Dating, Data, and Human Expertise: How Once Found Its Global Expansion Sweet Spot
This week in AWS Startup Stories* we talked to Clémentine Lalande, COO, and CFO of Once–the ‘slow dating’ app.
Clémentine is an entrepreneur who has helped to scale several social and commercial ventures throughout her career. In her recent past, she’s developed seed impact investing funds for social businesses, she’s been an Investment Director at Idinvest, and prior to that, she was a Project Leader at management consultancy, Boston Consulting Group.
Once is a dating app that breaks the online dating model. Rather than using a traditional system of asking users to swipe through hundreds of faces to find people they like, Once does the hard work of filtering matches on their behalf. Combining digital technology and a team of human matchmakers, the free Once app generates specifically targeted daily match for users at noon each day. Since it was founded in 2015, Once has launched in 11 countries, the app has 4 million downloads with 700 000 monthly active users worldwide…and counting.
We spoke with Clémentine Lalande about the lessons learned from Once’s global expansion. She gave us three key insights:
1. Always be testing
“We’re a super data-driven company. Our business is the result of many many months of testing new iterations of our product.” Clémentine Lalande, COO and CFO at Once
Once didn’t begin life as the product it is today. Back when it was first launched in 2015, the product was incredibly simple. It asked people what their match preferences were, then once a day the app presented users with one person its algorithms suggested that person will like. The main revenue spend simply came from in-app ads.
Now the app uses a freemium model. It’s entirely free to use its core functionality, but now it has a range of extra features that users can pay for if they’d like to get more out of the app. For example, you can buy more than one profile match per day, or find out who your ‘secret admirers’ are, for example.
None of these new features began life perfect, and that’s absolutely fine. In Clémentine’s words, “It’s important to lead with imperfection. It can be hard to throw a new feature out to your customer base when you know it may fail, but the insight you learn from taking that leap will always give you valuable insight into which is the right way to go.”
Follow the data. See what works. It’s so important to listen to your customers and track what your data is telling your people are reacting best to. When you find the right formula, focus your attention on making that feature the best it can be. If something’s not working, analyse the data from your customers to find out why. It may be possible to make changes to make a feature work, but don’t be afraid to lose features altogether either. When the data’s telling you people aren’t interested at all, that’s when you have to listen. That’s when you have to be decisive.
2. Hire people who share your vision
“Together with the CEO I spend more than half of my time looking for the right people.” Clémentine Lalande, COO and CFO at Once
Like most startups, the culture at Once is absolutely integral to their continued growth.
Once operates in 11 markets at the time of writing, and when they’re setting up new offices in new countries, sometimes it means working with very different cultures and languages. To get hires right in the dating world, they have to find people who are very aware of the local culture, and who are very connected to local influences, interests and the media landscape. If a person can couple that kind of on-the-ground insight with a strong knowledge of the dating sector, that’s the kind of person they need on their side.
For all startup sectors, it’s so important to hire people who completely get where your business is going in each market. And don’t be afraid to hire people who know more than you do about the market they’re working in either. It’s through listening to these people and using their local knowledge that you can iron out many of the problems that startups face when expanding into new markets.
3. Sometimes it pays to augment data with human expertise
In a very human business like dating, one cannot afford to overlook the human element.
“There’s so much the human eye can see that an algorithm can’t.” It takes more than understanding where a potential date lives, what age they are, and whether one user has read the same book as another to find the love of your life. Once’s disruption in the market is in taking the data from the algorithms it uses, and then augmenting that information with a human eye for people’s quirks and personalities. A real person can notice a wry smile in a photo, or a sense of humor, sarcasm, or even irony.
If your business is there to help humans make human decisions, it pays to have real people analysing the data and offering an intimate, curated experience.
And it’s the combination of data and human expertise that makes Once a disruptor in its sector.
You can listen to the Startup Stories podcast with Clémentine here. And if you’re interested to see what are some of the AWS services that Once is using, subscribe to the series and download the cheat sheet here.
*What is AWS Startup Stories?
AWS Startup Stories is a business series of podcasts published on the AWS Podcast channel that showcases the success stories of startups running on AWS. Heroes of each business talk about how they overcame challenges and used technology to solve problems, providing tips for companies facing similar issues. Learn more about the series and who’s part of them on the webpage here and never miss an episode by subscribing today!