Like so much online content, love don't cost a thing. But it can earn the right startup a bundle.
Online dating is a $1.5 billion per year industry in the U.S., according to estimates by David Evans, a consultant in the field and author of the Online Dating Insider. About 1,500 sites populate the market, and a few public companies and their flagship brands dominate: Match.com generates roughly $400 million; eHarmony about $150 million; and raunchier hookup site Adult Friend Finder earn about $250 million in annual revenue, Evans says.
And now a wave of newer dating sites are wooing the market with quirky concepts and emerging technology—including mobile apps, social media, geolocation, and even facial recognition—to challenge traditional sites and our concept of seeking love online. None has swept the market off its feet—yet.
"The profile info on a typical dating site ... is very stale," says Maria Seredina, founder of eAmore NYC, which organizes conferences for Internet dating companies and investors. "We are all very dynamic human beings, and our interests evolve and tastes evolve."
On most leading sites, users take the time-honored route of writing up anecdotes about their lives, posting images of themselves, specifying what they generally like in a mate, and scrutinizing each other’s profiles.
OK Cupid broke that model by combining traditional "about me" profiles with a personality test a la 20-questions—but customers can now select up to about 14,000. Opened in 2004, OK Cupid is hardly new, but its $90 million acquisition by Match.com in January paved the way for a new wave of even more unusual dating sites.
Take Dutch startup Soul2Match, which launched in February 2011, using facial recognition software to pair people with similar bone structure. "Basically, we like ourselves," says cofounder Jorn Eiting. The company has opened a San Francisco office and found interested users there and in Florida, he reports. Soul2Match is self-funded. Others are attracting venture investments.
HowAboutWe raised $3.2 million last September in a round led by RRE Ventures. The site retains a rudimentary dater-profile model, but requires users to suggest unique date ideas to one another. Recent proposals include a hula-hoop contest and picnicking at a farmers’ market. (It's even spawned a spoof Tumblr already.)
Spoondate, which emerged from Founder Labs, uses a similar concept and has raised angel funding from 500 Startups. Spoondate asks its members to disclose what they want to eat and where, to match them based on cravings.
Neither of the two suggest-a-date models are turning profits yet. But Match.com seems to be watching; it now has a date-proposal feature of its own called DateSpark.
Other sites are making use of social mapping, real-time social media, mobile and geolocation technology.
Two of these are Clique and Refreshing Note. Clique leverages Facebook to help people find trustworthy, date-able men and women within one or two degrees of separation. Refreshing Note is invitation-only. Founded in early 2011, both sites are self-funded with relatively few users thus far.
The startup Luv@FirstTweet tracks its users’ Twitter history to get a sense of their interests and personality. It then proposes matches—no profile reading or writing necessary. The site’s 32,000 members can augment the process by answering one question per day on Twitter. "Why not have one more thing to tweet about and actually get a relationship out of it?" said cofounder Jonathan Lehr.
Nothing gets more real-time than knowing where singles are right now. That’s the idea behind Assisted Serendipity. Using data from the location check-in service Foursquare, Assisted Serendipity alerts users when there is a decent balance of women to men (or men to women, etc.) at venues they frequent. It also provides photos of candidates on the service.
Lenny Rachitsky created Assisted Serendipity as an intellectual exercise toward pursuing more-advanced location-based services. But apps like Gender Zoo, Scene Tap, and Where The Ladies At are trying to make a business of it.
Four-year old MeetMoi claims several million web and mobile app users who are already finding and connecting with willing singles at the venues where they use the app.
CEO Alex Harrington claims that this mobile method is more personal than traditional online dating. "If there is a beautiful woman at the other side of the coffee shop, Match.com would tell you, 'OK, go home, put on your pajamas, crack open your laptop, and search through a thousand profiles until you find someone who looks like that girl.'"
Are they turning a profit? Not yet. For now, they are running on venture funding, Harrington says.
In mobile dating today, says consutant David Evans, "Nobody’s making any money at it yet. They haven’t figured out how to tie it into exposure for a particular location and charge that location for advertising."
Even sites that didn’t start with a mobile focus are headed there. In June, HowAboutWe launched a mobile app allowing people to propose in-the-moment date suggestions to people nearby. Last Thursday, OK Cupid updated its app with a similar feature called Locals.
The biggest concern for an online dating site with a bright idea might be keeping the dating juggernauts from catching on and copying them too quickly.
Online dating took off between 2002 and 2005 as singles flocked to sites. But neither the challenge of picking off profits from the juggernauts of the industry nor the overall flatlining growth has turned off newcomers with quirky ideas. "Not even half [of singles] have tried online dating," Evans says. "That’s a great opportunity."