Does Online Dating Work?

Local cyber-matchmaker Plenty of Fish recently announced its 100-millionth user—just another milestone on CEO Markus Frind’s journey to world domination.

June 26, 2015

The instant Nadia and Greg saw each other “we smiled, hugged, and talked for hours as if we’d known each other forever.” The pair first met online, a story they share on Plentyoffish.com, which brought them together. (Theirs is the latest of 5,379 such happy posts.) It wasn’t long before they were inseparable. “Years later, Greg proposed on our most recent vacation in Jamaica. Wedding planning has been extremely smooth and we’re looking forward to 2/20/16. Thank you POF for introducing us and for our amazing sun-kissed love story!”

That’s a charming tale, if unverifiable. (This is the internet, after all.) But they’ve got nothing on Markus Frind, who started Plenty of Fish in his apartment in 2003. Still the sole owner and CEO, he was a one-man show for the first five years; now, he says in the company’s board room on the 25th floor of a downtown office tower, the world-beater he built expects to see revenues of $100 million for 2015. If that’s not cause enough for happiness, the site also brought him his wife, Annie Kanciar. (She worked for him.)

Over a dozen years, the firm has weathered many tech challenges, including the proliferation of smartphones and the migration to mobile. Users today log in (90 percent by app) “repeatedly, for very short periods of time—60 seconds.” They’re checking for profile views and new messages. Desktop use peaks around 3 p.m., mobile around 6. Sex apps like Tinder have also altered the online-dating landscape, but nothing fazes Frind. “I don’t really view Tinder as a threat. The amount of information you can see on people is so limited; it’s just based on looks and nothing else. It caters to a different demographic. It’s more like a gateway drug.”

The chief of the world’s largest dating site is responsible for the love lives of 100 million users—four million interact on any given day—who trawl through six billion page views per month. That’s a daunting volume (the entire population of B.C., looking to hook up every day) managed by a shockingly small staff: 75 employees, almost all on this one floor, writing code, eyeballing real-time metrics, ensuring good user experience. Plus Frind, who spends his days finding and fixing problems. “I wrote all the metrics. I have my own dashboard. There’s always something broken or wrong or needs looking at.” With all the data a programmer could ever need, he says it’s hard to focus on individual users and their quirks: “Look at 1,000 people. The combinations become like a factorial, a tremendous number that you can’t really rationalize. I look at it more in terms of groups of people, and you optimize for the group, not the individual.”

That’s not how the users see it, of course. Mr. and Ms. Lonely-heart are removing the group in search of that special one. The dating pool will go up July 1, Frind says. “A lot of older users will sign up—high school gets out, or just younger college students, telling their single parents to sign up—then there will be more until three days after Labour Day. Then it starts to go down.” The other peak is in the winter: “You have the New Year’s resolution right after Christmas, so everyone dates until the Wednesday after Valentine’s Day, a massive surge in traffic.”

It’s a pace that never falters, a well that never runs dry. “Online dating is a utility,” he says. “It’s there to help you find someone. The way that could happen may change over time, but what the product does is always the same. At the core, it’s always going to be the same.”

So he tinkers away, an invisible multimillionaire in his hometown. At 37, he says he’s too young to think about legacy or philanthropy. “When you’re in your mid 30s, you don’t really think about these things. It’s like, I’m worried about the baby screaming.”

Right. He and Annie have an eight-month-old daughter, the latest Plenty of Fish benefit and just one side project among several. (Cymax, an online furniture retailer, is another; he recently invested $21 million in the Burnaby-based company.) So, the natural question: when will she be allowed to have an account? “Never!”

He pauses, reconsiders. “It won’t exist by then. It will all be telepathic.”

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