The pandemic could have doomed online dating. Instead, it sent singles swiping more than ever before. Sanctions on in-person meetups drove the adoption of new products, like video dating, and persuaded more people to pay for premium features. All in all, the industry had a chartbusting year.
“Acceptance and normalization of online dating was already underway before Covid-19,” says John Madigan, an analyst at business research firm IBISWorld, but tailwinds from the pandemic have accelerated growth. In the next four years, IBISWorld predicts that the global online dating industry will increase its worth from $5.3 billion to $6.4 billion.
Where there is money—or at least the smell of it—there are also startups. In the United States, at least 50 dating companies were founded between 2019 and 2021, according to data from Crunchbase. While that rate hasn’t changed much over the past decade, the total amount of funding has grown. These new startups represent a few fresh ideas in the dating space, and a hope that the next dating unicorn could emerge after a year of isolation.
For the most part, newer dating apps focus on Gen Z, a demographic that came of age in a post-Tinder world and represents the lion’s share of the industry’s projected revenue. Snack, which bills itself as a sort of “TikTok meets Tinder,” invites users to upload short videos for potential matches to scroll through. So does Lolly, an app that lets you “match with people while exploring sweet video content.” Marc Baghadjian, Lolly’s 22-year-old founder, says the app’s focus on video gives its users a better online dating experience. “You could be funny, you could be interesting, you could be talented, and you can show all of that in a video, in a way that you never could with your pictures.”
Feels also features a carousel of short-form videos on profiles, where people are supposed to express themselves in more dimensions. It’s marketed as the “anti dating app,” for people who believe that “swiping is boring” and that platforms like Tinder are too superficial. Laurent de Tapol, Feels’ cofounder, says the app has attracted 150,000 users since launching in April. He also acknowledges that most of those users will also create accounts on mainstream apps like Tinder and Hinge, if they don’t have profiles on them already. But de Tapol hopes people will be attracted to the experience on Feels, “where they can share much more about who they are, what they like, and express their very unique personality.”
Other dating apps eschew images altogether. Lex, a dating app for “queer, trans, gender non-conforming, two spirit, and non-binary people,” is inspired by newspaper personals: Its profiles use only text. So Synced, based in London, matches people based on their Myers-Briggs personality type.
Singles might be ready for some fresh ideas in dating, but these startups will largely be competing with each other—not with the industry whales. A single company, Match Group, is behind the largest online dating brands, including Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid, and Match; altogether it represents nearly a third of the market, according to an October 2020 report from IBISWorld. eHarmony controls another 12 percent. The rest is divided among some 2,000 dating companies, the majority of which “operate with a market share of less than 1 percent.” For the most part, the little guys compete with each other, doing little to unseat Match Group as the dominant player.
Which is one reason investors have hesitated to fund dating startups. Andrew Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, summed up several others in a 2015 blog post: It’s hard to retain users, there’s built-in churn, and profitable exits are unusual. A 2019 analysis by Crunchbase found that while there were a number of new entrants into the online dating space, the venture capital didn’t follow. Without substantial backing from investors, dating startups have an even harder time competing with the bigger players.