In December 2011, Johnny Skandros, aka ''Johnny Scruff,'' turned 30, a threshold that consumes some gay men.
''I was working on Scruff,'' says the co-founder of the popular mobile-phone application. ''I've just been kind of going nonstop. It didn't even dawn on me I'd turned 30.''
One motivation for creating Scruff, says Skandros, was to find a boyfriend for himself. With the devotion he put into the app, one might say he's married to Scruff.
It's also his baby.
(Photo by Todd Franson)
For the uninitiated, Scruff is an app that gay men around the world use to spot each other. Maybe it's for a hook-up, maybe for dates, maybe for a sense of community. Using GPS technology, Scruff will tell a user who is in his immediate vicinity, sometimes registering a reading so close the babysitter may indeed think the call is coming from inside the house. In Scruff's case, however, it's not a phone call, but a ''woof.''
But while that ''woof'' may be coming from inside the house, it may also be coming from the other side of the planet. Look at a grid featuring the neighbors, or take a peek at the world. Why take a gander at the guys 200 feet away when you can look 7,000 miles? It's all there in the palm of one's hand.
Like any man with a family – even if Scruff is but a virtual husband and child – Skandros has had to work hard to support that family.
''It's ads and subscriptions together, that's how we were able to survive and hire staff and move to New York and have an office and really keep Scruff going,'' Skandros says of monetizing his app, which is available at no cost, or with subscription rates for enhanced features. ''It's not an easy business. It's really expensive to run. I think a lot of people don't realize that. Talent and engineers are very expensive to hire. Servers are very expensive to run. Thankfully, people are subscribing. That's what's keeping us going very strong. We recently become a top-grossing app in the App Store, which is awesome. It says a lot.''
But all work and no play is not the Scruff image. And Skandros, more than anyone else, is the image of the Scruff brand. So, sometimes play is the work. Speaking from New York, Johnny Skandros explains how all the pieces fit together.
METRO WEEKLY: I just caught some photos of you in L.A. for the July 20 Bear City 2 premiere. How was that?
JOHNNY SKANDROS: The premiere was a lot of fun. That theater, the Ford Amphitheatre in L.A., is just a really impressive space. It's outdoors, a really beautiful theater. It was jam-packed, all kinds of people.
To see Scruff, the product, on the screen, was the most fun for me. I couldn't care less about my cameo.
MW: What was your role?
SKANDROS: I have a small, little role where I walk in with this guy who is my current husband – maybe a minute or two of screen time. It's not a featured role. It's just a small, little part, which is fun. The main thing is having Scruff the app throughout the film, which is really cool.
MW: That's great product placement. But what do you mean by ''husband''?
SKANDROS: Movie husband.
MW: You haven't gotten married?
SKANDROS: No, no, no. Oh, my gosh. I'm so single.
MW: You were also just at Lazy Bear Weekend in Northern California. From the outside, your life looks like some kind of crazy party.
SKANDROS: Crazy party?
(Photo by Todd Franson)
MW: How close it that to the reality?
SKANDROS: Okay, well, so it's partly the truth. Here's the thing with me: I want to be an open book. I run my Facebook page and I post everything. I post pictures of me out partying. I post pictures of me out drunk with people, doing silly things, wearing crazy outfits, going to movie premieres, going to Scruff parties, going to Bear Week.
The last thing I want to be is some boring guy in a suit and tie. Not that there's anything wrong with suits and ties. I've had to wear many of them before. But that's not who I want to be right now. I'm out there at bear events, gay events, meeting people, getting drunk, having fun, being silly. That's how I want people to see me. Part of running a gay social network is finding time to go out there and have fun. That's what I feature mostly on my Facebook page, so that's what people see. But it isn't 100 percent of what I do.
MW: People probably wouldn't be interested in pictures of you scanning Excel spreadsheets.
SKANDROS: Right? [Laughs.] But there is a lot of that. I go to our office and I update the books. We have all kinds of not-fun things we have to do in running a business. That is a lot of it. During the week, we go to our office here in New York. The partying and going out is definitely not all the time. But it does look like that.
MW: Being the face of Scruff, I guess that's building your brand, looking like you're having fun. Maybe it really is fun.
SKANDROS: It is. Honestly, it can be really draining. Four days, nonstop, going out, socializing – and you're drinking – then going again. It does get exhausting. But, look, I've got no complaints. I've got an amazing job and I feel so lucky to have that. I put the effort in to go out.
MW: Are you from New York originally?
SKANDROS: No. I was born in Las Vegas, Nev. Born and raised. Single-family household, with my mom. She raised me.
MW: Did you grow up with siblings, or was this just kind of you and your mom against the world?
SKANDROS: Pretty much me and my mom against the world. I do have half-siblings, some who I know, but I wasn't raised with them.
MW: What kind of kid were you? Geeky? Hot shit?
SKANDROS: In high school? I was totally the geeky kid. Honor student. Definitely, homework came first. I graduated high school with a 4.4 GPA. When I hit my junior year, though, I kind of started to open up. I came out to some of my friends with I was 15. When I did, it actually helped me and I started making more friends, surprisingly.
MW: Did you go to the sort of school that had a Gay-Straight Alliance, or was coming out pretty scary?
SKANDROS: I was severely bullied throughout junior high and up to ninth grade. I didn't really have any friends through junior high and probably ninth grade. But it was these girls who had just moved from New York to Las Vegas who really took me under their wing. Being from New York, these girls were very social, very open, very popular right away. And they just kind of took to me.
MW: When you were bullied, were kids calling you ''fag,'' or was it just because you were geeky?
SKANDROS: Both. It was pretty bad, for sure. All the names you could think of.
MW: Did you have any adults who could help, or did you just sort of have to suck it up?
SKANDROS: I had to deal with it myself. What helped me come out was AOL. I was able to go on America Online, go into these chat rooms, and just talk to people. And that really just helped me understand who I was and be comfortable with who I was, just by talking to other gay men. That helped me come out to my friends. I just kind of opened up after that, after I came out.
MW: Did that push you toward technology? Did you know what career you wanted?
SKANDROS: In high school, I knew I wanted to study business. I wanted to have my own company one day, but I didn't know what that would be.
I started at [the University of Southern California] and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I started taking some film classes. I knew that USC film school was one of the top in the country and I really fell in love with it, the whole medium. I took a class on gay and lesbian film. That inspired me to move forward with studying film, because I saw things in that class about gay lives, gay people, that I'd just never seen before. I was like, ''Oh, my God, this is awesome. This is what I want to do. I want to reach people – gay people, specifically.'' I took more film classes and applied and got in the film school.
After USC, I worked in Santa Monica for a year as an assistant film editor. Then I moved to New York and kind of stayed in the editing world and worked my way up. I worked as a film editor in New York, worked my up in advertising. I was eventually able to work on some Super Bowl spots. I found a pretty steady job at an advertising agency called Digitas. I worked as a senior editor for that agency for a few years.
MW: You were pretty comfortable?
SKANDROS: Yeah, it was a comfortable Park Avenue job. I was editing pretty cool content.
MW: Not sharing a Brooklyn studio apartment with five people?
SKANDROS: No, no, no. But I definitely went through the editing ranks in New York. This was a nice, comfy editing job. I was also working on Scruff while I was there.
MW: Why? What niche were you trying to fill? What did you need to offer?
SKANDROS: It was a community I knew existed. It was a community I saw emerging here in New York. I didn't realize how global it was. I just kind of felt the name ''Scruff'' would appeal to a lot of different guys and kind of help build this community that I envisioned. And it did.
I think Scruff is a great name. We've built an amazing brand and a lot of guys identify with it. The name really helped it take off. It could get really big, it could fail – I just had a gut feeling about it.
Eric Silverberg is my business partner. He writes all the code and manages the servers. We started this together. He's behind the scenes, though. The name, the idea around Scruff, was something I pitched to him and he was all for it.
We met many, many years ago – probably eight years ago – through mutual friends, and stayed in touch. We hit is off as friends. I really admired and respected him. He was at Google at the time. A really smart guy. He had moved to New York after business schools. He was here, I was here….
MW: And you said, ''I've got this idea, can you write up some code?''
SKANDROS: No. He wanted to do some sort of app, but he didn't know what. He started dabbling with code. That evolved into Scruff.
MW: When did Scruff launch?
SKANDROS: July 2010.
MW: When did you realize you were on to something?
SKANDROS: I think it was after the first week.
MW: That long?
SKANDROS: [Laughs.] There were just thousands and thousands of downloads. When we saw how many people were downloading it in the first week, Eric and I just kind of knew, ''Okay, we're on to something here.'' But we also wanted to build a business and make it a sustainable one. That's a whole other feat, and not an easy one.
So, I lived at home for a year. I left New York and went home to work on Scruff. In the beginning, we weren't making any money. Any money we did make went into keeping our servers running, not into ourselves. So I moved home with Mom, and Eric moved home with his mom. I had to explain to her why I was leaving my entire life in New York that I worked so hard for. She was really supportive. Now she thinks it's really cool. She knows what bears are, she knows what apps are. She knows everything.
MW: Scruff is the company that moms built?
SKANDROS: Yeah. [Laughs.] We wouldn't have been able to do this [otherwise]. Scruff launched in July 2010, and I was at my full-time job. I left that job in October and moved home. I was home from October 2010 to January 2012.
MW: Wow. Welcome back to New York.
SKANDROS: Thanks! [Laughs.]
MW: How do you run Scruff? What does it look like behind the curtain?
SKANDROS: Eric writes the code and manages the servers. There's Jason, who's been with us pretty much from the beginning. He does a lot of the product-management side – his specific title is product manager and founding partner. Then we have Joey, who does customer support. He lives in Orlando. And there's Mark, an engineer we hired, who just moved here from San Francisco. That's our staff. We have weekly meetings.
MW: With lots of Skype action?
SKANDROS: It's all Skype. Lots of Skype action.
I feel like we have the best team in the world. We all bring different skills to the table. They're really, really smart guys. And we're able to go out and have fun together. We're all gay. It's pretty awesome that we have such a close team. I feel really lucky. Scruff is not because of me. It's not because of Eric. It's because of all of us. It really is. The Scruff you see today is the hard work of several people. I feel very lucky to have these people in my life. We're really close, a wonderful, smart team of hardworking people.
You made me cry! [Laughs.] I'm having a moment.
SKANDROS: I think that's what it is. We're not 100 percent bear. And we're not Grindr, which is everybody.
I think Scruff was more bear in the beginning, and then broadened itself. I think just because of its popularity, it was inevitable.
MW: Is there a typical Scruff guy? If so, can you define it?
SKANDROS: It's an attitude. There is a certain look and feel when you log on Scruff. You see more Scruffy guys, guys with facial hair. We do tend to get that guys on Scruff are more friendly. But I don't want to say there is one kind of guy who is Scruff. They are diverse.
MW: Looking at that animal lexicon, do you self-identify? Otter, maybe? Do you use any of that?
SKANDROS: No, I don't. [Laughs.] Not that there's anything wrong with labels. Labels can be really healthy. There's a whole debate around labels. But, if someone can identify as an otter and feel good about that, wonderful.
MW: You're on a big fitness regimen now, aren't you?
SKANDROS: Yeah. It's been hard with the summer events.
MW: What's your motivation?
SKANDROS: Well, I need to stay healthy. Traveling is really tough. It's tiring. Running a business is tiring. If I'm not in shape and not eating right – for me, at least – I'm not going to be 100 percent myself. I've been working out for many, many years. I know how to do it right, but it takes a lot of discipline and a very strict diet.
MW: What's your diet?
SKANDROS: It was five meals throughout the day. A lot of protein, a lot of vegetables.
MW: When was the last time you had french fries?
SKANDROS: When I was at the airport the other day? [Laughs.] That's the thing – traveling can really mess things up. You're at the airport, there are all those fast-food joints. It's so easy – so easy – to ruin a diet. I admit I have, but it's fine.
MW: I'm getting the impression you're not a very uptight guy.
SKANDROS: Well, good. [Laughs.] I try to be relaxed. Things can get stressful, of course.
MW: What do you do when things get stressful? Do you start screaming at people?
SKANDROS: My God, no! [Laughs.] I get very quiet. If I'm out and I meet people and I seem really quiet, some people might observe me as an asshole. I've had to deal with that. When I go out, I really try to be animated and bring the party and smile and laugh. That's hard to do when you're stressed out or you're having a bad day. The times I've had a bad day, I tend to be quieter and people are like, ''Who are you? You're quiet. You're mean. You should be jumping up and down and doing shots and screaming and dancing!'' And it's like, ugh, I can't do that 24/7.
MW: As the face of Scruff, you have this celebrity. You're being assessed all the time. How do you handle it?
SKANDROS: I get it all. Haters are going to hate. I try to see the good that comes out of it, read the positive messages that people send me. The good feedback far outweighs any negative feedback. But I deal with all of it. That's what I signed up for. I'm fine with it. When I go out to an event and I meet a couple that has met on Scruff, that makes my day. That far outweighs anyone who comes up to me and automatically assumes I'm an asshole. Or someone I may have spoken to for five minutes, and they're angry that I didn't speak to them for 10 minutes. I get that all the time. When I'm out, I try to just meet and talk to as many people as I can.
MW: Where is Scruff most popular?
SKANDROS: Obviously, the U.S. is our largest market. Then the U.K. We threw a Scruff party in Manchester, which turned out to be the biggest night this club, Legends, had seen. They got 6,000 people. The U.K. became the second to the U.S. You'd never know, but Brazil is a huge market for us. Taiwan is also a very large market. Then Australia. I'd say those are our biggest. We're translated into 12 different languages.
MW: You said you're gratified when you meet a couple who's met through Scruff. I have Scruff on my phone and I'm happy when I see a message from a guy who says he lives in Saudi Arabia or some other place where being gay is a crime.
SKANDROS: There are some countries that block us. Definitely Iran.
But on that note, there are guys in remote areas who are able to log on to Scruff. It's an amazing thing. I've heard stories from guys in foreign countries, guys just in remote areas where there are no other gay people around, that Scruff has helped them come out of the closet. Scruff is doing that for people now. That makes it so worth it.
MW: Can you tell me what the company's worth?
SKANDROS: I cannot tell you that.
MW: Do you still fly coach?
SKANDROS: It depends. [Laughs.] Yeah, I do. I fly first and I fly coach. Someone asked me if I had a private jet. Are you kidding me? No.
MW: So, you're comfortable.
SKANDROS: Yeah, I'm comfortable. And Eric's comfortable. We want to keep this business going. The profits that come in, they don't go to just me and Eric. They go to staff and to our offices. They go to all kinds of things.
MW: So you still drink tap water sometimes?
SKANDROS: New York tap water's the best. [Laughs.]
MW: Even though Scruff hasn't found you a husband, are you hoping it might?
SKANDROS: I'm going with the flow. I'm dating. I've met so many wonderful guys through Scruff. When the right guy comes along, whether through Scruff or out and about, I'll know it. In the meantime, I'm not anxious to find a husband. I'm just having fun, just going with the flow and trying to embrace what's happening in my life right now, which is really wonderful. Yeah, I hope that guy comes along. I'm sure he will.
Scruff is available for the iPhone and Android. Visit scruffapp.com.