From matrimonial sites to a dating site, India on the move

From matrimonial sites to a dating site, India on the move

taken by surprise Daniel Osit, Adam Sachs, and Kevin Owocki (from left to right) the founders of Ignighter.com, in New York. NYT

In 2008, three young guys in Manhattan started Ignighter.com, a dating website focused on 20somethings. They sought to set themselves apart by enabling members to set up group dates: One member, serving as a point person, could arrange a date — a movie, say, or a picnic in Central Park — with a group of other people and thereby take some of the awkward edge off of typical dates.

During the company’s first year, the three founders — Kevin Owocki, now 26, Daniel Osit, 29, and Adam Sachs, 28 — hustled to get the word out, hosting parties, blitzing college campuses with fliers and doing a big push on Facebook.

By the end of 2008, Ignighter.com had 50,000 registered users in the United States — a decent number, but not big enough to put it on the digital dating map, which is crowded with competitors.

“People just didn’t get right away what the site was when we told them about it. They thought it was a site for orgies,” says Sachs, who is in charge of business development and media relations for the site.

Then, in April 2009, while checking statistics about visitors to the site, Osit, who is in charge of marketing, noticed that there was a lot of traffic from Singapore, Malaysia, India and South Korea. Sachs recalls: “We didn’t pay any attention to it at first. We thought, ‘That’s interesting — now let’s plan our next event in New York City.”

But by June, they couldn’t ignore the traffic from Asia — specifically India, which by then had more visitors than any other Asian country. Ignighter was gaining hundreds of users a day, mainly from New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai.

“In January 2010, we made the decision that we are an Indian dating site,” Sachs says. And now, with almost 2 million users — and 7,000 more signing up daily — Ignighter is considered India’s fastest-growing dating website.

To put it another way, it gets as many users in a week in India as it did in a year in the US. Next month, Ignighter will open an office in India and hire a dozen local employees. The company has stopped developing its American site, though it remains online.

As funding heats up for web startups in general, some investors have taken notice of Ignighter and its potential in India. This month, the company closed a $3 million round of financing. Forty per cent of its investors are based in India, including Rajan Anandan, Google’s top executive in India. In the US, Ignighter is backed by Point Judith Capital, Founder Collective and GSA Venture Partners, among others.

“Here we are, a few Jewish guys sitting in Union Square, and we might have accidentally revolutionised the dating scene in India,” Sachs says of himself and Osit. They and Owocki, who is charge of web development and programming for Ignighter, have never been to India — though they now plan to make frequent trips there.

Listening to the market

It’s not all that unusual for start-ups to find that their market isn’t what they intended, said Sean Marsh, co-founder of Point Judith Capital in Providence. But not all entrepreneurs choose to listen to what the market is telling them, he says.

Even though an Indian dating site wasn’t their original concept, the Ignighter founders decided to pivot at a crucial moment, he says: “You have to be flexible as an entrepreneur and bend to the market and consumer feedback.”

So how did this happy accident happen?

Osit suspects that young people in India read about the service on technology blogs like Mashable and TechCrunch. From there, it grew in part because dating in India is still in a somewhat embryonic stage. It happens in big cities like Mumbai and Hyderabad, but in many less cosmopolitan parts of India it’s still considered taboo for unmarried men and women to be seen in public together. Many couples, as they have for centuries, meet through arranged marriages that their relatives orchestrate.

But for some in this generation — those raised on a diet of MTV and social networks — there’s a desire to find new dating scripts or just to hang out with a coed group.

The group dynamic also makes going out an easier sell to parents, who are worried about safety and propriety. That’s what led Rohan Bhardwaj, 23, to set up a profile on Ignighter last month. He works in New Delhi at Exclusively.In, an online store that sells Indian luxury goods, and, like a majority of his peers, he lives with his parents. He heard about Ignighter from his boss in the US — the chief executive of Exclusively.In, which shares office space with Ignighter in Manhattan — and from his cousin in Canada.

Bhardwaj formed a group with two friends and, as the point person or ‘ambassador’ of that group, asked out two 20something women from New Delhi. They arranged a date at a karaoke bar, and their second date was at the Hard Rock Cafe in the Saket. Since then, he has gone on a couple of more dates with that group. Bhardwaj says he isn’t trying to find a wife through the site. For him, that’s a long way off.

“There’s a particular age when people have to get married, which is around 26 or 27,” he says. And he is not yet sure if he will go the traditional route to find a wife, adding that his parents are open to the idea of a ‘love marriage’ that is not arranged.

For people like Bhardwaj, Ignighter is filling a social niche that allows them to combine
social networking and offline ‘friending’ without the pressure of the matrimonial sites that dominate India’s online dating landscape. “Group dating is a great opportunity that didn’t exist before,” Bhardwaj says.

But in a culture where dating can still be a relatively new concept, Ignighter.com’s success may depend, in part, on which way the social winds blow.

“I’m seeing the change happening. There are enough people in the new generation who want to have their own identity and meet people on their own terms,” says Sasha Mirchandani, 38, an investor in Ignighter.com and managing partner of Kae Capital, a venture capital firm in Mumbai. “If I were 27 or 28 and single, I would go online to date,” says Mirchandani, who is married.

Matrimonial sites thrive in India. Shaadi.com and others like Jeevansathi.com and Bharat Matrimony all have millions of users. The online matrimonial industry in India is estimated to generate $63 million a year in revenue and has tens of millions of registrants, according to EmPower Research, a market research firm.

“Dating sites have not succeeded in India,” says Gaurav Mishra of the MSL Group, a division of the marketing company Publicis Groupe. “It’s either been social networking sites or matrimonial sites.” Traditional dating sites, like Match.com, haven’t taken off in India.

Mirchandani says he believes the situation is changing.

“In a country of nearly a billion,” he says, “even if arranged marriages decline from 90 per cent to 86 per cent, that still means there are millions of people who could turn to a dating site.”

Mishra is skeptical that a site like Ignighter.com can succeed. “Indian women don’t even post their own profiles on matrimonial sites; their fathers and brothers do,” he says. “So, I can’t imagine Indian women posting their profiles on a dating site, and to have a successful dating site, you need to have women.”

Potential

Still, 40 per cent of Ignighter’s members are women, according to the company. While the pace of cultural and social change may well dictate how Ignighter.com fares in India, other indicators are pointing in its favour. For one, India is a less-saturated internet market — only a small percentage of the population goes online — making it a potentially lucrative opportunity for sites that get there early.

“If you look at it from a macro perspective, we are on the right side of globalisation,” Osit says. “India is growing much faster than the US” — where about three-quarters of the population has regular internet access.

The next phase for Ignighter.com is to see whether it can be an Indian dating site based in India. All three founders agree that they can’t run the business by remote control from their office in Union Square. So each will spend a couple of months a year at the soon-to-be-opened Indian office.

“All of our decisions so far have been very mathematical,” Sachs says. Osit adds that their biggest cultural blind spot is in understanding male-female interaction in India.
“I’m sure there are a lot of subtleties there that we need to grasp,” he says.

When Osit, Sachs and Owocki go to India for the first time next month, they will set up an office, arrange for the company to be incorporated and hire employees. But they will also see how young people interact, becoming students of the Indian social scene so they can make some decisions about the site.

In India, the site works the same way it did in the US. Groups chat through messaging and arrange to go out on dates to movies, restaurants and clubs. The median age of users is 23.5; the average group size is four people, Sachs says.

The site is still trying to determine the best pricing; a yearly subscription fee now runs $10 to $45. On the Indian version of the site, a virtual-goods marketplace is prominent, selling virtual gifts like cricket balls and naan bread — to be sent to other users as a way to flirt. “It’s been a big hit,” Osit says. “We sell about 10,000 gifts a month.”

As for how many group dates Ignighter.com has helped to arrange in India so far, the founders don’t know. They’ll start doing user and market research later this year. At this point, it’s not clear whether many of the group outings lead to romance, but the site is clearly striking a chord.

“Young people aren’t using Ignighter.com to get married,” Bhardwaj said. They’ll still go to the tried-and-true matrimonial sites for that.

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