Once sleazy, online dating is now an accepted way to find a mate.
Today, 59 million people are active subscribers to Match.com or one of its subsidiaries, including Tinder, OkCupid, and PlentyOfFish – and today Match Group went public, as IAC chief executive Barry Diller sold a 14 per cent stake (33.3 million shares) in the $3.57 billion dating empire.
But today’s swiping and instant messaging is a far cry from the company’s humble beginnings in 1993, when 30-year-old Stanford graduate Gary Kremen was looking for a date.
In the beginning: This is a screen grab of the first incarnation of Match.com in 1995, created by Gary Kremen (right). Since so few people used the web, it was an email based service with a link to dynamic webpages that could adapt to different browsers.
MATCH’S IPO: ESSENTIAL FACTS
IAC is selling a 14 per cent stake in Match Group on Thursday (33.3 million shares).
Shares jumped as much as 24 percent in their market debut on Thursday, valuing the company at $3.57 billion.
Match Group, which touts itself as the world’s No. 1 dating company, is seen as the crown jewel of Diller’s media properties and has driven parent IAC/InterActiveCorp’s (IACI.O) profit and revenue in recent quarters.
The U.S. online romance market, worth more than $2 billion a year, has thrived as instant messaging, photo-sharing and geolocation services grow in popularity.
‘I find the best ideas I come up with, I’m solving the problems that I want to understand,’ Kremen, co-founder of Match.com, told Dailymail.com.
‘At that moment in time, I was trying to find the right person to marry but it was just a case of reading newspaper ads or calling pay-per-minute 900 numbers.
‘You weren’t going to find a real relationship on there.’
He was working for an e-commerce company when he received an email from a customer – a woman.
The rare occurrence (just 10 per cent of web users were women at the time and few people owned computers at home) planted the idea of connecting with potential dates online.
‘I thought, I wonder if someone could go to a Kinko’s, scan in a picture of themselves and send it to someone via email.
‘What if you could connect different pictures and send messages too?
‘Basically, an online database of classified ads that anyone can connect to and personalize.’
Decades later: Now, Match is a slick website and mobile app that caters to millions of users around the world
Initially, Kremen envisaged a conglomerate of databases: dates, cars, jobs, and more. He took a $2,500 advance on his credit card to buy Match.com – along with autos.com, housing.com, and Jobs.com – and by the end of 1993 wrote a 76-page business plan for Electric Classifieds Inc.
Match would be the guinea pig to test his big idea – it was more controversial, more eye-grabbing. Little did he know it would be the largest player in a multi-billion-dollar online dating industry 20 years later.
Starting from scratch, he interviewed more than 100 women to find out if they would use an online database – and if not, why not.
‘I would literally go to women in the street,’ Kremen laughs.
The founders: (L-R) Fran Maier, Gary Kremen, and CTO Sterling Hutto soon after launching Match.com in April 1995. Initially, Match was going to be one in a number of online databases, as well as autos.com and jobs.com
‘I spoke to successful women, women I knew, friends, women I wanted to understand.
‘I just thought, if I could step into a woman’s shoes and make something she was comfortable with, then maybe women will join.
‘If they do, men will follow.
‘So I interviewed them – literally sat them down, showed them screens.
‘They would go ‘ew no I’m not doing that’ or ‘I don’t want them to know my name’ or ‘make sure you block out my co-workers’.
‘There was definitely much more conservatism around this back then. You worried about respect and control, perhaps even more than people do now.
‘You’ve got to understand the times, this was ’93, ’94, ’95. Things weren’t very women-focused.’
The vision: This was one of the first ad campaigns for Match, featuring safety advice for dates and a guide on how to use email and the web. At the time, only about 10 per cent of web users were women and few had email
Fran Maier, co-founder of Match and a key consultant to create a female-friendly environment, tusks as she remembers the sorry state of affairs singles faced 20 years ago.
‘900 numbers… They were very sex-based and very… sleazy,’ she says.
In the early 90s, looking for love beyond the realms of mutual friends and chance encounters was a case of flicking through personal ads in the newspaper and calling their 900 number (for $2.99-a-minute) to leave a voice message for a particular ad.
People could then listen to all the messages, leave a response, or leave their own. It was public and inefficient.
Joining the Electric Classifieds team in December 1994, Maier lent the female perspective Kremen so keenly desired.
She tweaked the questions they wanted to ask women, and she worked with a dating expert to design safety guidelines (‘have your first meeting in public’). Later, she would devise the idea of a paid membership rather than pay-per-message – ‘it validated the men, showed were serious because they were paying long-term’.
‘We wanted it to be a clean, well-lit space for people to have safe, anonymous fun,’ Maier, who now heads up cyber protection group TRUSTe, explains.
We’re talking dial-up modem, no digital pictures, no capacity for people to upload photos, slow bit rate, limited multimedia
Fran Maier, co-founder of Match.com
‘It wasn’t just about making it a big heart with friendly colors like pink, purple and orange. We did that, but it was more about what women wanted.
‘I remember an engineer coming in saying ‘what weight categories do you want?’ and I said ‘oh no we are not asking that!’ I knew women didn’t want to describe their weight or their appearances in such a cold way. So we went with body type – athletic, slim, tall et cetera.’
Finally, with just $1.7 million angel investment, Match.com launched in April 1995 – to astonishing success.
It started as an email-based hub of scanned in pictures and messages on a Sun Microsystems server.
Very few users had computers at home, and even in the office they might not have access to the web.
Instead, they would be sent a link via email to a dynamic webpage (Kremen’s invention, still used online today) which could be accessed by any kind of browser – web, gopher.
They also ran regular newsletter, with tips on dating, relationships and sex.
By December 1996, they had more than 100,000 users.
‘I can’t remember a time when our user numbers weren’t growing,’ Maier reminisces, adding that at one point the site was growing up to 4 per cent a day.
‘It wasn’t just young people, it was older people too – anyone. Almost immediately it was all over.’
Initially, she explains, things were slow (‘we’re talking dial-up modem, no digital pictures, no capacity for people to upload photos, slow bit rate, limited multimedia’). And most people could only access the internet in the office.
But Kremen insisted that they commit to the web over other service providers such as gopher.
‘I don’t know why, it was just instinct,’ he explains. ‘In the beginning we didn’t have a choice, no one was using the web so we had to do it all via email until about 1997.
‘But until then I had a feeling we should stick with it. I saw that communications were getting quicker.
The idea behind Match, as demonstrated in this early artwork, was to create a safe, clean and well-lit space for singles that women felt comfortable with. Before, dating was a case of newspaper ads and 900 numbers
‘I used to work for a modem company and I saw people starting to add images more and more. I saw that the speed of connectivity was increasing. So for all these reasons I felt like the web was going to be the winner.’
It was. Though Kremen (now married with two young sons) didn’t find love on the site, he claims he was ‘indirectly responsible for more than 1,000,000 babies’.
Today, at least one in 10 Americans has dabbled with dating on the web.
According to a recent study by Pew Research, 40 per cent of Americans have a positive view of dating sites and it is becoming increasingly popular with young people.
And since the advent of mobile apps and the notorious swipe function, it has snowballed.
THE MATCH GROUP DATING EMPIRE
Barry Diller’s IAC owns Match Group, which consists of 10 other dating sites and apps:
– People Media
Which includes: BlackPeopleMeet.com, LoveandSeek.com, and OurTime.com
Match Group has, collectively, more than 59 million users on match.com, Tinder, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish and others including BlackPeopleMeet.com and elderly love service OurTime.com.
It holds sway in the industry despite facing competition from other dating sites and apps such as J-Swipe, a Jewish matchmaking service, e-Harmony, or Bumble.
Tinder is estimated to have around 10 million active daily users, PlentyOfFish has about 3.6 million active a day, and as of 2010 OKCupid had 3.5 million.
Most use algorithms to connect similar people with similar objectives.
It is an instant version of 1960s ‘computer dating’, when singles would send their vital statistics to a company via mail and wait weeks for the technology to match them up with someone – though not always successful.
Tinder is being dubbed the unicorn of the Match Group subsidiaries as millennials flock to join its mobile app – 38 per cent of users are aged 16 to 24; 45 per cent are aged 25 to 34.
The addictive activity of swiping to look for a date is almost as popular as playing Candy Crush. When users get a ‘match’, their screen lights up as if they’ve scored a point.
Reunion: In April this year, the original Match.com group got together to reminisce about their creation
Even its co-founder, Sean Rad, recently admitted he is ‘addicted’ to the app and falls in love with a different woman ‘every other week’.
According to Brandon Ross of BTIG Research, a leading adviser in global equity trading, Tinder is the only one of Match Group that hasn’t seen a decline in user numbers this year – and that should signal a red flag for would-be investors.
‘Tinder is the wild card in this deal and we view it as a high value option,’ writes Ross in a warning on the BTIG website. ‘Tinder’s large and rapidly growing user base and engagement offer a very enticing potential upside to the value of the asset. In a best case scenario, Tinder could be worth more than the entire Match Group valuation today.’
‘However, we see real risk to achieving that level.’
Nonetheless, IAC is expected to raise a median of $433 million on Thursday when Match Group hits the stocks under the listing MTCH for $12-$14 a piece.
It is a huge leap up from the $7 million that Match sold for in the nineties when online dating was still seen, in popular culture at least, as an illicit last ditch attempt to find a mate.
The Match Group now includes Tinder
Kremen was already out by the time of the 1997 sale to Cendant.
He stepped down as CEO in 1996 amid a dispute with investors over his leadership style and his desire to cater for LGBT users.
Maier stayed on as general manager, but regrets letting it go when they did. ‘We sold it for way to little way too early for the wrong reasons.
As a women I think I sold for too little. I should have been part of it for at least the next year.’
In April, the original team from 1995 came together for a party at Maier’s in San Francisco, California, to celebrate 20 years since they invented the most lucrative dating site in the industry to date.
They drank pink love-themed Cosmopolitans, ate a personalized Match.com cake, and reminisced about when it all began.
‘We all felt really good about it’, Maier says. ‘We created the unicorn – not many people get to say that.
‘I’m sure we are going to see a lot of innovation and changes in the business model but I’m happy that over all these years, despite changes in culture and technology, Match is still there.’
Both Maier and Kremen agree that the online dating industry is at an interesting point of transition.
Reflecting on the two decades that have passed, Maier and Kremen are proud to have made ‘the unicorn’
Looking ahead, Kremen predicts, location will become more prevalent in the world of dating. New apps such as Jones, for example, pair up people in the same neighborhood and give them a list of their closest happy hours.
Video, too, will take on a new value in dating apps, he said.
‘Young people like Snapchat, Yack Yack and things like that: data with a time limit. It’s special, you send it to that person and it goes. I can see that coming into dating a lot more.’
As Thursday approached, Kremen, who now works in water conservation in Silicon Valley, reflected fondly on the last 20 years, and how Match started.
‘I still view Match as my baby,’ he says. ‘I’m happy my baby’s all grown up. Some day they have to get out of the house.
‘My work is all about doing good stuff for the planet, and I think Match was one of them.
‘Now I work in water conservation, which is another way of helping society.
‘There are bad sides to everything but I think, for the most part, online dating is one of those things that is really solving one of society’s problems.’