The entrepreneur behind the £36m dating business you've never heard of
It’s the UK’s biggest dating company with a new office in Waterloo and eyes set firmly on New York. Why have you never heard of Global Personals, and what could it do for your business?
What do Jazz FM, Bauer Media, Jongleurs, The Independent and Lauren Pope (star of The Only Way Is Essex) have in common?
They have all launched their own dating businesses (‘Hope with Pope’ is now a must visit site for lonely Essex-ites), but, more to the point, these sites are all powered and run by Global Personals.
Global Personals has recently taken over Match.com and Cupid.com to become the largest dating business in the UK. Revenues for the forthcoming year are expected to hit £36m, it’s just moved to a new headquarters in Waterloo, and the USA is beckoning. But chances are you’ve never heard of it.
That’s because when co-founder Ross Williams and Steve Pammenter decided to jump into the burgeoning online dating market back in 2003, they decided not to take on the global giants like Match.com head-on, but instead launch a white label dating business.
With 1,480 partners who run over 7,000 dating sites, and the cracking of the US market on the agenda, we thought we’d catch up with co-founder Ross Williams to find out more about the ‘behind the scenes’ dating business.
Q: So Ross, give us a basic idea of how the Global Personals business model works
“We set up Singles365.com first to get a database of people together. All affiliate sites have access to this data, but we prefer to let our affiliate businesses do the advertising and branding of the dating sites while using our platform. So the white label part of the business is the biggest.
“The success of WhiteLabelDating.com has helped us to surpass the UK’s biggest players in the dating scene. Ninety per cent of our revenue comes from that and our partnerships with 7,000 sites up and running, so it’s a long spread.
“It’s easy for companies to have their own dating site using our platform, all they need is a link on their site – we power the site, look after all of the backend software, run customer service and provide a vast pool of singles to populate their sites.
“The highly successful Guardian Soulmates used a third party platform but they brought it in-house around six to nine months ago and they’ve really suffered because of it. It’s very expensive to run a data site because you have to look after the technology and run customer care etc.
“Our model works on a revenue share basis, we don’t take money from our partners until they start making some – we share the revenue from subscription 50/50.”
Q: The singles that sign up to any of your sites can end up on a number of different dating sites?
“Yes, daters are aware of this when they sign up. Someone could be featured on any number of sites depending on their specifications. If you’re single, you want to meet people. It is our job to get ‘our product’ (the dater) on as many shelves as possible.”
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Q: How did Global Personals start?
“It started from my living room in Bracknell. I went to university on a Royal Air Force scholarship and studied Psychology and French. When I graduated I realised I really wasn’t much of a fighter and that the Air Force wasn’t for me.
“I took a course in web design. This was in the mid to late nineties when the internet was really kicking off. In 2003 I was running a small web agency when I met Steve Pammenter. We spoke about online dating as it was in a real growth phase at the time.
“We decided on the white label approach instead of taking on the big dating giants, but we needed to launch a site to build a data base. We went out and got half a dozen credit cards each and spent hundreds of thousands of pounds paying Google to make sure our ad came at the top of dating searches.”
Q: So you didn’t receive any investment?
“No, we spent a couple of years juggling the credit cards. I was living at home with my parents and Steve remortgaged his house – it was a huge risk, I got myself into incredible debt.
“My credit rating was only restored in the last three years – about the same time that the country’s was destroyed – but let’s not blame the credit crunch on me!
“Between 2003 and 2007 we grew from nothing to £3m a year revenue, over the following four years we grew to £30m and we’re looking at £36m this year.
“By using the white label model we only needed to invest in marketing the initial site and build the platform to host the other sites. By offering the platform to other companies they do all of the branding and marketing for their sites and we share profits.”
Q: Why has it grown so quickly?
“It’s great for media owners as they really can’t lose – it’s just another way of monetising their traffic. Effectively a third of audiences are going to be single and online dating has really taken off.
“Many of our clients are making £10,000 - £20,000 extra every month; it’s a very effective additional revenue stream.
“We’re now the biggest site in the UK and now we have the majority market share in South Africa and Australia.”
Q: Tell us about the recent HQ move to Waterloo
“We were based in Windsor and while it’s very pretty looking out over the castle and the park, London is the place for development talent. The best programmers flock to London because it offers the opportunities and the lifestyle that they want.
“We have moved into the new office with 20 staff and expect to double that by this time next year.”
Q: What is it like to be so big and yet so unknown?
“It suits us! We don’t always need to be known, we own the data and the relationship with the member and that is what matters to us. As you’ve seen we are starting to build our own brands with the 20 sites marketed by us but frankly we don’t need to. We’d rather be the company behind the successful brands.”
Q: What’s this about a mobile platform launch?
“According to our research 25 per cent of our visitors are coming from mobile. We have just launched our mobile dating platform so that whoever uses our sites can access it on the go.
“When people get home, or get on the train after work, the last thing they want to do is pull out the lap top and stare at a screen again and so mobiles are a great way to avoid screen fatigue.
“The biggest changes in that arena will be the use of location-based dating and we’ll be doing a lot of work in that area. So if you go on your phone and allow your location to show, you can see the people that are near you that might be free for a date.
“As long as we make sure that users’ privacy is protected we are confident that it will go well.
“The big question in mobile is whether to use HTML 5 or to create an app. By going down the HTML route we have made sure all smart phones will be able to use the sites not just the people that download apps.”
Q: So you’ll be working on location-based dating, anything else in the pipeline?
“We are very entrepreneurial and are always looking at other ways to monetise our users beyond dating. We can offer the most targeted advertising to companies imaginable. We know the exact physical attributes of our users as well as their location and the fact that they’re single.
“At the moment all of our revenue is through subscription but advertising is an exciting area.
“Our next move is working with partners such as Facebook. By creating an app with Facebook people can see which of their friends or, importantly, friends of friends are single. It remove the three degrees of separation.
“That said, my biggest challenge right now is the USA – the Brits are coming! No-one does what we do in the States, they just have the dominant players like Match.com. We’re very excited and have made a number of acquisitions over the pond.
“By September we should have a full time office in New York….”
Well best of luck Ross, we love to hear about successful London web businesses heading over to conquer the States!