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How OkCupid Went From an Ambitious Student Project to a Billion Dollar Social Experiment


From social experiment, to the world's most famous dating and friendship app.

A place where many friendships and relationships start to bloom.

Times magazine listed this app among the top 10 dating apps in 2007.

Years later, OkCupid is still a success story, among all the new-generation dating apps.

Let's dive deeper into OkCupid.

OkCupid started off as a social experiment, quickly growing into the world's most famous international dating and friendship app. In 2007, Times magazine listed this app among the top 10 dating apps. Thirteen years later, people are still using OkCupid, creating thousands of new friendships and relationships every day.

So how did this service survive among so many new-generation dating apps? What's the story behind their success?

Let's dive deeper into OkCupid.

The Spark for Matching People

OkCupid's four co-founders - Chris Coyne, Christian Rudder, Sam Yagan, and Max Krohn, all met at Harvard. In 1999, they received some significant attention as students, after creating TheSpark: a fun software that provided study guides for subjects like philosophy, history, or poetry. Later, it was renamed into SparkNotes and included a wider range of subjects - math, chemistry, sociology, physics. The software was completely free to use, as it earned money through advertising.

Besides study guides, this software had some features that became very popular among students: funny personality quizzes and tests, including the Briggs-Myers match test - SparkMatch. That one is very important for our story, as the students were using it to search and contact each other based on their test results!

SparkMatch became so popular, it was launched as a separate site, and later renamed into OkCupid. The founders were not exactly the happiest with this name, but it served its purpose:

  • Reminding people it was a dating site;
  • Making sure people didn't think OKC was just another paid site that promises romance to lonely people;

In 2001, Barnes and Noble bought SparkNotes, and the four co-founders focused solely on OkCupid.

The lads claim they never needed this app themselves - Sam Yagan, for example, is happily married to his high school sweetheart. They say they created it out of pure curiosity: they wanted to see whether it was possible to improve online dating by involving mathematical algorithms and substantive data.

So how was that supposed to help?

By predicting compatibility!

Although these guys weren't studying psychology or behavioral science, it seems like they knew a thing or two about psychological experimentation.

The matching app they created was based on sets of questionnaires. Each cluster of questions represented one variable. The questionnaires included various personality variables, and the app was designed to predict compatibility between two people, based on their answers.

According to Sam Yagan (whose popular nickname is 'the grandfather of online dating'), three questions turned out to be the best long-term compatibility predictors:

  • Do you enjoy horror movies?
  • Have you traveled alone to a foreign country for fun?
  • Have you ever wanted to chuck it all and live on a sailboat?

The guys discovered all this amazing information about people, only by using their advanced mathematical and statistical skills.

And who were their first customers and lab rats? Their colleagues from the university, of course!

Developing the Product and Features

For the first couple of years, the app was operating great. It was free of charge and gaining more and more popularity because of it. They weren't making money from the users, but they had a stable platform which they monetized through ads.

The next logical step? Something to monetize through their users!

The team knew where the money was, and they wanted to improve their product, so in 2007, Sam Yagan launched the Crazy Blind Date app. It was a free service that set people up for blind dates on extremely short notice, operating only in a few major cities - LA, Boston, SF, NYC, Chicago, Washington DC, and Austin. The software gathered basic demographic info from users and a little about their preferred types of dates. They could go on a single or double blind date (two or four people), and they knew nothing about their date's looks - only their name, age, gender, occupation, ethnicity, and education.

The app skyrocketed into immediate popularity, and by 2008, 10,000 members had more than 90,000 dates through CBD!

2007 was also the year when they received their first and only funding round, raising $6 million in a Series A funding round, with Great Oaks VC as the leading investor.

In 2009, they decided to change their free-of-charge policy by introducing the 'A-list' account option. It came with a monthly subscription but provided additional services for their users which heavily justified the price.

At that point, they were no longer dependent only on paid advertisements, and they didn't have to visit investors and beg for money.

That changed in 2011, when bought OkCupid for $50 million. The same corporation owns other dating services such as Plenty of Fish, Tinder, and Singlesnet, so OkCupid was an important target for them. The site gathered a significantly younger population than other dating apps at the time, but it was also the fastest-growing dating site, as they had relied solely on advertising-based funding for most of their existence. The people knew what they were doing with the acquisition.

Although they were acquired by a larger company, the OkCupid team remained the same, continuing to grow and develop their product. In 2012, they launched Tallygram, their social discovery service, which was based on a myriad of weird or sensitive questions, such as 'should marijuana be legal', or 'would you donate your body to science after you die'. It had a ton of potential, as the more questions you answered, the more precision Tallygram offered with its suggestion lists of friends or enemies. Unfortunately, it didn't receive much attention so it was shut down in 2013 - the same year CBD was integrated into OkCupid.

In late 2014, the website made a revolutionary step: they added some non-traditional options for expressing your gender identity, including asexual, genderfluid, sapiosexual, transgender categories, and pansexual, which boosted its popularity in these communities and placed OkCupid on the front lines of the battle for LGBT rights.

Challenges and Controversy

2014 was the year of controversies for OkCupid, as they continued their fight against sexual discrimination. First, at the end of March, the OkCupid team confronted Yahoo!, and called for its boycott because its CEO supported Proposition 8 - an anti-gay rights declaration, proposed by the state of California.

Later that year, the co-founders published a blog post stating they regularly conducted experiments with their users, not only with the data they provided but also by manipulating features. For example, in early 2013 they pronounced January 15 as 'Love is Blind Day', and removed all their users' profile pictures. Then, they analyzed their conversations and responses. After the pictures were restored, people started tapering off their conversations - an effect similar to switching on the lights at a party in the morning!

In another experiment, they used placebo numbers for the users' match percentage. It turned out that even those who were 'bad matches' according to the original algorithm, ended up liking each other because of the placebo effect.

Basically, OKCupid's been using users' data for growth hacking since the beginning. All those survey answers, messaging habits, and profile autobiographies helped them uncover not only trends and behaviors related to online dating, but facts about society in general: what kind of women most men prefer, and vice versa; are people being racist on dating sites; how can marital status and other personal data from users' profiles be utilized for targeted advertising, and so on.

All the apps and features they developed were based on the data provided by their users. When they created the OKTrends blog in 2009, they also brought a data scientist in their team to mine and report on all the data. The focus on data had amazing marketing benefits, and more than 2 million people visited their blog only a year after launching, as it was being mentioned in the press more often than any other dating site!

Christian Rudder even published a book: 'Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking', based on all the research they conducted at OkCupid. But even those who didn't know about the book could read about it on their blog, in a post titled: 'We Experiment on Human Beings'.

Of course, such acts didn't do well in the public eyes. There was a lot of turbulence in the media, and some people accused Christian of being a reductionist for making conclusions about human behavior based only on limited data handed out on a dating website. However, Christian was always aware of this, never stretching his conclusions further than the software environment, and never claiming that his findings had universal value.

He even said it would be unethical not to conduct experiments, because how else would you find out more about human behavior?!

In his words: 'I think part of what's confusing people about this experiment is the result ... this is the only way to find this stuff out (what actually works for a dating site), if you guys have an alternative to the scientific method I'm all ears (...) if you use the Internet, you're the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That's how websites work.'

In 2017, the company made another controversial step. They announced a new company policy: users were no longer allowed to use pseudonyms on the platform - they had to leave their real names. This ran into widespread criticism, as it could potentially cause harassment of women and minorities. OkCupid responded immediately, stating that initials and nicknames would also be accepted.

Everything OkCupid has done so far, points out to their company's latent policy: innovation, research, and having fun are welcome, but only if they're respectful and safe for everyone. That's how they've rolled all these years, and that's why they remained among the top 10 dating apps in existence.

OkCupid Today

OkCupid has stood the tests of time and quality. They currently host more than a million satisfied users, and their worth is now over $3.1 billion. Just type their name into Google - you'll come across so many successful dating stories!

OkCupid is not a conventional startup. It started off as a student's project, and grew to become one of the largest social experiments ever conducted. Although some people questioned the ethics behind these acts, the users remained faithful to the app. The OKC team shed a different light on social experiments conducted through the internet by pointing out their importance and efficiency.

OkCupid continues to grow and develop with privacy and safety as their top values, proving to the world that internet dating doesn't have to be creepy, dangerous, or discriminatory - it can just be fun!