The Strange Secrets of the Online Dating Industry
The Single Muslim app stall at the iDate conference
Do you have an app idea that solves a genital-intersection problem no one really knew existed?
Is it Spoonr, "An app that connects people who just want to cuddle"? Or Wingman, "the dating app that plays cupid for users' single friends"? Or, perhaps, Ditto, where "users are mutually exclusive with one match on the app, until one of them un-matches"? Or even Chappy, a "high end gay dating app co-founded by Made in Chelsea's Ollie Locke"?
No? You’ve actually found an unfilled micro-niche? Well then, get yourself down to iDate, the meat market's meat market, where every drunken conversation you've ever had about "wouldn't it be great if there was, like, an app that could tell you when someone who's serious about their Judaism and also earns over £80,000 a year is ready for kids" has already been realised by someone now seeking angel investor funding in a third seed round.
Over two days, 40-odd entrepreneurs, CEOs, CTOs, COOs and CFOs have found themselves stuffed in a windowless basement conference centre at London's Strand Palace Hotel, each hoping to claw a larger share of the £3 billion global dating industry pie.
Of course, the shape and scale of that pie is not equally sliced. Like a lot of things that have the internet as their bedrock, the market is increasingly winner-takes all. A handful of companies control the roadway. Everyone else is hanging on. That can be seen simply by who isn’t here. Tinder is the ghost at the feast. No one from the app, their parent company, match.com, or their parent company's parent company, IAC, has bothered to show up.
"The problem," organiser Marc Lesnick tells me, "is that millennials don't want to pay for anything. They want it all for free. It's hit the business hard." The first morning I meet him, Mark has been running between venues so much that his top lip is beaded with sweat.
"It's one of those industries where the monkeys all mistake themselves for future gorillas," another attendee explains. "You see, in any business, you have monkeys, chimps and gorillas. Gorillas are the market leaders. They spend the most on marketing and product design, they get the numbers, they win the game. Now, there's still enough space in the market for copycats to take a bit off the gorillas – the monkeys – provided they simply copy the market leaders and don’t spend on R&D or marketing. Chimps are businesses that invested heavily in becoming the gorillas, but lost the race. They’ve got too much debt and they’re losing market share. So their best strategy is to find a niche – become their own gorilla in a smaller sub-market. There’s a niche for everyone. But you’ve got to recognise which category you are, or else you’ll invest too much, or too little. Do you see?"
Uhm, so… dicks fuck pussies, but sometimes dicks fuck assholes?
Fittingly enough, the start of conference is "Speed Networking". Will I meet a nice startup? Caring, kind to animals and earning over $400,000 in pre-tax profits? The heart's a flutter. My first hunk is maybe 40, has piercing, normal eyes, a body that goes all the way to the top, and is trying to flog me a redux version of the Blind Date game show as an app.
"It just came back onto Channel 5 recently, with Paul O'Grady," he gabbles. "We raised around £175,000 in total, and now we’re looking for another 750 to really push it out there."
What does that buy you? Where does that kind of money go?
"The biggest cost, really, is in your marketing. It’s about customer acquisition. If we don’t get it we might have to take about half and then just roll out regionally."
How much of that money is building the app?
"I've learnt from past experiences. You can build an app for 30 grand, but it'll be shit. It cost us about 140k to build it properly. It’s a six-month build."
His sales patter starts to penetrate; I'm worn down by his sheer persistence.
"We've been getting customer feedback which has been really good," he says. "At the minute, we're not thinking so much about that. It's all about engagement statistics. Our session time is the same as Tinder’s. Any time between eight and 12 minutes."
Like most monkeys, he has gorilla eyes: "We want it to be bigger than Tinder – that's the ambition."
In the lobby, over coffee and those weird mini-croissants you get at hotel breakfasts, I meet Max, who has come up with something called Jigtalk. "Through a gamified edge-of-your seat experience, JigTalk covers its users' faces in 16 jigsaw pieces," the blurb says. "These pieces pop away, one by one, as more and more messages are exchanged."
Then there are the monkeys who have identified their species and are happy there, like the guy from Forces Penpals, who’s been doing this since before Friends Reunited was a thing. His original letters were sent by users in the post and matched by hand. There’s almost no reason for Forces Penpals to still exist except that it got there first – it has a brand and an audience, and the overheads are kept correspondingly low: it's run almost entirely by one guy.
'Growth is still out there for chimps who are leaders in niche sub-markets,' I remind myself as I gaze upon the only big stall in the conference foyer, replete with banners and merch. It belongs to singlemuslim.com. The guy I start talking to is non-Muslim: an amiable computer-programmer who built the back-end of the original site, and still has shares. He answers a couple of questions, before he's displaced by a Muslim guy in a flat-cap, clearly the frontman.
"Islam is like a clear flowing river," he seduces me. "It takes on the colour of whatever rocks it flows over."
A month after this interview, a court will hear evidence of the relationship between Munir Mohammed and Rowaida El-Hassan. El-Hassan was looking for "a man who fears Allah before anything else". Cupid shot his AK-47 and, soon enough, Rowaida, a pharmacist, was assisting new boyfriend Munir in couples-y stuff, like researching how you make the deadly nerve-toxin ricin from castor beans. The pair will be jailed and the lead in most of the papers is that they met on singlemuslim.com.
If they could get beyond basic bitch sensationalism, though, those same papers might at least have something more nuanced to say about how Singlemuslim.com doesn’t define dating as a pairs activity.
"The family is very important," he continues. "So part of the process often involves setting up profiles for aunts, uncles, parents... the whole family gets to have their say on a potential match."
I'm not quite sold on whether this is a force for progress, or merely the reinforcement through digital means of a medieval mindset. At the very least, in common with almost every other site here, singlemuslim.com is aiming its guns at a great social ill: loneliness. "Lots of women write in to thank us. Because, you see, they get divorced, or their husband dies, and they think they'll never be able to marry again. But then they go online."
For reasons best known to the gods of free publicity, Mark has put me in charge of a panel on Fraud Detection.
There's twinkly-eyed consultant David Wiseman, who seems to have fingers in every pie. Two weeks later I will meet him again, at a Bitcoin conference, where he’s selling another software solution, under a different hat. Wiseman is pushing 70. He made a packet by programming computers as far back as the 1970s, then growing multiple businesses out of software solutions. When I talk to him on the phone he mentions his Bentley.
Today, he’s touting something called Scamalytics, a sweeper system to clean up your user profiles. As various Channel 5 shows have illustrated, there is an almost infinite supply of Nigerian men with access to stock photos of pleasingly-dimpled Americans, callously determined to scam the life's savings of horny 50-something women.
Wiseman's software monitors your site’s stock of profiles and figures out where the fakes are. They verify whether the photos are already elsewhere on the internet, compare the overall volume and location of the traffic, and match it against what they’re receiving from other dating sites. It’s an ongoing war: the traffic is constantly shifting, the scams are constantly adapting.
"Some weeks it’s the Philippines, some weeks it’s Nigeria. Sometimes Morocco. These things tend to come in waves. Then we patch that. Then they find another ruse. And so it goes on."
There’s also Wayne May, a lisping Welshman who runs his own website – ScamSurvivors.com. His forums offer spiritual counsel and practical advice for the recently scammed. Wayne was himself a victim once. By day, he still works as a carer. Scam Survivors is his passion project. He shows me two letters he’s had forwarded to him – different names, different photos, same handwriting. It’s chilling; they’re a pair of life-destroying bear-traps, laid out in dainty girlish font.
Edouard is a consultant for a French company, Besedo, which deals in similar territory to Scamalytics – down on scams and bad behaviour. Except their approach is also focused on humans. "It's possible to overcome a great deal with software," he explains. "But there is always a last percentage that the machines miss, or can’t decide on." They do classifieds too, and online marketplaces, and forums. They’re the garbagemen of the internet. You need someone to hand-scrub the Jewish conspiracy rants, the kiddie porn, the Western Union traps, the bogus Russian brides? They have around 500 employees, in France, in Malta, Romania, Malaysia and Colombia, hovering over the delete button.
After lunch, the conference has split into two teams: on one side are the pure dating app people, then – in the other windowless basement – with more polished manners, much more polished nails and far shinier hair: the matchmakers. The brahmin caste of the dating world.
I get talking to a tall, auburn-haired Scot called Gillian, who runs something called Drawing Down the Moon. I can’t shake the feeling I’ve heard of it before.
"Private Eye," she replies. "We’ve been running an ad there since the 90s."
It's true – along with the guy who sells bespoke speakers by mail order, they’re a staple of the back of the mag, so eternal you never think about them. Gillian took over the business after the founder decided to retire, a few years back. She'd made a lot of money in PR, but found her life a bit hollow. "When I found out the business was for sale, I absolutely jumped at the chance. Matchmaking was always my dream. I was fascinated by that ad in the back of Private Eye."
Gillian talks quite mystically about the matchmaker's art. It’s the only part of the monetised dating world that still has continuity with the past, with the old, pre-internet world of "lonely hearts", of smoky offices in obscure backstreets behind Tottenham Court Road, yellowing rolodexes of name/age/sex being flicked through by middle-aged women with dangly jewellery.
"Partly, what I’ve done is to take on fewer, better clients," Gilliam explains. A matchmaker is paid per scalp. If they spend all of their time faffing about with the hopeless cases, they quickly erode their margin. Those margins are still good offline – the survival of this strange priestly class depends upon an average fee of a few grand to place a lonely heart in a long-term relationship. "Our packages start from £6,000 inclusive of VAT," the Drawing Down the Moon website trills.
In the seminar room, we’re treated to a very long pitch by an American matchmaking firm, The Matchmaking Institute. They "certify matchmakers" – essentially, they run the American equivalent of an NVQ in matchmaking.
On the matchmaking side of the aisle, it seems obligatory to hymn how rewarding your job is. "I got into this to change lives," says a New Englander in her forties. She explains that they’ve developed a back-office system that will pay commission to anyone who is the first-introducer in a successful match. "I've always maintained that the future of our industry was collaboration," she beams.
My friend from Drawing Down the Moon gets into a low-volume but heated argument with them. They’re effectively hollowing-out the game, she implies, turning matchmaking into something anyone can do. The Americans are taken aback. They’d assumed everyone would just fall in line.
Gillian has a point. But then so do the Americans, because the key problem with matchmaking – and most dating sites – is sheer database: it's not having enough humans on your books to get a successful fuckable-human. If your pool is shallow, you’re dead in the water. Broaden it, and "everyone wins", we’re told. Except long-established matchmakers with large pools.
The row rumbles on, the two agree to disagree. The seminar breaks up, and we’re back into mingling around the coffee machines. They’re decent minglers, but there’s no megawatt schmoozing charisma here. Tonight, the conference concludes with a champagne reception at a Pall Mall club. But it’s not going to be the kind of conference champagne reception where they end up in each other’s hotel rooms.
"They’re all pretty well shacked-up already in the dating biz," an attendee tells me. "There aren’t many singles. They practice what they preach, you might say."
Right now, we are all practising what they preach. And the amazing thing is that, despite all the cheap gags and easy scorn, it seems to be working. Last year, a UK study reported that half of all respondents had only ever asked someone out online, never face-to-face. In the States, 13 percent of dating survey respondents said they’d got engaged or married from an app. Those numbers will only rise.
Scan the Strand Palace foyer and this business might appear as little more than a tattered band of delusional monkeys and deranged chimps puffing after a distant gorilla, but these are the people who are now ferrying us into the arms of the one we love (after the last one but before the next three).