SINGAPORE - The Beatles famously sang "money can't buy me love". But just last year, love-seeking individuals in the US reportedly poured US$2.4 billion into the dating industry, US$576 million of which went into dating apps - while venture capitalists (VCs) have since 2010 devoted over US$148 million to dating apps.
Despite what looks like a blooming sector, and the approaching Valentine's Day festivities, investors here are split on whether to buy into mobile dating.
"The industry of bringing new people together, socially, represents a fast-growing US$1 billion-revenue-a-year market in Asia," said Chua Joo Hock, managing director of Vertex Ventures, a Temasek-owned VC that has invested up to US$10.5 million in Singapore dating app Paktor.
Even as the Republic lags three to five years behind the US in receptiveness and the adoption of online dating, Mr Chua observed a "huge increase" from the "essentially non-existent" usage 10 years ago. He told BT: "The mobile dating business is an evolution of one of the core elements of society - getting to know friends that share common interests."
Singapore VC and entrepreneur Ong Peng Tsin would know. A co-founder of pioneer online dating site Match.com in 1993, Mr Ong said that "all of us are built to couple and find our significant other; online dating is one of the more efficient ways to do that".
But when asked if he would invest in a dating app - the most contemporary form of online dating today - Mr Ong, who left Match.com in 1996, was less certain. "I'm looking for a disruptor in this very crowded sector. I don't believe in charging for searches. Google doesn't charge for searches but is making money. The revenue model (of dating apps) is what needs work."
Most such apps adopt a freemium model, which lets users discover other users and be virtually matched with those who express mutual interest - for free, while allowing paying members to do more, such as conduct finer searches, send unlimited messages or even retract a match they come to regret.
Paktor, for instance, charges members up to US$349.99 a year to enjoy "premium" search filters such as job, education and height, as well as the viewing of "suggested profiles". Said chief executive Joseph Phua: "Paktor leverages behavioural data to give each user a compatibility rating, which is relative. It's not a measure of attractiveness, rather a combination of factors . . . to match individuals with similar preferences and attitudes."
LunchClick, a Singapore-based app for "serious daters", sends users one "quality" match a day at noon for free. Users can pay US$6.99 to receive two matches daily (for seven times), or a one-time fee of S$649 for a "Love Assistant" package, which will give them personalised support from a human love assistant, two matches daily and seven guaranteed offline dates.
Said LunchClick CEO Violet Lim, also co-founder of offline dating agency Lunch Actually: "We wanted to focus on the number of dates and have this be (LunchClick's) key metric, instead of the number of likes or matches that other apps often report, because obviously likes and matches are pointless if they don't result in an offline date."
Since LunchClick's launch in April 2015, it has recorded over 8,000 offline dates, and amassed a six-digit user database. Paktor, founded in 2013, reportedly has close to six million users across South-east Asia. Homegrown apps aside, global big names have too landed in Singapore, namely Tinder, OkCupid, eHarmony and Coffee Meets Bagel.
There are now niche apps for almost every community, from gays - gay male dating app Grindr reportedly had US$38 million in revenue in 2015 - and farmers to baby-boomers and even gluten-free and yoga-loving singles.
"As singles become increasingly tech-savvy, mobile dating is definitely here to stay. As we are all built to look for love and companionship, this market will only continue to grow as people are getting married later and later," said Ms Lim of LunchClick.
Vinnie Lauria, general partner at Singapore-based Golden Gate Ventures, is waiting for an opportune time. "We have no objections to investing in dating apps. It's mostly about timing in this part of the world. We know it will be a big industry as proven in other geographies.
"The question is when does it go from being shielded away from, to cultural apropos."
This article was first published on Feb 15, 2016.
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