Before he started the first site for online dating, Andrew Conru had started one of the first companies that made websites for the newfangled World Wide Web back in 1993. The venture was named Internet Media Services, of course.
"I had people calling me up and asking 'Are you the internet?'" the 48-year-old engineer told me. "And we said 'Yeah,' and tried to sell them some of our services. We were the only company in the Yellow Pages with the word 'internet' in it."
The internet has changed a lot over the past 25 years, and Conru had a front row seat. In what he calls "being in the right place at the right time," he started Web Personals in 1993 while doing his doctorate at Stanford University, seated in the same classroom as "the guys from Yahoo and Google."
Conru first helped work on the website for his small department at Stanford's Center for Design research, which inspired him to launch Internet Media Services with roughly 10 to 15 employees—all at a time when few people knew what the internet was.
A year later, Conru started Web Personals, arguably the first online dating site ever, which was run by a group of Stanford grad students and one bright-eyed high school kid. The idea struck Conru in his dorm room as a way to kickstart his love life after a breakup—as he quickly realized, he was stuck in an engineering program full of men. "The odds were bad and I had to look elsewhere," said Conru.
He tried newspaper personals, which requires making abbreviations to fit into two-inch boxes, and video dating where one would watch VHS videos of people's profiles and contact them. It was "a very manual process," Conru recalled.
But Web Personals featured large photos and a whole page of text per profile. "That's what you see on all the dating sites today, except Tinder," said Conru. "They went the complete opposite way with only one photo."
Web Personals took two months to build, was written in C++, and had the ability to track users from page to page. This was before cookies were common on browsers, and it was hard to keep track of people visiting page to page. (Nowadays we all take dynamic web pages for granted, but they wanted to track web visitors clicking from page to page for online shopping opportunities, as Conru also invented the online shopping cart.)
In 1994, Conru came up with a way to pass a user ID from page to page and then look up the user information from a database and customize web pages dynamically (image below from their user manual).
"While we take it for granted today that websites change dynamically based on who you were, in the early days, websites were just static pages, everyone saw the same thing," said Conru.
"These were the days when websites were always static, every person saw the same exact page," said Conru. "To make the page dynamic, based on who you are, was kind of a new thing."
In the 18 months Conru ran the site, he said there were 120,000 sign ups. "I'd say about half of them had '.edu' emails," he said, which suggested that students or university workers were using it. "It was the largest web dating site until it was surpassed by Match.com in 1995."
Conru went on dates through Web Personals, even though it was a time when online dating was taboo.
"If you told anyone you were using any kind of dating process other than church or your friend network, you were looked upon as desperate, a loser, even a seedy person," said Conru.
"When we had the web, you had two things going on: one, which you're publicly saying you're looking for a date; and two, that you're a geek to be having your computer and spending your life in front of it. You had a double whammy. You had to be a sleazy person to be online, obviously," he added.
Conru has been dating online for 20 years and has never been married. "When you're in your 20s, you get a lot more dates than when you're in your 40s," he said. "It sucks but people in their 20s are looking to mingle and it's a new experience. It's much more dynamic than your 40s or 50s."
On Conru's AdultFriendFinder profile, it says he collects 1930s movie posters and that he's had a threesome. "I've had more than one," he said. "I've been fortunate a lot in having a full life; I'm comfortable in all kinds of sexual experiences."
Conru, who has a Yahoo email account ("does that date me?" he asks), and doesn't like Snapchat ("I can't screengrab my friend's porn photos fast enough") has no plans on settling down – he's realized the traditional life of getting married and having kids is probably not in his cards.
"I'm still single, which is the irony of all this," he said.
"I've always been low key in my profile; I don't say 'I'm the owner of the company.' Even when I go on other dating sites, I'm not a bragger. I hope they'll like me for who I am, not the monetary side of things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
He shudders if you call him "the engineer of love." But considering he wears glasses and collared shirts in almost every photo, yes, he's been called geeky.
"I'm supposed to have a hairy chest and gold chains, a slick look?" he asks over the phone from his home in Seattle. "For the most part, people come in different shapes and sizes—seems people want me to be out of central casting."
After running Web Personals for about a year, he "didn't know any better" and sold it to Telepersonalsfor $100,000. Soon after he got out of the non-compete, he started another dating website, FriendFinder.com, in 1996.
By the time he finished his doctorate in 1997, Conru was running FriendFinder with 30 employees. "I always joked I should have dropped out and become a billionaire," said Conru.
One of the challenges of bootstrapping was hiring people who would work cheap enough. "We didn't have any money, we hired almost anybody," said Conru. "Most people were hesitant to work at a company with adult content. We banned the word "porn" at the office and always called anything sexual 'adult content.' It's a little bit easier now to hire people but still challenging."
He once hired a 20-year-old homeless man who was sleeping in their building. Conru taught him how to write customer service emails and told him he could sleep under his desk as long as he didn't take his shoes off.
"He stayed for a year and ended up marrying one of the coworkers, they moved off to Denver," said Conru. "His feet did stink though, damn."
FriendFinder had users posting nudes, so Conru created AdultFriendFinder.com, a hookup website graced with devilish women on its seemingly seductive homepage.
"We call it the release valve," he said. "'Are you looking to get laid?' The link took them over to Adult Friend Finder."
Once you're inside the adult site, its whole world has a 50 Shades of Grey vibe—like Grindr but for the hetero crowd (but not exclusively). Currently, it's pretty much filled with young couples, women in their 50s wearing garter belts, girls tied to bed posts and a steady stream of dick pics. Users can upload photos and videos, but to see those, you have to upgrade your account for upwards of $5 a month.
It's part of his umbrella company "Friend Finder Networks," which owns AsiaFriendFindercom, SeniorFriendfinder.com, and the Christian dating website BigChurch.com, as well as the BDSM dating site Alt.com. In total, Conru's sites count 528 million users in over 200 countries.
"We call it the release valve. 'Are you looking to get laid?' The link took them over to Adult Friend Finder."
"There was definitely a need out there," he said. "I've learned over the years, you have to respond to your customer's needs, not necessarily do what you want to do."
Penthouse bought FriendFinder Networks in 2007 for $500m, filing for an IPO in 2008. They hoped to raise $460m but only had $220m by 2010, which Conru bought back and has been the company's chairman since 2013.
Still, Conru said the early dotcom days were much less crowded and a lot more fun.
"Since software technology was easier, it was like playing a video game, internally," said Conru. "You build things, you roll it out, see what people like, get feedback and get the numbers. The numbers are your score. If they're going up, you're giving something the users want. It's an intimate relationship to your customers where you have a direct way to measure their happiness."
Last year, AdultFriendFinder was hacked, with church pastors and congressmen being among the 3.5 million users exposed. "You work very hard to keep the interests of your customers safe," said Conru. "One of a thousand users was affected."
Conru grew up on a farm in Indiana, where he used to code Bible quiz games on his Commodore VIC-20 and work as a door-to-door evangelist. It might have come as a surprise to his 80-year-old parents that their son grew up to become the "porn baron of Palo Alto."
"My parents are happy I did the best job I could, proud that I've helped a lot of people," said Conru. "They've never been upset with me, just found it surprising."
Still, there's an ongoing debate as to who founded online dating—if you Google it, Gary Kremen, founder of Match.com, is the answer.
"It's mostly true," said Conru. "Gary and I have been friends since the early days."
Conru remembers going into Kremen's office, which was covered in his data charts.
"'By next Thursday, we're going to beat you!' Gary said, it was a joke type thing," said Conru.
Match.com was founded in 1993 but went live in 1995 as a free beta.
"Putting it on the web is not one person," said Conru. "Gary and I probably thought of these things independently, but when it came to an online web dating website, we were three or four months ahead of Gary. Who invented it? There are many people who have ideas, but when it comes to executing it, I was the first to do it."
"I'm hopeful for humanity for true and real relationships."
In the early dotcom days, Conru remembers the internet being marginalized—the only people online were intellectuals, academics and creative types.
"Just the fact you had the internet from your home, you had to be already one type of person," he said. "It meant that you were going to find someone just as eclectic as you were, but it was harder than it is today."
Over the past 10 years, he has seen public opinion change. "The more people you knew who found their significant other with online dating, it became more normal," he said.
When asked if he feels like a forebear to Tinder, Conru doesn't take full responsibility. "I'm just one step along the way," he said.
"It's a niche of people looking more superficial matchmaking—I believe the more info you know about someone, within reason, the better decision you can make as to who you want to be with. I'm hopeful for humanity for true and real relationships."