Sean Howell – Building a Better Hornet

Sean Howell Best

When Sean Howell was a college student at Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle, he had no gay peers or role models. But he did find”The chat rooms were a way to talk to people about anything,” he says. “I made my first 20 gay friends online.” Today, technology has become an integral part of many LGBT social interactions, but as Howell discovered, the evolution of gay sites and apps was more of a devolution – which inspired him to create a better option.

In early 2009, Howell was a stock analyst following the tech sector. He joined forces with mobile technology venture capitalist Christof Wittig, and McKinsey consultant Alan Lau, who were also unhappily using the gay social media apps. “We said, ‘someone should do it better,’ and we set out to make a better mobile app.”

With their combined business and technical expertise, they created Hornet: the mobile app designed to bring a sense of community back to the gay community. In 2010, they hired OK Cupid’s Chief Design Officer Mitchell Geere, and Armand Depluis from the South African banking industry as Chief Technology Officer.

“We put together a business plan, and initial investment came from the founders, venture capitalists, and gay employees at other tech companies,” says Howell. “We launched Hornet in 2011, which was the first time I attended a StartOut event. StartOut has been hugely valuable in terms of connecting with other LGBT leaders regarding tech, but also in how tech leaders can help push social issues.”

Today Hornet has an international membership of more than four million users, with 9,000 new users joining each day. Those users are now trading upwards of 50 million messages a week. Many of those messages are helping people live fuller, healthier, more supported lives.

With its massive reach of 4 million users, Hornet has also enabled users to participate in university studies and clinical trials all over the world. They’ve partnered with to help users find HIV testing facilities and clinics. In the Philippines, Hornet partnered with, which resulted in 700 people getting tested in one day.

Hornet recently made significant enhancements to its “Know Your Status” feature, including giving users the option to disclose if they are taking PrEP HIV prevention medication, or if they’re positive with an undetectable viral load – as well as launching a community for positive men to meet each other.

Privacy and respect are central to Mr. Howell’s vision for Hornet. Unlike other gay sites and apps, which allow the staff to read the members’ chats, Hornet is strictly confidential. “From the beginning, we set it up so none of us could read the chats,” says Howell. “We use the same SSL encryption that banks use to ensure privacy.”

“There are other powerful ways we can makes a difference,” says Howell. “Including getting people to register to vote, or to get involved in advocacy. We’re looking to continue the ways that we can expand and serve our international community.”

Unlike some location-based apps, Hornet also offers the opposite option, allowing users to chat and connect with people across the globe. This is especially helpful for users in rural areas, or for users to connect with people in different countries as they’re making travel plans. This desire to bridge the community and enhance opportunities to connect is one of the many valuable lessons Mr. Howell has gained from his continued involvement with StartOut.


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