If there are two ways people are spending time in the pandemic, TikTok and online dating top the list. TikTok, the short-form social video app, was among the most downloaded apps of 2020. And dating apps have seen a spike in users as virtual interactions become the norm. So it feels almost inevitable that an entrepreneur would attempt to combine the two.
Lolly, a new dating app that launched last month, is looking to do just that. A cross between TikTok and Tinder, Lolly asks users to upload short videos to their profiles for potential matches to scroll through in a vertical feed that feels strongly reminiscent of TikTok. The idea: Short videos allow users to show off their humor and creativity more than regular dating profiles. Because users see videos based on their interests, they’re more likely to make connections based on more than looks, founders Marc Baghadjian and Sacha Schermerhorn tell Forbes.
“We saw this disconnect where people couldn’t tell their story on Tinder. Gen-Z felt like we weren’t heard,” Baghadjian says. “The world has changed since 2012, and the platforms to support us have not. Pictures are so old—it’s an old, outdated mindset.”
Baghadjian, 21, and Schermerhorn, 24, are relatively inexperienced founders, but they’ve managed to land early investments from big-name backers. Former Ticketmaster CEO John Pleasants, who oversaw the ticketing firm when it was briefly the parent company of Match.com, is a preseed investor and active advisor. Former Apple CEO John Sculley is also an early shareholder. And on Friday, the company closed a $1.1 million seed round from the likes of SV Angel, So-Fi cofounder Daniel Macklin, Wired Ventures cofounder Jane Metcalfe, former SV Angel General Partner Kevin Carter, Correlation Ventures and Next Coast Ventures.
A $1.1 million war chest, of course, looks like peanuts compared to the lofty valuations and budgets of Tinder and Bumble. But Lolly’s investors are betting that TikTok dating will be a smash hit with Gen-Z, and they say they are particularly impressed with Baghadjian and Schermerhorn.
“They think about this space deeply and use their own experiences and pain point as users themselves to scrutinize every element of the product experience,” Topher Conway, co-managing partner at SV Angel, said in a statement.
The biggest difference between Lolly and other dating apps: the absence of a swipe left function. Users can scroll past videos they don’t like, or they can “clap” a video up to 50 times, which is the app’s equivalent of a “like.” Clapping a video feeds Lolly’s recommendation algorithm, all but guaranteeing that users will see videos from that person again. “On any other platform, you basically have one chance to say yes or no to another person before getting to know them,” Schermerhorn says.
Baghadjian started what would eventually become Lolly from his dorm room at Babson College in 2018. He was FaceTiming a girl he had a crush on when he was struck by an idea: Video is the future of dating. Soon after, Baghadjian hatched plans for a video dating app called Skippit.
Baghadjian credits his entrepreneurial mindset to a difficult upbringing in what he describes as a “tenement” in New Jersey. His family immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon when he was 4; Baghadjian says his mother worked three jobs to support them. Baghadjian started his first business in high school after he patented a new design for airsoft ammunition cartridges. Before he graduated, he sold the company, and says that with the proceeds, he bought his mom a car.
Skippit never really took off. It couldn’t compete with apps like Tinder and Hinge, which started introducing their own video chatting features during the pandemic. Abandoning his original idea, Baghadjian began thinking about what dating would look like years from now. That’s how he landed on TikTok.
“TikTok was just starting to get a lot of hype. And I saw that people on TikTok were dating. I said, ‘Wow, people are already using this platform to date.’ We saw that innovation alluding to the future,” Baghadjian says.
Baghadjian brought on Schermerhorn, who had just decided against pursuing his Ph.D. in neuroscience to become an entrepreneur. With a new direction in mind, the pair embarked on a mad dash to get in contact with past mentors and connections to ask for advice. Schermerhorn reached out to longtime family friend Jane Metcalfe, the cofounder of Wired Ventures, who eventually decided to invest, and former Sequoia chief marketing officer Blair Shane, who serves as an advisor.
“I think the North Star for Lolly is to foster relationships that wouldn’t otherwise be seen in the traditional dating space. That was also compelling to me, that it was based on content and community first, not just how you look or where you went to school,” Shane says.
Next Baghadjian went to John Pleasants, the former CEO of Ticketmaster, and former Apple CEO John Sculley. Baghadjian met Pleasants two years prior during a Golden State Warriors watch party at the longtime tech executive’s house. Baghadjian wasn’t technically invited, but he tagged along with a friend of a friend who was. Once inside, Baghadjian pitched Pleasants on Skippit, and they’ve kept in touch ever since.
It’s a similar story with Sculley. Baghadjian approached him at a Babson College recruitment event. “I was intrigued by Marc because he had the chutzpah to come up and introduce himself and tell me his story,” Sculley tells Forbes. While Sculley isn’t actively involved with Lolly beyond his small investment, he says he considers Baghadjian a friend. “He’s riding the wave of short-form video and focusing on Gen-Z. But timing is everything. And I think his timing is good here,” Sculley says.
Even with star backers, Baghadjian and Schermerhorn will face some of the same challenges dogging other social media companies. Lolly’s videos don’t have comments, which they hope will cut down on trolling and harassment. There’s also the risk that other dating apps or social networks, even TikTok, could eventually copy their idea. When it comes to content moderation, the duo says Lolly will have similar community guidelines to TikTok regarding nudity and hate speech. When videos are flagged, a human will review them, even if Baghadjian and Schermerhorn have to sit down and do it themselves. But they’re still figuring out how to scale those efforts.
“We’re hopeful that in the early days, this will be enough as a defense mechanism, but it’ll be a never-ending battle,” Schermerhorn says.