All posts in “dating apps”

VCs aren’t falling in love with dating startups

Some 17 years ago, when internet dating was popular but still kind of embarrassing to talk about, I interviewed an author who was particularly bullish on the practice. Millions of people, he said, have found gratifying relationships online. Were it not for the internet, they would probably never have met.

A lot of years have passed since then. Yet thanks to Joe Schwartz, an author of a 20-year-old dating advice book, “gratifying relationship” is still the term that sticks in my mind when contemplating the end-goal of internet dating tools.

Gratifying is a vague term, yet also uniquely accurate. It encompasses everything from the forever love of a soul mate to the temporary fix of a one-night stand. Romantics can talk about true love. Yet when it comes to the algorithm-and-swipe-driven world of online dating, it’s all about gratification.

It is with this in mind, coincident with the arrival of Valentine’s Day, that Crunchbase News is taking a look at the state of that most awkward of pairings: startups and the pursuit of finding a mate.

Pairing money

Before we go further, be forewarned: This article will do nothing to help you navigate the features of new dating platforms, fine-tune your profile or find your soul mate. It is written by someone whose core expertise is staring at startup funding data and coming up with trends.

So, if you’re OK with that, let’s proceed. We’ll start with the initial observation that while online dating is a vast and often very profitable industry, it isn’t a huge magnet for venture funding.

In 2018, for instance, venture investors put $127 million globally into 27 startups categorized by Crunchbase as dating-focused. While that’s not chump change, it’s certainly tiny compared to the more than $300 billion in global venture investment across all sectors last year.

In the chart below, we look at global venture investment in dating-focused startups over the past five years. The general finding is that round counts fluctuate moderately year-to-year, while investment totals fluctuate heavily. The latter is due to a handful of giant funding rounds for China-based startups.

While the U.S. gets the most commitments, China gets the biggest ones

While the U.S. is home to the majority of funded startups in the Crunchbase dating category, the bulk of investment has gone to China.

In 2018, for instance, nearly 80 percent of dating-related investment went to a single company, China-based Blued, a Grindr-style hookup app for gay men. In 2017, the bulk of capital went to Chinese mobile dating app Tantan, and in 2014, Beijing-based matchmaking site Baihe raised a staggering $250 million.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., we are seeing an assortment of startups raising smaller rounds, but no big disclosed financings in the past three years. In the chart below, we look at a few of the largest funding recipients.

Dating app outcomes

Dating sites and apps have generated some solid exits in the past few years, as well as some less-stellar outcomes.

Mobile-focused matchmaking app Zoosk is one of the most heavily funded players in the space that has yet to generate an exit. The San Francisco company raised more than $60 million between 2008 and 2012, but had to withdraw a planned IPO in 2015 due to flagging market interest.

Startups without known venture funding, meanwhile, have managed to bring in some bigger outcomes. One standout in this category is Grindr, the geolocation-powered dating and hookup app for gay men. China-based tech firm Kunlun Group bought 60 percent of the West Hollywood-based company in 2016 for $93 million and reportedly paid around $150 million for the remaining stake a year ago. Another apparent success story is OkCupid, which sold to Match.com in 2011 for $50 million.

As for venture-backed companies, one of the earlier-funded startups in the online matchmaking space, eHarmony, did score an exit last fall with an acquisition by German media company ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE. But terms weren’t disclosed, making it difficult to gauge returns.

One startup VCs are assuredly happy they passed on is Ashley Madison, a site best known for targeting married people seeking affairs. A venture investor pitched by the company years ago told me its financials were quite impressive, but its focus area would not pass muster with firm investors or the VCs’ spouses.

The dating site eventually found itself engulfed in scandal in 2015 when hackers stole and released virtually all of its customer data. Notably, the site is still around, a unit of Canada-based dating network ruby. It has changed its motto, however, from “Life is short. Have an affair,” to “Find Your Moment.”

An algorithm-chosen match

With the spirit of Valentine’s Day in the air, it occurs that I should restate the obvious: Startup funding databases do not contain much about romantic love.

The Crunchbase data set produced no funded U.S. startups with “romantic” in their business descriptions. Just five used the word “romance” (of which one is a cold brew tea company).

We get it. Our cultural conceptions of romance are decidedly low-tech. We think of poetry, flowers, loaves of bread and jugs of wine. We do not think of algorithms and swipe-driven mobile platforms.

Dating sites, too, seem to prefer promoting themselves on practicality and effectiveness, rather than romance. Take how Match Group, the largest publicly traded player in the dating game, describes its business via that most swoon-inducing of epistles, the 10-K report: “Our strategy focuses on a brand portfolio approach, through which we attempt to offer dating products that collectively appeal to the broadest spectrum of consumers.”

That kind of writing might turn off romantics, but shareholders love it. Shares of Match Group, whose portfolio includes Tinder, have more than tripled since Valentine’s Day 2017. Its current market cap is around $16 billion.

So, complain about the company’s dating products all you like. But it’s clear investors are having a gratifying relationship with Match. When it comes to startups, however, it appears they’re still mostly swiping left.

Coffee Meets Bagel reports massive data breach on Valentine’s Day

Dating app Coffee Meets Bagel reported a massive data breach affecting  six million users on Valentine's Day.
Dating app Coffee Meets Bagel reported a massive data breach affecting  six million users on Valentine’s Day.

Image: Coffee Meets  Bagel

Millions of people who use the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel woke up on Valentine’s Day to some unsetting news: their personal information had been compromised.

Coffee Meets Bagel reported a massive data breach affecting “approximately” six million users Thursday. That news of the hack just so happened to coincide with Valentine’s Day is a fittingly cruel twist for the service that purports to be about making “authentic connections.”

“With online dating, people need to feel safe. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t share themselves authentically or make meaningful connections,” the company said in a statement. “We take that responsibility seriously, so we informed our community as soon as possible—regardless of what calendar date it fell on—about what happened and what we are doing about it.”

Coffee Meets Bagel sent out emails alerting users of the data breach Thursday morning, saying it first learned of the hack just days before.

“On February 11, 2019, we learned that an unauthorized party gained access to a partial list of user details,” the company wrote. “The affected information only includes your name and email address prior to May 2018. As a reminder, we never store any financial information or passwords.”

The company didn’t comment on who was behind the hack, or when it took place.  In a statement, the company said “this was part of a larger breach affecting 620 million accounts that got leaked across sixteen companies.” The Register reported Monday that account information for more than 620 million accounts was for sale on the dark web. Coffee Meets Bagel was one of 16 websites named. 

In its email to users, the company said it has hired forensic security experts to investigate internally and that it is conducting audits with its third-party vendors.

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Dating apps face questions over age checks after report exposes child abuse

The UK government has said it could legislate to require age verification checks on users of dating apps, following an investigation into underage use of dating apps published by the Sunday Times yesterday.

The newspaper found more than 30 cases of child rape have been investigated by police related to use of dating apps including Grindr and Tinder since 2015. It reports that one 13-year-old boy with a profile on the Grindr app was raped or abused by at least 21 men. 

The Sunday Times also found 60 further instances of child sex offences related to the use of online dating services — including grooming, kidnapping and violent assault, according to the BBC, which covered the report.

The youngest victim is reported to have been just eight years old. The newspaper obtaining the data via freedom of information requests to UK police forces.

Responding to the Sunday Times’ investigation, a Tinder spokesperson told the BBC it uses automated and manual tools, and spends “millions of dollars annually”, to prevent and remove underage users and other inappropriate behaviour, saying it does not want minors on the platform.

Grindr also reacting to the report, providing the Times with a statement saying: “Any account of sexual abuse or other illegal behaviour is troubling to us as well as a clear violation of our terms of service. Our team is constantly working to improve our digital and human screening tools to prevent and remove improper underage use of our app.”

We’ve also reached out to the companies with additional questions.

The UK’s secretary of state for digital, media, culture and sport (DCMS), Jeremy Wright, dubbed the newspaper’s investigation “truly shocking”, describing it as further evidence that “online tech firms must do more to protect children”.

He also suggested the government could expand forthcoming age verification checks for accessing pornography to include dating apps — saying he would write to the dating app companies to ask “what measures they have in place to keep children safe from harm, including verifying their age”.

“If I’m not satisfied with their response, I reserve the right to take further action,” he added.

Age verification checks for viewing online porn are due to come into force in the UK in April, as part of the Digital Economy Act.

Those age checks, which are clearly not without controversy given the huge privacy considerations of creating a database of adult identities linked to porn viewing habits, have also been driven by concern about children’s exposure to graphic content online.

Last year the UK government committed to legislating on social media safety too, although it has yet to set out the detail of its policy plans. But a white paper is due imminently.

A parliamentary committee which reported last week urged the government to put a legal ‘duty of care’ on platforms to protect minors.

It also called for more robust systems for age verification. So it remains at least a possibility that some types of social media content could be age-gated in the country in future.

Last month the BBC reported on the death of a 14-year-old schoolgirl who killed herself in 2017 after being exposed to self-harm imagery on the platform.

Following the report, Instagram’s boss met with Wright and the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, to discuss concerns about the impact of suicide-related content circulating on the platform.

After the meeting Instagram announced it would ban graphic images of self-harm last week.

Earlier the same week the company responded to the public outcry over the story by saying it would no longer allow suicide related content to be promoted via its recommendation algorithms or surfaced via hashtags.

Also last week, the government’s chief medical advisors called for a code of conduct for social media platforms to protect vulnerable users.

The medical experts also called for greater transparency from platform giants to support public interest-based research into the potential mental health impacts of their platforms.

My terrible online dates live on as zombies on Instagram

In our Love App-tually series, Mashable shines a light into the foggy world of online dating. Just in time for cuffing season.


Instagram has become a cemetery for my failed online dates. 

I don’t accidentally tap into their Stories, or stumble upon their posts as I aimlessly scroll through my timeline. But I unexpectedly trip on the graves of my failed romances while scrolling through a sea of smiling selfies or humble-braggy holiday snaps from my friends because of an unnerving Instagram feature. 

Instagram’s “Suggestions For You” feature, which pops up from time to time in timelines, shows you profiles it thinks you might be interested in following. Save the odd face of someone I went to school with, this particular feature is largely dominated with photos of men I’ve matched with on dating apps, gone on dates with, and decided, for whatever reason, that I’d rather not pursue a relationship with. 

Once the WhatsApp messages have been archived, dating profiles unmatched, and all evidence of their existence destroyed, you’d think it’d be safe to say I’d never see hide nor hair of these people ever again. 

But Instagram seems to have other ideas. No matter how many times I tap the tiny “x” over their faces, these zombies keep coming back. 

The most unwelcome zombie of all is the face of a man who not only stood me up for a dinner date at my favourite restaurant, he also blocked me on WhatsApp and Hinge as I waited in the queue for our table. I met Matthew (not his real name) on Hinge last summer and we quickly established a mutual interest: Italian food. He asked me if I fancied going to Padella (a very popular, very delicious pasta restaurant in London) with him that week. Salivating at the very idea, I said yes. 

I’d sooner cross the street to avoid seeing him than follow the guy on Instagram. 

Fast-forward a few days — and many flirty texts later — I fired off a cursory “be there in 20!” WhatsApp message as I stepped out the door for my date. What I hadn’t known was that as I’d been changing into my date outfit, Matthew had been blocking me on every app we’d ever communicated on. Now, to add insult to very humiliating injury, his pasta-loving face keeps showing up in my feed as a suggested friend. Put mildly, I’d sooner cross the street to avoid seeing him than follow the guy on Instagram. 

Another familiar face constantly lingering in this weird Instagram feature is a less egregious former date, who would only ever text me about his household chores. I’m not sure if I gave off some kind of Marie Kondo vibe, but I’m the least tidy person I know. The relationship was headed precisely nowhere. 

Try as I might to rid myself of these online dating zombies, they just won’t go away. It’s upsetting to be confronted with periodic reminders of failed romances and, at times, really unsettling and deflating experiences, like the one with Matthew. 

The last thing I wanted to see was Matthew's pasta-loving face in my Instagram feed.

The last thing I wanted to see was Matthew’s pasta-loving face in my Instagram feed.

Image: vicky leta/ mashable

But it could be a lot worse. This feature is irksome for those of us who encounter people who ghost us or stand us up, but what if something more serious had happened? This feature could be even more disquieting for people who’ve been in abusive relationships. 

What the 'Suggestions for You' feature looks like.

What the ‘Suggestions for You’ feature looks like.

Image: rachel thompson

Scott Muska, who works in advertising, says he is greeted by zombie dates on Instagram all the time. 

“It’s always people I’ve met on apps and then exchanged numbers with who show up,” says Muska, 31. “Sometimes they’re people I’ve gone on a date or a few with, and occasionally they’re people I’ve spoken with but never actually met up with, which happens plenty if you’re participating in online dating.”

He says that being confronted with these online dates can be emotionally taxing. 

“I start thinking about how things might have gone if I hadn’t somehow blown it, or if we had ever met, and ‘out of sight, out of mind’ would probably be better for me personally,” Muska says. “I do enough spiralling when I come across a post of an ex I’m already following.” 

“I do enough spiralling when I come across a post of an ex I’m already following.” 

The same thing happens to fashion blogger Urszula Makowska, 24. 

“I went on a date with a guy and he ghosted me right after even though I thought the date went well. I was confused,” says Makowska. “Apparently Instagram thinks I’d love to follow, but heck no.”

As a rule of thumb, I’d never follow someone I’d only just swiped right on. And I’m pretty sure a lot of daters follow this rule. So, why the hell does this keep happening?

According to Instagram, the app mines data from your Facebook and Instagram usage to determine who appears as a suggested friend, but, it also taps into other data sources, like your phone contacts. If you’ve synced your contacts with Instagram, those contacts might also appear as suggestions. You might also spot people who’ve followed you on Instagram, but who you haven’t followed back, as well as Facebook friends who you haven’t followed on Instagram. Instagram doesn’t use data from dating apps. 

As someone who has never permitted Instagram to sync my mobile contacts with the app, I’m baffled as to why these failed dates — who I’ve never followed on social media — continue to haunt me. So, is there anything I can do to minimise this recurring irritation? 

Sara Tasker — an Instagram expert who’s written a book called Hashtag Authentic about building communities on the platform — recommends blocking anyone you really don’t want to discover you, which should prevent them appearing as suggestions. In instances where blocking might not be necessary, check your permissions to make sure you haven’t agreed to share contacts and delete contacts that you’d rather not see as suggested friends from your phone and your WhatsApp contacts.

Once our failed online dates are dead and buried in the recesses of our minds, we’d rather not dig them back up. If the cemetery of suggestions is too much for you, the age-old block might need to be deployed. Either that or you’ll need to regularly purge your phone contacts. 

Rest in peace, bad dates. But please, do so far away from my Instagram feed. 

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Welp, someone basically made that ‘Black Mirror’ dating app

The clock is ticking, and your heart is at stake.

The polarizing Black Mirror Season 4 episode “Hang the DJ” depicted a futuristic dating app in which an AI called “Coach” only gives daters a set amount of time — 12 hours, or even 12 years — to date a potential partner before they must move on to their next match. 

Now, of course, somebody has actually built an app inspired by the somewhat dystopian system. First spotted by Forbes, it’s called Juliet and is available for free in the App Store.

On Jan. 2, a 24-year-old programmer named Julian Alexander hosted a Reddit AMA in which he debuted Juliet. The concept is that users of the app will only be paired with one prospective partner at a time, for a set amount of time. There are no profiles, and no swiping — just basic info like sexual orientation and location.

After the time in which you’re allowed to talk and connect expires, users fill out a survey about the other person and how it went. The AI then supposedly learns from your experience and tries to match you with a better fit next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.

“She just does that until she finds you someone that’s really good for you,” Alexander, who refers to his app as a “she,” said on the phone with Mashable.

Reddit users were quick to notice the similarity between Juliet and the Black Mirror premise. The top comment on the AMA, with 5.8K upvotes, directly asks whether Alexander got the idea from “Hang the DJ.” To which Alexander replied that he is a huge fan. Alexander confirmed to Mashable that the Black Mirror episode did inspire the app’s creation.

“Charlie Booker, the creator of Black Mirror, is an inspiration,” Alexander said. “He does a great job depicting the merge between humanity and technology. I just want Juliet to do the same thing.”

Juliet is in no way linked to Black Mirror, officially — Netflix actually rolled out a spoof of the Coach app on Valentines Day last year. But likely due to the app’s closeness to the episode’s concept, the AMA climbed to the top of the r/AMA subreddit and became #14 on the Reddit front page. It currently has 7.8K upvotes.

“The similarity between Juliet and Black Mirror definitely helped spark interest in my Reddit AMA,” Alexander said. “I was really surprised how many people loved the show and the concept of Juliet.” 

There’s a sizable Black Mirror following on Reddit — the show’s subreddit has 224K subscribers. So even if the Coach app concept in the show was all part of, ya know, a larger meta-plot about what really makes two people a “match” and the limits of AI in our quest for love, Alexander says people have been eager to try out its closest real-world equivalent. 

“I’ve had to upgrade my infrastructure a few times,” Alexander said. “It’s been pretty crazy to be honest.”

Alexander said he has acquired “thousands” of users over the past week. 

However, “thousands,” to be frank, is not a ton of users for a dating app. The number of users is especially important for a burgeoning dating app, since how well they work is extremely dependent on how many potential people it can match you with. That is certainly true for Juliet, but perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, since the whole concept is that it only matches you with one person at a time.

“A lot of other apps focus on a quantity approach.” Alexander said. “I really wanted to go with a quality approach, matching the user one person at a time.”

Juliet's screenshots in the iTunes store.

Juliet’s screenshots in the iTunes store.

Image: screenshot: Rachel kraus/mashable

The concept itself is not entirely novel. On Bumble, users only have 24 hours to start chatting before the match expires. And other apps including Coffee Meets Bagel, Once, and The League all limit the amount of matches you’re given per day — all part of a trend Business Insider and Time Out New York call “Slow Dating.” An app called Ditto takes it one step further, to Juliet’s level, with a one-match-at-a-time model.

And Juliet’s not-quite-astronomical rise has not been entirely smooth sailing. Some app reviewers complain that they do not like the people they were matched with; that, of course, will happen, when you’re matched with someone based on nothing (at least at first).

It also did not initially take location into account when making a match, so users complained that they were getting matched with people whom they would never encounter in real life. That oversight prompted negative reviews in the app store. Alexander has since rolled out a location feature on Jan. 7, and said he’s getting positive feedback. 

“People are finding matches close by,” Alexander said. “Juliet’s going to keep on improving. She’s getting smarter.”

Of course, Juliet’s success depends on that whole “getting smarter” thing. For an AI-dependent app, the AI has to actually … work. Devising the perfect formula for a good date —let alone love — is something corporations and scientists are eternally struggling to get right, if it’s possible to do at all. 

The love clock is ticking.

The love clock is ticking.

Image: netflix

Ultimately, Alexander hopes the happy ending in “Hang the DJ” will prevail over Black Mirror‘s underlying skepticism about technology’s role in our lives.

“I hope for them to find love,” Alexander said of his users. “Isn’t that what everyone’s looking for?”

And for people who still find the time limits weird, and are wary of using an app from a Black Mirror-loving developer? 

Alexander advises just one thing: “Trust in Juliet.”

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