OPW INTERVIEW -- Apr 17, 2006 -- The FriendFinder network is huge. The biggest sites in the network are AdultFriendFinder, AsiaFriendFinder, Amigos and FriendFinder and Alt. I interview the founder, Dr Andrew Conru, whom I used to work for back in 2003. - Mark Brooks
What's your background Andrew?
Back in the Midwest, where I'm from, I was into computers since the early '80s. I kind of devoured degree programs for a while -- I studied for twin B.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Economics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and went straight on through the M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. After that I went to Stanford, which is where, in 1993, the internet got into my blood. I started a number of internet companies on the way to finishing my Ph.D. (1997) in Mechanical Engineering Design.
What inspired you to start Friendfinder?
In 1994, I started the first online dating site, WebPersonals.com. It did well, but with all the new technologies that were around, I felt I could do it again in a better way. It took me till 1996 to start FriendFinder. I wanted a sophisticated site, more of an online community, where dating was just one of many options (hence the name FriendFinder). But it quickly became obvious that dating was the prime motivation for our members, and so we evolved into a site that zeroed in on dating objectives.
Shortly after we went online with FriendFinder, people started posting explicit photos that pushed the envelope of a friendly dating site. Our first response was simply to delete profiles with explicit photos in them. Later on, instead of fighting the persistent trend, we decided to go with it, and we created a new site called AdultFriendFinder. It started out as a kind of release valve for the more erotic adventurers. But it was so well received, it just grew like kudzu from there.
What will the online dating industry look like in 5 years time?
We've seen a huge transition in the last 10 years about what online dating means. When it first came out, it served the same function as print ads -- and unfortunately it carried the same stigma. Since then it has really blossomed into an accepted way of interacting and meeting other people. I think that groundwork really helped set us up for the next 5 years growth in which the online dating site will enhance the sense of community by offering member interactions over a wider variety of media, and of course on a more instantaneous basis.
Spark Networks recently acquired the Minglematch group of niche dating sites and are pursuing a similar model to Friendfinder. What challenges will they face?
Initially, they would probably expect to leverage software development across all their sites, but they will be faced with having to be an expert on their different communities. Without that specialized expertise, the communities face dwindling odds for success. And that creates the first major challenge. They have to become experts in each "culture" and also experts in the ways to advertise and brand and market to each of the different niches. Since each of our new sites was a response to some demand by our members, we've sort of grown up with our communities over the past ten years. I think that's partly why we do well in each niche community.
Do you plan to embrace voice on the net in your communities?
I think there is a general trend for online community and dating sites to be much more immediate, i.e. real time communication between people. We have, for the last year or so, offered two-way communication with both video and audio between our members. We have investigated a number of software technologies from service providers that would enable us to offer anonymous phone communications. But, we find that people are still a bit hesitant to give out phone numbers over the internet.
What are your views on background checks, and background checks legislation?
We've always promoted our members' ability to validate their information. Many years ago, we came out with a site called ComfirmID. It was the first time ever that an online dating site integrated a third party info-verification system, and it's 100% voluntary. This gives members the maximum choice as to how they handle security issues. As for requiring someone to disclose personally identifiable information simply to participate in an open forum, that goes against the philosophy of internet encounters, both in terms of privacy and in terms of an open door policy in which anyone can participate. It would be like requiring background checks before being admitted to a local dance or a popular mall. In short, we feel background checks are totally inappropriate for online communities.
What kind of business development opportunities are you looking for now?
Mobile technology. We're working to put our sites ahead of the curve and deliver our members a cutting edge user experience. Of course, we're always looking for possible dating site acquisitions, and for partnerships with companies that have other community websites that might not be related to online dating.
What does 2006 hold for FriendFinder
Last year we spent our time primarily integrating a number of acquisitions that we completed last year. Our chief focus this year, in addition to looking for additional acquisitions, is to improve our offerings across the FriendFinder network and improve the effectiveness of our interface.