Love is blind and costs $3 at OKCupid

Late one night in 2002, Sam Yagan got a call from a former Harvard buddy with an idea for their next big company. What if they made a website with a button you could press to set up a blind date?

Yagan told him to call back when he was sober. Then he thought about the concept. In order to set people up on random dates successfully, you would need an enormous database of people and their preferences. You would need a system that could pick a place to meet that was close to both people.

Yagan and his friend, Chris Coyne, didn’t move to develop that idea, but later that year they joined with others to create OKCupid, a free dating site that matches users through mathematical algorithms based on answers to questions about their tastes. While OKCupid expanded its active user base to 3.8 million and became one of the most popular dating sites for young singles, Coyne’s original idea continued to percolate.

On Jan. 15, he will get his wish with the launch of OKCupid’s Crazy Blind Date app. The free app for iPhones and Android phones is intended to eliminate the effort it takes to set up a date. If you’re free for an hour at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, you can fill the slot with a date. You select a local bar or coffee shop to meet from the app’s recommendations, then choose among four people suggested by the company’s algorithm and who are also free at that time. The dates are not utterly blind—you can see names, ages, and faces—but the photos have been scrambled. You meet, and afterward the app asks how it went. The better it was, the more you pay, from nothing up to $3.

“If it were a perfect world, I would charge by success,” says Yagan, a 36-year-old 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.”

OKCupid was acquired by IAC/InterActive, media mogul Barry Diller’s holding company, in 2011. Last October, Yagan took over its portfolio of dating sites, which had $518 million in revenue in 2011, up 23 percent from the prior year. The company’s other sites include Match.com, for people looking for serious relationships, and OurTime, for daters over the age of 50. Most of the sites either ask for a monthly subscription fee, as Match does, or charge users to send messages. OKCupid, aimed at users between the ages of 18 and 34, makes money mainly through advertising.

OKCupid attempted to launch a Web-based version of Crazy Blind Date in 2007, but not enough users then had smartphones, the company says. Now the industry is shifting to mobile, with more people in 2011 using apps rather than websites for dating for the first time, according to an IBISWorld report. OKCupid says its mobile app and website are receiving 20 times as much activity as in January 2012.

Yagan has tracked all kinds of data on users to determine what they want from OKCupid; his company’s blog, OKTrends, displays line graphs detailing such items as a country’s per capita gross domestic product vs. the percentage of people who are looking for casual sex on the site. Ultimately, he says, users are just looking for fun and convenience. But the average visit to the site lasts 20 minutes because users must sift through messages or work on developing sufficient rapport with someone to attempt a first date.

Using the Crazy Blind Date app, the time spent on a smartphone can be less than two minutes. Your coworker says you look good today? Go on a date tonight, and the app will pull options based on OKCupid’s algorithm. Less forethought could be a good thing, said Sarah Wexler, author of Awful First Dates: Hysterical, True, and Heartbreakingly Bad.

“It helps build anticipation that the date is going to go well because they’re from Boston, and I’m also from Boston,” Wexler said. “If all you know about somebody is they’re single, you’re probably go into it with more realistic expectations.”

The concept—spending less time online to meet new people offline—has already propelled other dating sites. HowAboutWe lets users post an idea for an activity to do on a date, then find another person who is interested in joining them. Grouper sends groups of three men and three women to meet at the same bar.

Yagan knows Crazy Blind Date will draw criticism. Without a chance to talk to the person before the date, there’s no natural filter for dangerous people except reviews people provide OKCupid after the fact. Anyone can use the app, not just OKCupid users, so the company will not have much information on certain daters. As a safeguard, the app uses Foursquare’s options for local bars and coffee shops nearby, “so you can’t meet in someone’s house, or an alleyway, or a car,” Yagan says.

Yagan’s dreams for Crazy Blind Date to generate profits depend on people grading their dates honestly. People who go on a good date may be tempted to say it was bad just to access the service free. That would cause problems for the matching algorithm.

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.”

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