IF THE PLETHORA of matchmakers, love doctors, dating web sites and countless reality television shows based on the subject are any indication, finding a date must be a feat of extreme difficulty. And for savvy businesses that offer to help, lonely hearts can be a goldmine.
That’s what accidental entrepreneur Markus Frind found when he launched his free dating site, PlentyofFish.com , in 2003 from his home in Vancouver, B.C. The site, which began as a side project for the full-time web developer, “grew by a few thousand people within the first few months,” he says. After signing up with Google’s AdSense to host ads on the site, he reaped more than 1,000 Canadian dollars in the first month. A year later, as love-hungry users flocked to his site, that monthly figure jumped to more than 41,000 dollars.
Making a bundle in the dating industry, of course, isn’t easy for a small player competing against behemoths such as Yahoo! Personals, Match.com and eHarmony. Much as in love, winning an appreciative audience requires dedication, patience — and some clever outmaneuvering of rivals.
At PlentyofFish, which now ranks among the top 10 dating sites in the U.S. for unique visitors, Frind’s strategy was simple. “I undercut them on price,” he says. (The site’s slogan is “100% Free. Put Away Your Credit Card.”) As a solo entrepreneur, Frind found it easier to take a gamble on a no-fee site. If big players “lose a couple hundred million dollars, they have shareholders [and employees] to answer to,” says Frind.
When it comes to the business of love, newbie entrepreneurs need to figure out a way to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Here’s how:
Find a Niche
The beauty of a small business is that it can easily focus on specific market segment, unlike a big competitor that typically seeks a broad audience, says Jeff Williams, a professor of business strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. The advantage of catering to a specific customer base, he adds, is that “your business is so small that it doesn’t really pay the big guys to come after you.”
People who prefer to date within their own ethnicity or religion have long been targeted by traditional or online dating services. Now, even more narrowly focused niches have begun to surface. For instance, golfers seeking romantic partners who share an affinity for the links might head to golfmates.com , while vegetarians who have the hots for other meat-avoiders might list their profiles at vegetariandating.com .
The best niche businesses are usually started by entrepreneurs who have a deep understanding of the community they want to serve, Williams says. For example, Patrick H. Perrine, a psychologist who spent years studying human sexuality and dating preferences, launched a gay male matchmaking service in San Francisco in 2004. Perrine, who is gay, expanded the service — now online and called MyPartner.com — to a national audience last year. “We discovered quickly that there was no space for gay men looking for a serious relationship on the web,” he says.