Plenty Of Fish: A Side Project That Went Worldwide
What happens when something big comes out of your side-gig?
Do you risk taking it to the next level, or do you just keep it as a stable source?
That's how the concept of Plenty of Fish began.
The man behind it - Markus Find - was looking for stability in hard times, searching for a gap in the online market.
Eureka! He found it.
Seeing there are no free dating apps, he put his skills into work, and it resulted in an almost-instant-hit.
Read how a gig for some extra cash grew into an established brand that opened the doors for matchmaking apps to follow:
What happens when something big comes out of a project that you set up as a side-gig to make some extra cash? Do you risk taking it to the next level, or do you keep it as a stable source of a bit of cash?
We're used to seeing start-ups and small businesses with the potential to just explode one day and become giants. It's the way the world works, right?
Markus Frind and Plenty Of Fish had a different type of success story: he didn't reach for the stars, but for the ground, looking for a piece of land to anchor himself while the recession hurricane was wreaking havoc all over the world. That anchor was Plenty Of Fish.
A Man Looking For Stability In Hard Times
Markus Frind was an ordinary guy back in the 90s. Like many, he finished tech school in 1999, ready to join the tech craze the internet caused. After all, this was a bustling market, and it held all the promise in the world to be the next big revolution in the way we live and do business. That meant, there was money to be made - a lot of it!
Everything was going smoothly until the Dotcom Bubble burst in 2002, shaking the business world down to its core. This turned Markus from a hopeful, starry-eyed developer into a man fearing for his future. He was forced to look for new pastures, switching jobs every few months, going from one failed start-up to another. The young tech-wizz wasn't about to throw in the towel. Instead, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
Changing jobs was tiring him out and straining him financially, so in late 2002, Markus set out to find stability in a market that was still recovering from the burst.
Instead of relying on his skills as a developer, he put his other qualities to use - primarily, being a great observer. He analyzed his surroundings and the internet every day, looking for a gap in the market where he can develop a business that would provide him with a stable income in dark times.
After months of researching, he realized that almost all of the dating websites on the internet at the time required users to pay to be able to use their services. The only place where people could find dates without paying was Craigslist.
No free dating sites? This seemed absurd to him, so he decided to make a free dating website - so anyone looking for love on the internet wouldn't have to spend top dollar in their soulmate search.
He spent two weeks learning ASP.net, Microsoft's new developer tool at the time and set about creating the most complex website he could imagine.
After two weeks of carefully laying code, the website was ready - and so, Plenty Of Fish was born!
The First Fish In The Dating Pond
Plenty Of Fish went live in March 2003, and it was an almost-instant hit - by December that year, 10,000 people had registered on it.
At first, he decided not to invest any money in it, just his mind. He used his home computer as a server, which cost him nothing. For making money, he turned to a revolutionary new tool that came out around the time he went live with Plenty Of Fish - Google AdSense.
The first month, he made just $5 dollars from it, but by the end of the year, he was making $3,300 a month. His gut was telling him to leave everything else and focus on the site, and he went with that feeling, leaving his job to concentrate on Plenty Of Fish.
More Important Than Money
The website was running smoothly, generating enough money to provide Markus with the peace of mind he longed for. He knew he had a cash-cow in his hands, but the prospect of fortune didn't attract him, so instead of following the conventional wisdom at the time, he resisted venture capitalists and the millions that came with them, and took a different path. He was determined to do it all by himself. It was his baby after all, and he wasn't going to let someone spoil it!
Over the next four years, he slowly developed his business, adding servers, new features, and slowly growing the website from the comfort of his own home. The number of users was rising at a very fast pace, and by 2008, 15 million people had registered on the website.
At the time, POF was making money only from advertising. There were no premium features to buy on the website, no subscriptions, no hidden fees. It was all 100% free, but the ads were still bringing in more than enough money, as Markus told The New York Times that POF was making around $10 million a year!
To understand why all these numbers are special, we have to mention one little fact - Markus was doing everything all alone. He had no development, no sales, and no marketing departments - no employees whatsoever, for the first five years!
The Great And Not-So-Great Times
It was soon clear that the one-man show wasn't gonna last. In mid-2008, Markus realized the job was getting too big for him to handle alone - he needed a team. And just like any successful Canadian, he settled in the country's tech hub - Vancouver.
He rented an office in a skyscraper, got all the equipment, hired all the people he needed, and he was all set to take Plenty of Fish from the skies to the stars - and they had a plan: a variety of new features were rolled out, the website was refined, and some premium options were added for all those who were willing to pay.
This shift from a profitable website into a full-out functioning online dating service paid dividends from the start. According to statistics, from December 2007 to December 2008, there was a 77% increase in the number of unique visitors.
This put POF onto the global map, establishing it as one of the main service providers in the online dating world. But all this fame was also attracting unwanted attention - in 2011, the website got hacked and sensitive user information was leaked. The security hole was patched quickly, but doubts over the site's security still lingered.
Adapting To The New Era
Quick thinking and an even quicker reaction got POF out of the hacking snafu, but improvements were needed if the brand was going to maintain its status as one of the best sites in online dating.
In the following 3 years, the website went through some massive changes, some of them to tighten security and others to make the website more accessible to users from all around the world. The biggest leap was made in 2013, when the website was made more mobile-friendly, and POF published its Android dating app. In doing so, the number of users accessing POF through mobile devices rose from 20% to 70%!
This transition proved to be a masterstroke, as the website climbed further up the rankings, cementing itself into a legendary online dating website!
Passing On The Baton
By 2015, Markus figured he'd done all he could for the business, and wanted to pass it on to someone who would care for it and nurture it with the same enthusiasm as him. The same year, he sold POF to The Match Group for $575 million and left the company soon after.
Plenty Of Fish Today
POF is still one of the leading dating websites in the world, frequently ending up as one of the top picks in reviews and reaping rewards left, right, and center.
So what were those rewards? How about the yearly Dating Sites Reviews Editor's Top Pick Free Award, which they've won every year since 2016? Or the most prestigious one, the Dating Sites Reviews Editor's Top Pick Over All, which they won in 2018 & 2019?
While their awards say a lot, they don't show what Plenty of Fish has grown to mean on the internet. As an established brand in the world of online matchmaking, POF's latest updates and additions include features that protect its customers from predators, while also rolling out The Member Pod - a platform for subscribers to make suggestions on how to further improve the site and make it easier for newbies to find their way around it.
The greatest of business ideas are stories of hardship, risk-taking and adrenaline - but not always! Sometimes a hobby or a side-project can become your life's work, your destiny, the thing you were made to do!
The most important lesson to learn here is that the shiny lights of venture capitalism aren't the only way. You can take a separate path and at your own tempo - just stay true to your idea, keep doing things your way, and don't let anyone tell you 'it's a waste of time'!