Earlier this month, Barry Diller announced that he would be stepping down from the chief executive position at digital media company IAC. Taking his place is Greg Blatt, who helmed IAC property Match.com for the last two years and was previously IAC’s vice president and general counsel.
Blatt isn’t talking about IAC yet, but he was happy to chat with Fast Company about Match, the company that’s grown from two to 30 dating sites around the world during his tenure. The online dating industry tends to fly under the radar, but in a couple of years when the economy fell off a cliff, Blatt succeeded in growing the company. Its third-quarter revenue is up 25% year-over-year, and Match subscriptions are up 30%. “There is no recession in love,” he told Fox Business Network earlier this year.
Blatt, who came to IAC from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, tells us what he accomplished in nearly two years on the job, why there are reams of untapped opportunity in the online dating space, how the technology involved is surprisingly cutting edge, and why the first question a leader asks should always be “why.”
How did you manage to grow the Match business, particularly in a climate as miserable as this one?
We’ve been really improving the product. Online dating really requires two things. It requires a big community–you need to have people. And you need to have a great site that matches those people appropriately. We’ve invested tons in growth. We spend money on marketing to make sure people are coming in, and we spend an incredible amount on product development. We launch changes to Match every two weeks. We have 100+ engineers who do nothing but work on Match.com. It’s constantly changing and getting better. The last 18 months, we’ve really hit a groove in nailing our product and bringing the right people in. It’s really just catching momentum at this point.
You’re a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer. At Match, you added 28 brands. What’s the secret to identifying a good acquisition?
I’m a big fan of acquisitions in areas where you already have a competence. It’s hard–although doable–to have a competitive advantage in identifying companies outside areas you’re already in. At Match, we happened to be such a leader in the category that when we buy other businesses in the category, we’re able to actually go in and change them. We’re able to bring our experience and knowledge to product, to marketing, and everything else and actually improve the companies, which gives us a competitive advantage over anybody else who would seek to acquire them.
Second, you need to make sure those companies have a market. We understand the online dating market very well. So we can look at a PeopleMedia, which accounted for 26 of those additional brands, and see that they were in areas that we knew made a lot of sense. So the combination of being able to spot the area, spot the opportunity, and then bring advantages to it once you’ve acquired it make for a successful acquisition strategy.
If you were standing in front of a group of business school students who were trying to decide what industry to go into, what would you tell them about online dating?
First, it is a dramatically underpenetrated area. If you look at the number of single people in the United States and the number of single people in the United States using online dating, it is a small percentage. You can ask them how many people in their own lives they know who are single who complain that they’re not meeting the right people, and yet they’re not using online dating. That creates a huge market opportunity, which we are pursuing.
Second, this is going to sound a little cheesy: If you go into retail, and you successfully sell someone a coat, you’ve sold someone a coat. But you really change people’s lives with Match.com and other services. My brother just got married to a woman he met on Match. The success stories and feedback we get from our customers when they meet somebody special is a benefit that doesn’t exist in 98 percent of the other opportunities out there.
And finally, technology is fundamentally changing this whole experience. For those people who want to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening, from video to mobile to algorithmic advances, and compilation and exploitation of data that you acquire–nothing comes close in sophistication to the possibilities in online dating. We’re only scratching the surface in how sophisticated and complete an experience we can deliver.
Five years from now, when someone’s doing a case study of your leadership at Match, what do you hope they call out about it?
I think my biggest strength is that I take nothing for granted. My question is fundamentally always, “Why?” There were a lot of faces of “Oh. I’m not sure why. The person before me did it this way.” That “why” I think fundamentally changed the environment and the culture at Match. A lot of change came about in the way we think about things and in the way we do things from my simply asking why. Once you start thinking about “why” instead of “how,” the “how” often changes.
You worked under both Martha Stewart and Barry Diller. What did you learn about leadership from them?
I learned that passion and conviction are two of the most important tools of success, and yet they both need to be tempered by listening. You can let your convictions, passion, and vision get in the way of the facts. Yet knowing how to combine those things is really the key to success. They both were able to do that.
What was your first leadership experience in your life?
Clearly playing team sports. It was that experience of being on the soccer field and being with the same group of people all the time and in situations where leadership was required and various people stepped up. You learn how to win and lose. Those are invaluable lessons in learning how to develop the kind of character that ultimately translates well into leadership.
What did you learn from that experience?
The biggest lesson is there’s always another game. You can’t let yourself get too low.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do as a leader?
It’s hard to make big bets on subjective vision. One example is the Match.com ad campaign that we did this year [in which Match followed around real couples and filmed their first dates]. We decided not to go with a creative agency because we had an idea of what we thought would work. We went out and found people we knew in the business to execute it. People said we were crazy. And yet we believed, and we did it, and it worked fantastically.
When you retire, what do you hope people say about you?
I hope people say he was tough, smart, fair, and funny.
You’re single. Do you use Match?
I have used Match. It was hard to do while I was the CEO of Match because it led to a very bizarre interchange, once on the date. They’d ask, “What do you do?” And I’d say, “I’m the CEO of Match.” And suddenly they think that somehow you’ve manipulated [the system]. So it’s all very awkward. But after I get a moment, [after settling into] this new job, I believe I will be in a position to start to use it again without that awkwardness. But it was a little weird.