Click for Cupid

With a slew of new apps and Web portals trying to woo the young, tech-savvy Indian with their lonely hearts’ clubs, the stigma and pitfalls associated with online dating are somewhat diminishing.

Online dating, Online chat

WHEN SHOBIT Bhargava (na-me changed), a 25-year-old lawyer based in Mumbai, saw a picture of 23-year-old Sneha Lal (name changed) on online dating platform TrulyMadly, he was instantly attracted. They soon started talking, and then decided to meet in person. “Although our fist date was a disaster, somehow we clicked and the rest, as they say, is history,” says Bhargava. “Sneha doesn’t like to tell people we met online, but personally I see no harm in it as long as we are happy,” he adds.

Similarly, Ruchi Dhawan, a 27-year-old fashion designer from Gurgaon, met banker Vishwas Patel through Tinder, another online dating app, a month ago. “When we first met, I thought Vishwas was a bit shy as compared to his virtual avatar. Nevertheless, it’s been good so far and in the past one month or so, I have found a hundred more reasons to like him,” she says.

“Online dating is kind of scary, but when one meets the right person, it’s a great platform,” says Dhawan, adding, “Still, I would advise people to try it with care and caution.”

But Avinish Mittal, the 24-year-old product manager of Noida-based dating website  Getvee, has some assurance for users. “Notwithstanding the high engagement of users, there is still a social stigma attached to online dating, be it privacy woes or apprehensions that people might tag you a ‘despo’. However, we have been able to ease these apprehensions and are making people aware of the advantages of finding people online,” he says. Getvee was founded in May 2014 by Nitin Gupta to make the process of meeting new and interesting people fun and easier.
Mittal is supported by many others who have launched online dating sites and apps such as Tinder, TrulyMadly, Thrill and Footloose No More, among others.

Adds Sachin Bhatia, co-founder of TrulyMadly, another online dating platform based in Delhi, “The spectacular growth of our app in metros, as well as in smaller cities, suggests that the taboo around online dating is fast eroding. Youngsters are clearly telling us they want to explore their options and meet a few interesting people as they look to find love.”

These apps and websites take inspiration from several successful matrimony sites, and are also an indicator of changing social mores. Where matrimony was the only acceptable result of a meeting between a boy and a girl, dating is what youngsters are open about now. “While a lot of youth are definitely casually dating, the older generations still look down upon it and there’s a certain aura of negativity surrounding dating,” says Josh Israel, the man behind Thrill, a dating app launched about two years ago. “This thought gave us a reason to start a social dating service that was devoid of the negativity surrounding the concept,” he adds.

The genesis

Mumbai-based Varsha Agnihotri came up with the idea of Footloose No More about five years ago when she, like many young people living in big cities, discovered that it wasn’t very easy to meet new people, let alone find love. The idea was to provide a space that would allow “modern, urban Indians” to choose their own partners and go from dating to perhaps matrimony at their own comfortable pace, says Agnihotri. Since its launch in 2013, the site has attracted over 3,000 registered users to the site, of which 50 have gotten married.

Similarly, serial entrepreneurs Sachin Bhatia and Hitesh Dhingra teamed up with Rahul Kumar to launch TrulyMadly when they realised the huge deficit of trust and transparency with existing online match-making solutions. “We came up with a matchmaking website with thought, reason and emotion, minus the kinks of caste and creed. The platform is a way to find a compatible partner instead of skirting around dim alleyways,” explains Bhatia, who, prior to launching TrulyMadly, co-founded the online travel company, MakeMyTrip, and served as chief marketing officer for the conglomerate. Dhingra is a serial entrepreneur and angel investor. Previously, he founded and led electronics etail venture, Letsbuy, which was later acquired by Flipkart in 2012. The third co-founder, Kumar, worked as a senior product manager for technology companies both in the US and India, including MakeMyTrip and Expedia.

How they work

TrulyMadly’s app, for instance, is pretty intuitive and getting started is a piece of cake. You can ‘hide’ people you don’t like or ‘like’ people you’re interested in. If a person ‘likes’ you back, you can see their full name and interact with them. Unless you complete the verification, you can’t interact with people you’re interested in or see all profiles that match your preferences.

The app pulls out matches based on your preferences such as age, height, country, annual income and eating habits. These details are visible to all verified users. Once your Facebook and LinkedIn profiles are verified, others can see the number of connections you have on each account and also find out if you have any friends in common. If you don’t verify your profile, then you will still be shown certain matches, but not allowed to interact with or view them in detail.

“The website works on a social algorithm to connect like-minded individuals who are looking for serious relationships,” says Bhatia of TrulyMadly. “The algorithm is based on an exhaustive research conducted by a team of psychologists who have derived a set of personality attributes responsible for a long-term, successful relationship. The site then matches profiles of people based on who they are, what they are looking for, instead of traditional matches based on caste or location,” he adds.

How they ensure quality

Scientific methods and curated meet-ups sound good, but most e-commerce ventures had to be tailored to meet the needs of the Indian market. Simply bringing international ideas to India has not been very successful. And that is why a lot of these websites brand themselves as working on a “relationship management model” or “modern-day matchmaking”.

When Agnihotri of Footloose No More, who met her husband at a Holi party in Delhi several years ago, started to work on her site, she decided that instead of matching people based on an algorithm, the site would screen all applications, and then host a curated meet-up for new members. “The catch is that you can’t use the site just to meet people online—if you miss three Footloose No More events in a row, then your membership is revoked,” she adds.

Take another dating website Sirf Coffee that uses the “relationship management model” for instance. Sunil Hiranandani, its founder, insists that Sirf Coffee is not an online-dating service. “It is about getting to know a client on a personal level,” he says. “A user directly meets a hand-picked date over a cup of coffee (or drinks), and gets to know them in person, as opposed to online,” he adds.

Unlike online dating sites in the West, where there typically is a lot of interaction between people paired by computers until they actually meet, Indian sites seem keen to offer a concierge service of hand-picking people to meet in person. The stress is on helping one find long-term relationships, and not just casual dating. “We ensure a pressure-free environment where you can be yourself, deriving comfort from the fact that you and your date tick each other’s boxes,” says Hiranandani, adding: “You can exchange numbers if you like, date for years, get married next week, or simply leave after a casual drink. There is opportunity to move forward, without the obligation to do so.”

Footloose No More’s curated events also keep the interactions offline. You can see people on the site, but you can’t message them on your own. The site matches you, and brings you together at the “curated” events, so there is no “awkwardness or stigma”. Agnihotri says these events help people come out of their shell, but allow them to take things forward at their own pace.

Indeed, people aren’t all comfortable with the idea of dating sites, something that TrulyMadly’s Bhatia says the company has been trying to change. “We recently launched a social media campaign called ‘Breaking Stereotypes’, which was aimed at disproving stereotypes, thereby supporting compatibility and personal interactions among people,” he said.

As per Mittal of Getvee, people in India want “more choice in their matchmaking decisions, but don’t want to tell people—particularly parents— that they are registered on dating websites”. An online-offline cocktail, that’s why sites like Sirf Coffee and the others try to sell the idea of a mediated experience, instead of online dating.

Agnihotri says that on Footloose No More, every member who gets approved gets a screening call. “He/ she must submit documents proving their authenticity,” says Agnihotri. “We check their Facebook profiles, their LinkedIn profiles and finally when we meet them in person is when we decide if the person should be a member or not.” TrulyMadly also verifies identity, though they don’t go as far as requiring in-person interviews. Sirf Coffee also interviews clients in person, and Hiranandani says that if a client cannot come for a personal meeting, then they arrange a Skype interview.

The business model

“The market is still very young in India, so it’s difficult to pinpoint its size and any expected return that we plan to attain eventually. But after having a good user base, we think advertising will be the best way to monetise the application,” says Mittal of Getvee.

However, TrulyMadly claims to never go to the advertising mode. “One promise I can make is that we will never go towards advertising, for there are several ways of generating revenue by providing higher functions of ‘paid stickers’ or ‘ice breakers’, as we notice guys really need courses in that,” says Bhatia. As per Varsha of Footloose No More, “We have a membership fee for members who sign up and ask them to pay a small amount for the events or gathering that we organise for them to meet and interact.”

But are they of any help?

Mumbai-based college student, Smita Sen, 18, who registered on the online dating app Tinder as a random research project, was surprised to find a barrage of requests coming her way. “I registered out of curiosity. But I found that just about every guy I would like, had already done the same for me. Now that’s creepy!”

Tinder is a matchmaking mobile app, which uses GPS technology for connecting its users with anyone that is within that distance. Launched in August 2012 by Sean Rad, Justin Mateen and Jonathan Badeen in the US, the portal entered India in late 2013. It currently attracts more than 10 million active daily users globally.

Israel of Thrill explains: “Most online dating sites in India have some major issues. A lot of the websites that people use in India for dating lack credibility. There are tons of profiles with no pictures, and no information. When we started, we saw that a lot of creeps/fake profiles were surfacing, which was one of the main reasons women weren’t signing up. This made us hand over the reigns of dating and filtering to the girls.” For sites that don’t have such a filter, women have to rely on their instincts.

Most girls who spoke about registering for online dating sites say they weren’t comfortable talking about it with their friends. Clinical psychologist and counsellor Kanan Khatau says: “Indians are conservative and fear being judged. It’s the thinking that influences our reactions to online dating—the fear of being judged is always the core issue. There is a bit of guilt associated with dating online. Our perception about a girl dating online is the same even today—that she wants to go to bed with the one she has chosen.”

“The whole idea is to get more and more people involved and remove the fear and stigma associated with online dating,” says Mittal of Getvee, adding: “And the more we reach out, the easier it will be.”

The idea (behind our site) was to provide a space that would allow ‘modern, urban Indians’ to choose their partners and go from dating to perhaps matrimony: Varsha Agnihotri, co-founder, Footloose No More.

The spectacular growth for our app in metros as well as in smaller cities suggests that the taboo around online dating is fast eroding: Sachin Bhatia, co-founder, TrulyMadly.

Most online dating sites in India have some major issues. A lot of the websites that people use in the country for online dating lack credibility: Josh Israel, co-founder, Thrill.

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