As those singletons among us know far too well, serendipitously meeting potential new love interests has been near impossible over the past 16 months. Thankfully, tech is here to save us, with an increasingly long roster of dating apps bringing well-matched strangers together—and demand is higher than ever.
In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Tinder reported its highest number of swipes on a single day and Bumble reported an 18% increase in year-on-year downloads of the app. Along with increasing usage of existing options, lockdown also inspired a new wave of dating apps, such as POM and So Syncd, which hope to transform the industry in their own unique way.
Here, we’ve taken a deeper dive into the world of dating apps to see how these platforms have evolved over time, culminating in the fierce competition between Bumble, which IPO’d in February 2021, and the Match group—which owns the popular apps Tinder and Hinge. We’ve also examined how challenger apps are providing an innovative approach to dating, looking at how high-growth dating platforms are differentiating themselves from the competition.
The Evolution of Dating Apps
Inspired by the growing access to computers in the 80’s and 90’s, Match.com launched as the first dating platform in 1995, and was quickly joined by competitors eharmony and OK Cupid, initiating a revolution in how we think about matchmaking. The move towards mobile apps originated in the lgbtq community, with Grindr and Scruff appearing on the scene in 2009 and 2010, respectively. These were quickly followed by Tinder, which emerged in 2012, encouraging people of all sexualities to start looking for relationships, both casual and serious. Although the app was originally limited to iPhone users, its popularity required developers to quickly expand to Android platforms.
The demand for dating apps over the last decade has seen various matchmaking platforms take their own stance on how users ought to find their perfect match. Beginning with a simple formula, where users create a dating profile and then begin swiping on those created by others, different dating apps have either manipulated their algorithms, or marketed a specific experience, in order to win their share of the market.
The original leader in this space, Tinder, became extremely popular in part because of this gamified approach to matchmaking. The app centers around users swiping either left or right on potential candidates, without knowing if someone else has liked them back. This casual approach is augmented by the fact that users can get up and running super fast, as the app makes the use of a bio and pictures optional.
Tinder initially had a broad application, from people looking for either long-term relationships or just pursuing a casual fling. Slowly, though, the app garnered a reputation for hosting hook-up culture, driving away users looking for something a little more serious.
Providing a solution to this was Hinge, a dating app currently favoured by millennials and Gen Z, which markets itself towards helping daters build serious relationships. The app’s founder, Justin McLeod, believes that features, such as the obligatory bio building stage, help the app to attract a “more intentioned, thoughtful user base”.
Hinge and Tinder are both owned by the Match group, alongside Match.com, OKCupid, PlentyOfFish, Ship, and OurTime. The group reported a revenue of $640m and net income of $132m in the third quarter of 2020, making it the most dominant force in the market.
The Success of Bumble
Bumble is another large player in the dating app industry. The female-focused app, founded by Whitney Wolfe Herd, sought to defy gender norms by placing women at the centre of dating. Herd previously worked at Tinder, but resigned in 2014, subsequently filing a lawsuit against the company for sexual harassment. Herd explains that Bumble’s aim was to “be another voice calling out for more investment in women-owned businesses” and encourage more gender diversity in the broader business community.
Inspired by her experience, Herd created an app that gave women the power to control their dating lives. On Bumble, women always make the first move when reaching out to matches, forcing them to play an active role from the outset. The app also encourages a faster pace of dating, as users must respond to one another within 24 hours or risk losing their match.
Bumble went public in February 2021, raising $2.2b in its IPO at a valuation of $7b. By the end of 2020, the app boasted over 42m active daters embracing the female-orientated approach.
And it seems that Herd’s influence has been felt throughout the industry. Relative to most startup sectors in the UK, dating apps have a high proportion of young and female leaders. Beauhurst’s data highlights how more than half (58%) of directors at the 20 active, high-growth dating platforms are under the age of 40, and 27% of their founders are female. In comparison, across all high-growth UK companies, just 17% of directors are under 40 and 18% of founders are female.
The success of Bumble, and Herd herself, has almost certainly inspired a generation of female entrepreneurs as they enter a traditionally male-dominated business sector.
The impact of the Pandemic on online dating
Leading dating apps have proved remarkably successful in responding to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Government-imposed measures, encouraging people to stay at home and maintain social distancing, resulted in a shift toward online dating. Tinder reported that 2020 was its busiest year, boasting an 11% increase in swipes and 42% more matches.
The big players in the industry took steps to transition dates (as well as the matching process) online and support Government public health initiatives. Bumble, for example, sent direct messages to users with public service updates, whilst Grindr told users that “Right Now” could wait. As the pandemic settled in, these platforms took active steps to address loneliness and isolation.
One example of this was Coffee Meets Bagel, an app normally focused on pairing off users and encouraging them to organise face-to-face meetings. Responding to the lockdown, the app organised a series of mass meetings on the platform, attracting groups of 80+ people each time.
Dating apps also took steps to normalise virtual dating, with Hinge, Bumble and Match.com launching free video calling services providing users the space to organise their first dates online.
This change in approach brought with it a change in attitudes towards online dating. According to a questionnaire conducted by Bumble, two out of three people believe that it is possible to find love through social networking, and 91% of people reported that the stigma surrounding those who meet on dating apps had disappeared since the pandemic began.
High-growth companies transforming the world of dating
One dating app which thrived significantly through the pandemic was Feeld, a high-growth startup that focuses on individuals and couples interested in exploring polyamerous relationships. Beauhurst’s data shows that the dating platform has secured £570k across four rounds of fundraising between 2014 and 2017.
During the first half of 2020, the app reported a 50% growth in registered users, and between March and April of that year, Feeld reported a 120% increase in messaging amongst users.
Whilst some high-growth apps built on previous success during the pandemic, others were just getting started. POM, another high-growth startup, was created by Vihan Patel during the first lockdown. Patel was “bored of generic apps where dating is gamified”, and responded to his frustrations by creating an app that combines music with matchmaking to create a unique experience.
The app asks users to create a profile by linking either a Spotify or Apple Music account to their dating profile. This information is then collected and reviewed by algorithms which determine a users ‘emotional profile’. These algorithms take into account various aspects of the song choices, including their valence, BPM and danceability, and use this data to understand what the emotional response to music is. From there, the app assigns you a list of potential partners that they believe will suit you.
POM has received £1.75m in fundraising, across three different rounds, with the most recent of these taking place in August 2021.
Another app hoping to minimise gamification and maximise IRL interactions is thursday. Aptly named, the dating platform only presents profiles on Thursdays, encouraging singletons to cut the small talk and meet that night. The co-founders, George Rawlings and Matt McNeil Love, developed the app to address the excessive time spent by millennials swiping through dating profiles.
Founded in 2018, the seed-stage startup has raised £2.85m across three separate funding rounds, backed by Ascension, Connect Ventures, Crowdcube and Best Nights VC. The app is currently featured heavily on Linkedin, Facebook and Tiktok, as pictures of its interns promoting the platform in various UK cities have gone viral.
Authentic potential matches
A major complaint from those using traditional dating apps has been the excessive focus on appearance that naturally arises when users are mindlessly swiping through profiles. Centering dating profiles on photographs has even been linked to an increase in catfishing and body shaming, ultimately bringing damage to users instead of positive social interactions.
Trends amongst high-growth dating apps suggest that there is a demand for more authenticity in this space. BARE dating is one example of this. The app encourages users to be sexually honest, focusing on casual dating and exploration rather than long-term relationships. Alex Sergent, the founder and CEO of BARE, explains that the app caters to “anyone who wants to feel comfortable and confident in their honest selves”. So far, the dating app has secured one round of equity funding in June 2021, of £304k.
Another app benefiting from equity funding this year was The Sauce, which raised £271k in May 2021. The dating platform, inspired by Tiktok, targets Gen Z by asking users to build their dating profile with videos showcasing their personality. The video interface hopes to provide a solution to superficial swiping, with the platform branding itself as “anti-bland, anti-dry dating”.
So Syncd takes this approach one step further. By using Myers-Briggs tests, the app tailors its platform according to users’ personality types. Launched by two sisters, Louella and Jessica Alderson, in February 2021, the app claims that its matches are “seven times more likely to result in a conversation compared to the industry standard”.
So Syncd’s algorithm replaces traditional bios by providing potential matches with compatibility percentages that predict the chances of forming a genuine connection. The app’s innovative approach attracted £725k in equity finance in April 2021.
Matchmaking in the community
Beauhurst’s data also points towards the increasing popularity of dating apps that cater towards specific communities of people. Muzmatch has attracted over 4 million users with Muslim heritage looking for relationships that respect their religious beliefs. The company was featured on a high-growth list, Startup’s 100 2019, and has also attracted equity investment on three occasions, amounting to £7.6m.
Muzmatch has helped combat stereotypes surrounding online dating such as the presumption that these platforms facilitate hookup culture. There are many success stories from the app, which provides a space for people to meet potential partners whilst remaining respectful of the values in their community.
In a somewhat similar vein, Salt develops mobile app for Christians. Based in Bedford, the seed-stage company aims to make it easier for Christians to meet potential partners outside of their church. So far it has secured £313k of equity finance.
Elsewhere, Grazer provides a platform for vegetarians and vegans to meet people with similar eating habits, whilst Toffee caters to individuals who have been privately educated. Beauhurst tracks the app as it has acquired £147k in equity across two rounds of fundraising.
The philosophy behind the dating app is based on research suggesting that “people with similar backgrounds are more likely to stick together, they have shared experiences and are like-minded.” But reviews of the paid-for app suggest that it has struggled to draw in a big enough pool of users to work effectively.
The future of love and relationships?
Recent trends suggest that the dating platform industry will continue to develop innovative and creative approaches to matchmaking. Whilst we can’t tell you which dating app will link you to your next lover, or provide you the most compatible match, it is clear that this is an increasingly interesting space to watch for high-growth companies.
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