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Markus Frind of Vancouver, BC is the surprising owner
of an online dating site called plentyoffish.com.
He's famous for being pictured holding up a check for $900,000
from Google, for Google AdSense ads he runs on the site.
According to Hitwise, plentyoffish.com currently holds a
3% market share in the "lifestyle-dating" category,
despite having only one employee.
1. What were you doing before you founded
plentyoffish.com? What made you suited for the task of conceiving
and promoting a community site with rapid growth in a highly
competitive vertical? I know, a lot of people will say - "just make
it better," but then they don't implement and can't
achieve that. You did. Why do you think that is?
Every 6 months or so I was jumping from 1 dot-com to another
as the entire Internet industry was going down the drain
here. I didn't start the site with a grand plan in mind.
I had been doing ASP for years and the market was going towards
ASP.net. I don't like learning from books and the only way
to really learn was to just sit down and write in it. So
one day I just sat down and started writing a dating site
in ASP.net/ASP, once I learned enough I started porting my
ASP pages into ASP.net.
As for the growth, a think a lot of that was accidental
or first-mover advantage. Here in Canada LavaLife was the
only real dating site, and they had a monopoly. I had a couple
of my friends sign up from the major cities and after that
the site just started to grow and spread. Every successful
business is about being in the right place at the right time.
2. How did you come up with the idea to get a foot
in the door of the online personals market by making the
whole service free? Just your personal dislike of existing
I was running the entire site off my home PC and ADSL connection
for the first 8 months. There was no real plan, I wasn't
even sure what I was going to do with the site. At the end
of October 2003, I was getting so much traffic that I had
to buy a server and move it to a hosting facility. I always
liked free sites and couldn't see why companies had to change
insane amounts of money for something that was trivial to
make. At the time I was also working and I didn't have the
money to convert the site to a paid service, or hire all
the customer support people necessary. I also didn't feel
my site was stable enough to charge for.
3. You're legendary for having no employees. How many
people currently work at your company? Do you have expansion
Just me right now, my girlfriend helps with some of the
customer service stuff when I don't want to do it. I am planning
on expanding into other markets but I don't think I need
to hire any employees any time soon. Nearly all the work
can be automated away except for user stupidity that leads
to crazy questions.
4. What do you think the relationship between offline
promo and online success has been for your service? Do you
do more and more real-world networking nowadays?
Offline promo works well when marketing to huge existing
customer base. It does not work well when trying to grow
big. I allow my users to host singles events all over the
world and many of the people that show up to these things
end up not even being members of the site. Like nearly every
other site I sort of ignore offline marketing, as it is far
too expensive when you don't have huge numbers of people
in your target market already using your service.
5. Have you noticed the established players copying
your ideas? When did that start happening?
This happened from day one, the first thing that was copied
was allowing people to select things like "I don't
want to receive messages from Americans," etc. The other
sites don't innovate they just copy what works from the other
sites. The complete lack of originality from the established
players is probably the main reason plentyoffish.com has
been able to grow so fast and so big in such a short period
6. A cursory look at Alexa or similar stats reports
shows your site's reach growing rapidly from inception. But
did you feel like there was a tipping point, say when you
reached in the top 10,000 of sites overall? Not that these
numbers are accurate, but the pattern looks like steady growth
with a brief period of even faster growth when you got under
the top 10,000 overall, in late 2004. (Currently Alexa says
you're #679 of all sites. Again, not that this is accurate,
but it's roughly helpful.) Any insight into when steady growth
either stops, or accelerates?
graph here is closer to my real traffic growth.
Online dating really sucks when compared to social networking.
Every month I lose 30% of my traffic as the average dater
only stays 3 months. Social networks, on the other hand,
retain users and just keep growing and growing and end
up making a hell of a lot more money. I don't think there
really is a tipping point; the growth is slow and steady,
things speed up in January and then slow down over the
summer months. That can be said for all Internet companies,
though. You can't draw many conclusions from an Alexa rank
of 10,000 -- that is only a sample of 30 Alexa users a
7. I read you actually blocked Alexa users from signing
up in the early days. You wanted to fly under the radar.
Surely that wasn't 100% effective?
It blocked about 70% of them, so not all of them. Blocking
Alexa is very trivial -- all you need to do is check for
Alexa in the browser user-agent. My Alexa rank of 600-700
means I have a grand total of 190 Alexa users per day. You
need very few users with the Alexa toolbar installed to rank
high, just take a look at DigitalPoint.
8. Do you have plans to sell the company? How much
is it worth? If you go by 5X revenues or so, that's a lot
of coin. As you know, Weblogs, Inc. sold for some ridiculous
multiple like 25X annual revenues. They actually *needed*
I have no plans to sell, and the company is worth as much
as someone is willing to pay for it. Weblogs just sold for
a crazy amount, especially considering they had such huge
overhead and little profits.
9. What do you see other startups doing wrong? Other
dating startups? Are there any you particularly admire? Why
didn't Friendster make it?
There are so many startups, and they are here one day, and
gone the next. There are around 300 social networking startups
now, and maybe 5 to 10 of those are going to be around in
a few years. It's not that these startups are doing stuff
wrong, it's the fact there can only be a handful of winners.
There are a lot of dating startups, but I don't pay much
attention to them as they only last a couple of months and
then fade away.
The biggest reason Friendster didn't make it was because
there was no purpose to the site. You sign up bring your
friends to the site, that is great and all, but there was
just nothing to do once you were there. People got bored
and left, and the extreme slowness of the site didn't help
them at all.
10. Sites like Yahoo, Google, and Craigslist are
famous for getting ahead with "anti-design" (though
Yahoo got cluttered as it grew). Is that a source of your
success? Did any of them inspire you?
I like simplicity, and I am not a graphic designer at all.
Success doesn't come down to just one thing. Its not like
Microsoft can clone Google's layout and be the largest search
engine. Success is a combination of things and having the
right idea at the right time.
11. Did any major design or development dilemmas crop
up along the way? What was your most important user interface
decision, beyond keeping it smooth and simple, I mean?
Database and performance issues. Online dating is one of
the most complex applications there is online. Every single
one of my competitors has several hundred servers because
the CPU/ RAM needed to generate search results and support
tens of thousands of concurrent users. I have a lot of issues
these days especially when I peak out at 35,000 concurrent
users. I redesign my site every couple of weeks so it doesn't
get crushed by the sheer number of users online. As for front-end
design I could care less, lots of users are using my site
and more are coming every day, my number one focus is making
sure the site stays up for another day.
Thanks for your time, Markus! Believe it or not,
you are the first interviewee in our "Innovators" series.
We've got a few others on the list, but I was more motivated
to contact you than any of the others. :)
Online innovation, be it soft
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