(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
Late one night in 2002, Sam Yagan got a call from a former Harvard buddy with an idea for a business. What if they created a website with a button that visitors could push to set up a blind date? Yagan told him to call back when he was sober. But the idea got him thinking: Setting people up on random dates would require an enormous database of would-be romantics and their preferences. Then the system would have to identify a bar or restaurant convenient to both parties.
Later that year, Yagan, his late-night caller Chris Coyne, and others developed OkCupid, an ad-supported dating site that uses algorithms to match prospective daters up based on their answers to a list of questions. OkCupid was acquired by IAC (IACI), media mogul Barry Diller’s holding company, in 2011 for $90 million. With 3.8 million active users, it’s one of the most popular dating sites for 18- to 34-year-olds.
Now, Yagan has gone back to the old idea. On Jan. 15, New York-based OkCupid launched its app, Crazy Blind Date. Free for iPhones and Android phones, it’s intended to eliminate the hard work it takes to get off the sofa and find a date. If a would-be dater is free at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, he or she can select a local bar or coffee shop from the app’s recommendations, then choose among four people who are free at the time, and who the algorithm says may be good matches. Anyone can use the app, but daters who have previously answered questions about their preferences on OkCupid’s website are more likely to get suitable matches. The dates are not totally blind—names, ages, and scrambled photos of their faces are provided.
The strangers are expected to spend only 20 minutes on the date. Afterward, the app prompts them to rate their companions in terms of “kudos.” The more kudos they give, the more they pay OkCupid, from nothing up to $3. “If it were a perfect world, I would charge by success,” says Yagan, 36, who has been married for nine years. “If you could start a dating site where you just got paid for marriage or sex, that’d be pretty cool. This is the closest we can come.”
Prior to OkCupid, Yagan, Coyne, and others co-founded test-prep company SparkNotes, which they sold to Barnes & Noble (BKS) in 2001 for $3.7 million. Coyne now works at OkCupid Labs, the company’s incubator. Since October, Yagan has run IAC’s portfolio of dating sites, which had $518 million in revenue in 2011, up 29 percent from the prior year. The company’s other sites include Match.com, for people looking for serious relationships, and OurTime.com, for daters over 50, both of which charge monthly subscription fees.
OkCupid attempted a Web-based version of Crazy Blind Date in 2007, but it was too clunky and lasted less than a year, a company spokeswoman says. More people used mobile apps than websites for dating in 2011 for the first time, according to IBISWorld; OkCupid says user activity on its mobile app and website is 20 times what it was in January 2012.
Other dating sites are also pursuing the spontaneity market. HowAboutWe lets users post an idea for an activity, then find a date interested in going along. Grouper sends groups of three men and three women to meet at a bar.
Yagan has tracked all kinds of data on users to determine what they want from OkCupid. His company’s blog, OkTrends, displays line graphs illustrating such details as countries’ per capita gross domestic product vs. the percentage of people who are looking for casual sex (there’s a strong correlation). He says young daters generally are interested in fun and convenience. But the average visit to the site lasts 20 minutes, since users must sift through messages, then develop enough of a rapport with someone to ask for a first date. Using the Crazy Blind Date app can take less than two minutes and be done on the spur of the moment.
Less forethought could be a good thing, says Sarah Wexler, author of Awful First Dates: Hysterical, True, and Heartbreakingly Bad. Exchanging messages beforehand “helps build anticipation that the date is going to go well, because they’re from Boston and I’m also from Boston,” Wexler says. “If all you know about somebody is they’re single, you’ll probably go into it with more realistic expectations.”
Yagan expects Crazy Blind Date will draw criticism. Without a chance to talk to a blind date beforehand, there’s no way to filter out dangerous people, except for the reviews others have given them. And since anyone can use the app, the company will not have much information on some daters. In one of the first reviews on Apple’s (AAPL) App Store, a user gave a one-star rating and wrote, “Going on a date with someone from the Internet is risky enough. Going on a date with someone you have never seen from the Internet is just asking for trouble.” As a safeguard, the app uses Foursquare’s options for bars and coffee shops nearby, “so you can’t meet in someone’s house, or an alleyway, or a car,” Yagan says.
Crazy Blind Date was downloaded more than 130,000 times within two days of its release, according to IAC. Whether it generates profits will depend on people grading their dates honestly. Some who go on a good date may be tempted to say it was bad, just to get the service for free. But if people are honest, Yagan says, the ratings should mostly be positive—even if their dates don’t end in romance. “I know the first day somebody’s going to be like, ‘You set me up with my sister! You set me up with my boss!’ ” he says. “But even bad dates can make for good stories.”