10 Quick Questions with Andrew Conru:
1. Back in 1994 when you started up WebPersonals.com, did you ever think that the industry would be this huge?
I knew that the Internet was going to be revolutionary the first time I saw how it enabled people worldwide to see postings instantaneously. At that time, the dating industry was split between traditional matchmakers and newspaper personals. It was clear to me that it was easier, faster, and cheaper to use a central online database than to go to a niche matchmaker or use phone-based newspaper personals. While I understood that online dating would change the way people meet, I didn’t fully grasp the extent that it would change the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
2. Is there any new technology that you see getting incorporated into online dating that will revolutionize it? Mobile, GPS, Apps, Video, VOIP, Matching
Online dating can mean many things to different people – mostly related to how filtering done by the “system” (how do members obtain validation or credibility?), access restrictions (how do members prove their intentions?), are people interacting in realtime, and the dating process being facilitated (introduction verses matchmaking).
There are four elements to online dating: access, member profiles, searching/matching, and member interaction. While technology can often improve the experience, the benefits are more evolutionary than revolutionary. For example, the trend of “always-on” access via mobile devices does open members to more spontaneous meetings especially when coupled with GPS technology.
As far as member profiles, most people are comfortable only with uploading photos and creating text profiles. That being said, we’ve always tried to find ways for people to be more expressive in their profiles – adding voice profiles, video profiles, and other ways for people to differentiate themselves. There seems to be a natural inhibition in people that limits about 5% of people to add more than a photo to their profile.
I think one of the last areas open to the biggest gains in innovation is in matching technology. Matching technology includes searching, filtering, access control, privacy, and automatic agent-based services. Two challenges facing online dating sites is the increasing expectations of members and imbalances in gender dynamics. When I started the first online dating service in 1994, there was an immediate benefit for members… as people’s expectations of their dates stayed constant while the number of candidates soared. After a few years, however, people become much more selective of their ideal match and now often feel less satisfied with the online dating experience. They report that online dating sites have tons of profiles but it gets harder and harder to find a good match (while actually, the matches are better than before just that they have become more picky).
Imbalances in gender dynamics also currently results in a suboptimal suboptimal. In most mainstream dating sites, men send 50 times more emails than women… this happens in part to the hunter nature of men as well as the fact that faced by an avalanche of emails, women respond to a tiny fraction of them which results in men having to send even more to get a single reply. This in turn, makes men unhappy with their response rate and women unhappy with the quality and selectivity of the men.
I believe that the next wave of online personal services will be less dependent of gee-whiz technology but on the ability for people (mostly women) to select, filter, and challenge their suitors. That is, users will start embracing software agents to dynamically interview each other prior to allowing human contact.
A key consideration as to what technology can be applied to online dating is the extent to which participants are interacting in real-time. For the most part, online dating is pretty asynchronous – people filter and interact primarily via email message exchanges prior meeting. GPS, Video, VOIP are all tools to enable real-time synchronous interactions. While there are many exciting applications of these technologies to facilitate instant hookups (e.g., among friends or gay bars), they tend not to be embraced in mainstream dating sites.
3. You were one of the pioneers in developing niche community sites with AsiaFriendFinder and BigChurch. What do you see as the future in affinity dating and what made you think that these niche groups would be so successful?
I think when people visualize the perfect online dating experience, they think of a site that only have perfect candidates for THEM. In the early days of online dating, we had to come up with ways to make people feel comfortable that they would find good matches and one way was to show them that all the members of a site matched their primary filter (e.g., Chinese language or Christians). While it is true that a general purpose site could advertise “hey we have Chinese speakers or Christians”, some people feel more comfortable with a niche site. Niche dating sites will continue so long as they have critical mass (number of active members) and larger general-purpose dating sites continue to give broad marketing messages.
4. Do you think that there is room for an emerging dating company to compete with the likes of Friendfinder Network, Match.com or eHarmony?
The mainstream online dating industry has a few challenges that could be exploited by a disruptive player – namely that they charge for access and have to pay for traffic. While there are a few fast-growing sites that provide free services, they must find non-financial ways to throttle usage, provide user-intention validation and make enough revenue via advertising to buy traffic. There is also always the potential for a first-mover company to take advantage of new traffic markets.
5. What do you think of eHarmony’s approach to personality test matchmaking vs. searching profiles? Do you think they have done a good job on the brand trust side of things with their offline commercials?
There are two general categories of online daters – those who like to take things in their own hands (e.g., search) and those who prefer to take the advice of others (e.g., matchmakers). For many, there is a strong historical and emotional bias that a 3rd party or an expert can do a better job picking a spouse than an individual… just like people hire a stock broker to pick stocks… they believe that a dating expert or matchmaker can screen candidates better.
I believe that self-assessment tests, specific suggestions on how to better search, and many profile with personality data give online daters a better chance at success. The challenge is to get enough members willing to spend the time to complete the tests.
eHarmony has capitalized on the fear that people make bad dating decisions. Their advertising seems effective by targeting older women who may have had bad dating experiences as well as by using anecdotal evidence on the effectiveness of their matchmaking algorithm. Just as financial firms will still advertise turning control to a broker, online matchmaking sites will continue to advertise the same. eHarmony’s message to single people is that dating is very difficult, that an expert (system) can do better than they could at picking a spouse.
6. If you never got into the online dating industry, what is another online business that you would have pursued?
Search company? I was doing a couple different online companies about the same time as online dating – one being the first company to centralize banner ads, one of the first to do online shopping, and some early social networking sites. It is often difficult to know what your opportunity costs are when you are focusing on your primary company. My educational background is in system controls and optimization which fits well to many aspects of Internet businesses.
7. Do you think that Social Networks are a big threat to the dating industry at large? Have you ever heard of the new fad “Twatting” (Twitter Dating)?
Many people say that large social networks like Facebook could takeover the online dating world overnight. I am a bit skeptical due to their current inability to have multiple, disconnected, and independently privacy-controlled profiles for a single user (e.g., let a user have multiple profiles that are not linked in a way). In 2001, I modified FriendFinder.com to support both friend social networking and online dating. It turned out not to be successful because members found that interacting with their current friends was a separate process than discovering new friends and dates. They saw that enabling prospective dates to see their current friends was a dating liability. We later consolidated the profiles back into one.
Entrepreneurs will always try to apply dating in new markets. The challenge of Twitter Dating is that there is almost no filtering process that increases the value of an interaction. The result is a flood of responses with minimal net value.
8. Do you think love can blossom in 140 characters or less?
Oh, stop… you had me at 139 characters! The most common subject line sent to members of online dating sites is “hi”. The question is more dependent on what the person had to do before they were able to send you that 140 characters… how were they screened? how do you know that they have the potential to be worth loving?
9. What is one thing that you would tell someone pursuing a new start-up as the best piece of business advice you have learned over the past 16+ years as an entrepreneur?
Pick your battles… find the minimum product/service offering features that you need to have in order to have a complete solution and get it done as soon as possible. You can always evolve your solution by listening to your customers.
10. What are one of your favorite websites online and what site drives you crazy? One of my favorite sites online at the moment is Ustream.tv and I hate Youtube.
I tend to spend more time thinking about how to build and improve web services than actually using them. I see lots of potential in services that extend your social network offline such as the geo-location sites Foursquare/Gowala. I wish Craigslist would either innovate or forward their free traffic to a site that would. When society hands you a free monopoly, it’s your duty to innovate as if you have fierce competition.
I’d like to thank Andrew for taking the time to answer all of these questions with such insight. It has been a pleasure knowing Andrew Conru over the past few years and watching the Friendfinder Network grow into such a successful business empire.