“Real Geeks Don’t Pay For Online Dating”: e Interviews Sam Yagan, Co-Founder of OKCupid

Back in September, I wrote a rant about OkCupid.  I wrote about what made it not “ok” in my eyes:  tiny avatars, irrelevant (though amusing!) tests, journals, and a long, long, long profile.   OKCupid never delivered decent matches for me and since Match always worked, I always went back to it whenever I was single.

Imagine my surprise when I was contacted by a public relations person asking if I’d like an interview with their co-founder, Sam Yagan…

The Interview

1/22/09  5:30 PM EST – 6:32 PM EST via YahooIM.  Edited for readability.

Niceties and What’s e’s Beef?

sam: How are you?  Nice to meet you.  So, we’re not ok? :)

e: Not okay with me personally, but whatever floats other people’s boats… or sinks their canoe.  Either way!

sam: So, you must have deeper issues than those you wrote about?  I mean, 82×82 vs 80×100?  square vs rectangle picture cropping?

e: Deep seated emotional issues that have torn me to the core!  *cries*
*grin*  I’m a geek. We’re picky people.

sam: well, I don’t know which of us would lose a geeky contest.  I’m pretty geeky.

e: Either way, I polled my friends and readers who have been using the site more than I have and we have some questions.  Some burning, some not-so burning.

sam: Ok, I’d love to hear them!  I also want to start with a bit of a conceptual vision that I have for the site.  I think it will perhaps give my answers context.

Sam’s Vision for OkCupid

sam: Offline dating is a social, group activity.  If you want to go out to pick up guys, you’re going to call up your girlfriends and go out together.  You’d rarely decide to go hunting alone.  Traditional online dating is quite the reverse.   In the 13 years since match.com launched, I’ve never once had a friend ask me to join match with him.  Sure, sometimes I’ll look over his shoulder and look at pictures, but in general traditional dating is a lonely proposition.

So, we said, the match model is wrong.  Dating should not be like a job fair where everyone walks around with an impersonal resume in business attire, nor should it be like a zoo, where you walk through the paths looking at people in their little profile cages.

What if online dating were social, if it had all the context & distractions of a bar or party or workplace — or any real life interaction where you might meet someone new and actually learn something about him or her by observing their interactions, their mannerisms, their subtle clues that are so informative about their personalities.

A lot of the things you seem to really hate have parallels to the real world that provide little golden nuggets of insight.

Airing Dirty Underwear

e: It’s definitely a matter of personal taste whether you prefer the zoo approach or the party approach!  One of my problems is that the okcupid system seems to involve information on your profile that normally you might not share right away.

In essence, you have friends that you tidy your apartment up for, and you have close friends who have seen you at your worst and don’t bat an eye when your underwear is on the floor of your living room.

sam: Let’s dive into this.

e: A lot of the profiles (most of the ones that I encountered) had quite a bit of TMI on them…. (And some of that TMI was as a result of the user-created surveys)

sam: there are three pieces of possible info

  1. your open-ended responses — totally in your control
  2. your answers to match questions — never revealed unless you say to
  3. results to user created tests — appear by default, but deletable.  (Most people know these are NOT scientifically accurate and are all in fun)

If you’re saying that some OkCupid users put TMI in their profile, then:

a) many don’t
b) a bunch of profiles on other sites have TMI too

…so it’s not clear where that gets us.

Social Networking, Dating, and… Ebay?

e: So are you a dating site with a social networking component or a social networking site with a dating component? 50/50?

sam: Neither.  I think social networking and dating are opposite concepts.  Facebook relies on your pre-existing, offline relationships.  Try using FB with no friends.

e: That would be pretty sad :(

sam: Dating is more like eBay, it relies on having an awesome marketplace with great search/sorting — you’re trying to find someone you don’t even know you’re looking for.  That said, as with the bar analogy I started with, we try to be a fun, engaging, social dating site — we try to model offline dating.

e: So has the community evolved as you originally envisioned it or have there been things that have surprised you?

sam: Well, it’s such an organic, dynamic thing; of course it didn’t go as expected…but I can’t say I’m shocked with where we are.

e’s Failure at OkCupid

e: I did use the site (along with Match, Plenty of Fish, Yahoo, etc etc) at one point, and even though I did a bazillion questions, I found that the people I had the highest match % for were not people I had any interest in….  and some of the people who I found and dated through match that were somewhat compatible were much lower %…. can you fill me in on some of the math behind the matching system?

sam: So you met people?  Or just based on their profiles?  Interesting.  You found their personalities were not what you were looking for?

e: Pretty much! :)

sam: Well, I dont think any site has figured out chemistry.  So, here’s what I encourage you to do.  Go to OkC and sort your match results by Enemy percentage.  It’s not that the #1 person is best, it’s that we can say you’re more likely to find compatible people in this group over here (over, say, 70% match) rather than over here (say, below 30%)

e: *nods* true, true.

sam: So you had more successful dates on M, Y, and POF than OkC?

e: Match.com has been very good to me.  I have my very own geekboy code monkey :)

sam: Awesome!  I bet OkC is quite geekier, on average.  Real geeks don’t pay for online dating :)

e: ha!  You gonna let that go to print? ;-)  I can make that the subject line.

sam: sure

Frequent Geek Guy Complaint:  Girls Don’t Reply to Emails

sam: Bring on more questions.  I’m waiting for something worthy of producing such bile.

e: awww :)

So here’s something that my clients and friends always complain about … and it’s not related just to your site.   It’s something that should you find a way to implement it would make guys (my main audience) very very happy.

sam: ok?

e: Girls don’t reply to emails.   That’s the #1 complaint I hear.    Would there be any way of implementing some sort of reward system for replying to introductory emails? Even if it’s to say “Thanks, no thanks”.

sam: You know why that is on Match, of course

e: The button is there, but not many girls are using it.

sam: And on OkCupid, we do that.
sam: No, the problem is that on match they don’t differentiate the paying vs the non-paying profiles.  So they have 1.3 million subscribers and advertise  15 million profiles.  Let’s be generous and assume that 20% of profiles are subscribers (mostly men).  If you’re a guy and you send 10 messages.  Eight can’t reply without paying; two can of the eight, how many really are going to pay $30 to reply to an email — no matter how awesome the guy is? One?  And of the two who can reply for free — maybe 50% reply? So you send 10 and get 2 responses, which seems crappy, but really is pretty great.

Match wants you to email non-subscribers — why?  Because that’s how people convert. 

e: The odds are against you.  From what my clients are telling me, the email reply ratio isn’t much better on any of the free sites. Which, compared to Plenty of Fish, you guys are gods.

sam: On okcupid you have a “first reply ratio.  You’re scored by that.  You can see how often people reply to first contact attempts.

sam: Well, PoF is in the business of selling leads to the subscription sites.

sam: So, that’s obvious.

e: Good to know, so you can avoid people who tend not to reply back.

For the Childfree

e: One of my readers wanted to know if there was a surefire way to sort for people with no kids (and no interest in kids).  He says he keeps getting women with kids as matches.

sam: Nope.  That tends to come out in the match questions. but that’s not a filter that’s often requested.

e: Interesting.  So it’s just something to click Mandatory on for the questions and hope for the best?

sam: yep

For The Math Geeks

e: For my math geek readers, is there a place somewhere on the site where they can get a glimpse into the math behind the matching system?

sam: http://www.okcupid.com/static?p=faaaq

For The Code Monkeys

e: My programmer geeks have asked me to ask this, so here goes:  Why C++?  (I personally will not understand the answer to this question, but they want to know.)

sam: The average OkCupid user answers 233 match questions.  Now say you want to compute match percentages for you and 10,000 other people, that’s a lot of computation — good luck doing that in some interpreted language.

Free Dating Sites

e: I think that the industry is starting to move towards free dating sites.  Is there anything your team is working on to make okcupid stand out among the options out there?

sam: Well, there are only two sites on the free side that matter right now.  I assume you agree?

e: pretty much.

sam: what would the third even be?

e: Tho I’m sure there will be copycats out there, especially since POF has gotten so much press.

sam: sure

sam: If you asked 10 of your clients to rate their experience using PoF and OkC, what percent would favor each?

e: It’s been about 50/50, depending on the age group.  The younger (under 30s) tend to prefer OkC.

sam: Interesting.  Very different from the data we see in focus groups, but hey, that’s cool.

e: I’m also living in a little niche of geek boys.

sam: So, i think new dating sites will find that it’s very hard to bootstrap and get big.  PoF spends millions in marketing.

e: and their website is awful ;p

sam: You said your clients love it!

e: Some of them do.  I don’t.

sam: And you don’t like us.

e: I just haven’t gotten around to writing a rant on it yet

sam: better hang on to your boy

e: They love the free, hate the look/usability of POF.

sam: ok.  And they hate our look/usability?

e: There are folks who love it, and that’s cool if it works for them.  I’m actually going to be hiring an asst. dreamgirl to write okc and pof profiles for me.

e: Any thoughts on match.com’s new free service, downtoearth?

sam: It validates that free dating is legit.   Let’s see how it grows.

e: With the economy how it is, it’s definitely reassuring to know there are places out there to meet people that are free.  Anything else you’d like to mention to my readers?  Otherwise, I’ll let you get back to things. :)

sam: I think we got it all.  Dating should be fun.  You shouldn’t have to pay for it.  And the site’s UI shouldn’t make you feel dirty.

e: Thanks for spending time with a lil’ ol’ geek love blogger.  :)

sam: let me know when you post the next chapter of your your okcupid-hating rant  :)

e: Hey, I may change my tune. ;)
e: Maybe that’s why I agreed to talk to you ;)

sam: I’ll believe it when I see it!

e: *grin*  You’ll have to wait, I guess!  Have a good weekend. :)

sam: you too

Post-Interview Thoughts

Sam was definitely on the defensive, but I can’t blame him.  After all, I did kind of skewer his site in September.   To be fair, I did offer advice for people who were using it as their main dating service.   I do profile re-writes for OkCupid users.  They’re not on my black list, just not necessarily preferred.

Getting a chance to talk to Sam was definitely enlightening and I have to say that I will turn a kinder eye to OkCupid in the future.   I still think that my advice applies (steer clear of airing your dirty laundry or taking quizzes that may label you in a way you wouldn’t like to advertise).

However, looking at OkCupid as the online way of encountering someone the way we might in the real world has opened my mind.  While for myself, I prefer the “zoo” of match.com and its profiles in “cages”, I will definitely be keeping OkCupid in mind for my clients who have different needs.

Have I seen the light?  Maybe a little.

About e

Since 2008, E. Foley of Geek’s Dream Girl has been helping geeks from around the world find love. She writes amazing online dating profiles for her fellow geeks and guides them through the perilous waters of the dating scene and out the other side. She's totally proud to report that she's even caused a couple geek weddings! She lives in Maryland with DaveTheGame, her adorable cats, Mr. Peanut & Don Juan, and Titania, Queen of the Cocker Spaniels. (Email e, or follow @geeksdreamgirl on Twitter.)

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