The love business: How Ross Williams set up a £43.2m dating network

The founder and CEO of Venntro Media Group on scaling his business

Three reasons you should be watching them

1. Venntro is the largest privately owned dating company in Europe and the world’s fastest growing privately-owned online dating provider.

2. Venntro has 1,700 commercial partners, 25,000 sites and 45 million members worldwide, leaving the group with a significant share of the online dating market in all major English-speaking territories.

3. The business founders credit their success to using their products to help them get to know what consumers; both are now married to partners they met online.

VITAL STATISTICS

●    Company: Venntro Media Group

●    What it does, in a sentence: Venntro is an award-winning global media group that connects people through dating, lifestyle and social networking technology.

●    Founded: 2003, Windsor

●    Founder/s: Ross Williams and Steve Pammenter

●    Size of team: 150 across offices in Windsor, London, Boston, San Francisco and Melbourne

 

THE NEED-TO-KNOW

What problem are you trying to solve?

We want to help every consumer make the connection to a life they’ll love. For us, that’s about making meeting people easy no matter what your lifestyle, location, interests, age or how you prefer to date – whether it’s on your mobile on the tube or on your desktop in the evening; whether you’re a time poor commuter living in the city or you’re 50+ and looking for a long-term relationship second time around.

 

How big is the market – and how much of it do you think you can own?

The UK online dating market is valued at approximately £165m and is expected to grow to £225m by 2019.

We’re in a privileged position as one of the early entrants to the market. Our White Label Dating product was among the first products to enable niche dating sites to launch en masse – brands and entrepreneurs can use our technology to power their own branded online dating site which makes it easy to scale rapidly.

With 1,700 commercial partners, 25,000 sites and 45 million members worldwide, a third of adults in the UK use a site powered by us.

 

How do you make money?

Our portfolio of products operate on a range of revenue models at varying price points to suit different demographics.

Our largest revenue-generating product is White Label Dating. We provide our partners with the technology, CRM, customer engagement and retention, while partners are responsible for marketing. We operate on a revenue sharing model so we only make money if our partners do.

Having so many products in our portfolio means that we can cross-sell members between products – if one product isn’t right, there’s a strong chance that one of our different offerings will be more suited to that customer’s’ tastes.

 

Who’s on your team that makes you think you can do this?

Everyone. I believe the key to success is to surround yourself with great people. Venntro wouldn’t be what it is today without the strong team I’ve built.

As well as having employees who will likely spend a couple of years with us and move on, we also have employees who have been with us for 10 years - it’s important to have a combination of both, bringing a wealth of varied expertise and detailed product knowledge. 

My business partner Steve Pammenter has been critical to Venntro’s growth. Steve’s expertise and determination is largely responsible for the growth of White Label Dating.

 

Who’s bankrolling you?

Venntro is completely privately owned. Steve and I founded the business in 2003, juggling a dozen credit cards and paying them off each month. We took a risk and it paid off. Between 2003 and 2007 we grew from nothing to £3m a year revenue and now our annualised revenues are approaching £50m.

 

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs trying to secure that kind of finance?

Juggling credit cards is a gamble – if you take that risk, you need to be confident that the business model is going to work.  

Earlier this year, we launched Venntro Ventures – an incubator for dating start-ups. We always look for good execution. You don’t need an original idea if you create a good quality product that people want to pay for, hire great people and execute it well. That’s attractive to investors. It’s also important to acknowledge that it’s very hard (although not impossible) to monetise a product if you haven’t thought about revenue generation from the off.

 

What do you believe the key to growing this business is?

Move with the market and don’t stand still. Online dating is a constantly developing market – if you stop innovating you could end up with getting left behind.

Whether it’s mobile or wearables, scammers or customers expecting faster response times, you have to be prepared to move quickly. We can do that because our range of products gives us the scale to test and roll out changes quickly across the portfolio.

That, and our team are awesome. We have +150 people across offices in the UK and USA - it’s those guys that really drive us forward.

 

What metrics do you look at every day?

Revenue per customer is really important to us. It’s important for us to understand if we’re creating products that people are prepared to pay for – to see how we’re adding value.

Customer engagement is also really important; I like to know how many people are using the sites and how many messages they’re sending. This kind of information helps us refine and improve our product offering to make it easier to help people make meaningful connections.

We currently have eight million interactions taking place across our portfolio of sites each day, with a new member joining every three seconds.

 

What’s been the most unexpectedly valuable lesson you’ve learnt so far?

Ensure that you have multiple levels of redundancy in all areas of the business. If you’re reliant on a single provider for a major function, that’s a huge risk.

 

What’s been your biggest mistake so far?

In 2014, our payment processing provider made the decision to exit the dating market, giving us 60 days notice to find a new solution.

We didn’t have any redundancy, using just this one provider to process all payments. As the majority of our sites operate on a subscription model, it was critical to resolve this as soon as possible.

We worked around the clock to resolve the issue but it was touch and go. We now have four payment providers in place. Always having a redundancy strategy is now an essential part of our business plan.

 

What do you think is on the horizon for your industry in the year ahead?

There’s a big cultural shift in the industry towards working together to enhance customer safety online and I’m proud to say that we’re helping to drive those changes. As an example, we use a tool called Scamalytics to identify and remove online dating scammers, which shares and identifies information across the industry to help us put up a united front.

 

Which London startup/s are you watching, and why?

I love what HER are doing at the moment. They are a great example of a really innovative business that are taking a lot of risks to provide their customers with a great, tailored service.

Clocked.co have a unique product and have built a great team.

The Inner Circle have a great marketing strategy, with a lot of headline grabbing campaigns. They’re also well funded.

 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • This piece on Ross Williams doesn't even tell you what the actual businesses are.

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