest to eHarmony’s effectiveness; I found my partner there in early 2014, and we’re approaching our 7-year anniversary late next month.
The New York-based Hiki is taking a decidedly different approach to online dating than answering a questionnaire, building a profile, and swiping right. The company bills the app as a “friendship and dating app for the Autistic community.” The app is unique not only in the fact that it serves an underrepresented community, it also is not strictly a conduit to find romance. Hiki can be used to find love, but its raison d’être is really about connecting a community. What’s more, Hiki’s focus on neurodiverse people brings a level of diversity and inclusivity to the meeting people market that heretofore was woefully non-existent.
“Hiki is a friendship and dating app for Autistic adults,” said Jamil Karriem, Hiki’s founder and CEO, in a recent interview. “It is a safe space where neurodiversity is celebrated and the lived experiences of Autistic adults are honored and validated.”
Hiki’s name is derived from the Hawaiian word for “able.” The impetus for the app came when one of Karriem’s cousins confided in him that he was feeling lonely and worried about not being able to find love nor start a family. This is not uncommon—some 8 in 10 Autistic adults report feeling lonesome. Moreover, the CDC reports people on the autism spectrum have limited opportunities for social activity, estimating almost 40% “spend little or no time with friends.” After hearing his cousin’s concerns, Karriem felt compelled to lend support in whatever way he could.
That way would eventually birth Hiki.
People with autism “[don’t] need neurotypical saviors,” Karriem told me. “My job and my responsibility is to be an advocate and an ally—which means amplifying actual Autistic voices and building a neurodiverse team that is reflective of our community.”
Hiki is venture-backed, and Karriem told me it was challenging in the beginning to get investors to literally buy into helping Autistic people combat isolation. He said investors typically are averse to doing deals around products whose communities they don’t immediately understand; Hiki’s focus on a neurodivergent group of people was one such product. Thus, Karriem said raising capital for Hiki had a distinct educational component to it. “If you keep knocking down doors, if you’re lucky, you’ll find the right investors and advisors who you want to build a business with,” he said.
As a male, cis-gendered founder of a tech startup, Karriem told me he absolutely is cognizant of the immense societal privilege he enjoys. “I [recognize] that as challenging as it was for me [to get backing for Hiki], I still carry a tremendous amount of privilege as a neurotypical cis-gendered, heterosexual man,” he said.
Karriem is “deeply grateful” for his investors, and encourages those at venture-capital firms to “think about products that serve communities they may not innately empathize with.” He further stressed the importance of this, saying it makes not only good moral sense—serving marginalized and underrepresented communities is a good thing to do as human beings—it also makes good fiscal sense as well. The reality is people with disabilities are a huge, if mostly untapped, addressable market. To prioritize accessibility means one’s product casts a wider net to nab a broader swath of people. To reiterate Karriem’s point regarding Hiki’s disability-first mindset, making stuff accessible to disabled people isn’t merely the right thing to do; accessibility benefits the business as well, because more people equals more users. When seeking additional rounds of funding, investors like seeing an uptick in users from founders.
It turns out, Apple CEO Tim Cook’s famous quip about the company investing in good accessibility practices—that the tech giant does it not for “the bloody ROI”—cuts both ways. A company, whether titanic like Apple or tiny like Hiki, should make their product(s) as accessible as possible because it’s morally right. By the same token, however, it surely is not lost on Cook (or Karriem) that accessible products are better, well-rounded products that will have a definitive effect on the return on investment. Hiki could’ve been yet another run-of-the-mill dating app that aligns with its competitors, but it isn’t. Hiki stands out in an admittedly crowded space because its differentiating characteristic—the catering to autism—is not simply novel, it’s needed. Karriem has created a place for neurodivergency to, as he said, be “celebrated.”
Beyond the audience it addresses, Hiki is incredibly unique internally in terms of engineering. The vast majority of employees, over 70% according to Karriem, are Autistic. The app’s design was handled by an Autistic woman, and development involved more than 50 Autistic adults. It is a quintessential example of “dogfooding”—the popular Silicon Valley colloquialism for using and testing a company’s own technologies on themselves before unleashing them onto the world as official features.
Karriem said Hiki was built with an “incredibly grassroots, community-based approach to product design.” Designers would mock up prototypes of screens, send them out to the community, then revise according to the feedback garnered externally. Karriem keenly emphasized every aspect of the app’s UI, from fonts and colors to buttons and layout, were built with the Autistic community first and foremost in mind.
Speaking of feedback, Karriem said it has been “overwhelmingly positive” to date, but was reticent to take the lion’s share of the credit for Hiki’s good graces. He instead pointed to some pieces of feedback from users. One was given by a person named Christian, who’s 26 from California. They said: “[Using] Hiki is the first time in my life that I felt like I didn’t have to mask. I could be myself, free of any neurotypical or societal expectations of how to communicate and how to act. It was liberating.”
Still, Karriem earnestly said the work on Hiki has “only scratched the surface” and that loneliness and equitable access to technology “deserves our attention.” The desire to feel belonging, love, and community are part of what it means to be human and worthy of being enriched by technology, he added. “Your neurological makeup shouldn’t adversely affect your ability to lead a fulfilling life,” Karriem said.
As for Hiki’s long-term prospects, Karriem said the overarching goal is to “continually listen” to users as the product is iterated on in a pursuit to “build the most remarkable neurodivergent social ecosystem the world has ever seen.” Karriem and his team are striving to do whatever is necessary to achieve what he calls “solving loneliness.”
He added: “My long-term aspirations are for the model we are creating to no longer be unique to Hiki. We are creating the framework for a space that celebrates and honors neurodiversity, from our internal leadership to the community we are serving.”
The Hiki app is available for download on iOS and Android.