OPW INTERVIEW -- Mar 24, 2006 -- Mike Jones is a regular at the internet dating conventions and has the respect of the online personals industry as a pioneer, and inimitably likable fellow. I interviewed him to find out more about Userplane and what he has in store. - Mark Brooks
What does Userplane do?
Userplane provides software communication tools focusing on audio and video for online communities with a specific focus in online dating.
When and how was the company started?
Userplane was founded 5 ½ years ago. We originally did custom software development for Fortune 500 brands and then migrated into building our own software development platform, 2 years in. We focused on developing instant messaging systems, multi-user chat and audio/video profiling component. When those operations were initially released, we experimented with a few of our market places and found that online communities were a particular sweet spot for what we had developed. There is a huge importance for anonymity and privacy control and dating sites at that point didn’t really have any good live communication applications that were working well. Our applications were driven to solve that problem.
What are the most popular products/services for online personals companies?
Our instant messaging applications. If you’re a relatively small site or medium sized site and don’t have too many people online at one given time, instant messaging is a nice way to give a smaller userbase more presence. If you’re using chat, you really need to focus chat around times or events. Instant messaging is more flexible to work with either small or large communities. We have also found that instant messaging becomes such a key component on the progression of a relationship. Someone might initially start on browsing profiles, then emailing, then jump into an anonymous instant messaging session and then go to an anonymous call feature, which is something we’re about to release. Then, after the anonymous call, they’d actually progress to a real world date. So, we’ve formulated all of our tools to assist users with these intermediary steps between browsing profiles online and actually meeting someone in the real world.
Why would an online personals company want to use Userplane rather than develop their own in-house solution?
I think typically, the instant messaging, chat and video profile systems are sophisticated enough applications, that it requires some dedicated developers. And if you look at Userplane’s pricing structure, even the extremely large client is not paying Userplane that much money. So, there’s rarely a time when a bill with one of our clients is larger than hiring an internal developer and maintaining the IT infrastructure needed. We definitely will save companies money if they utilize our tool as opposed to developing in-house. Beyond that, we’re building stronger products than can be built in-house. We’re leveraging knowledge across a whole wide variety of different websites and a huge volume of users ranging from MySpace all the way down to a start up dating site. We are applying all that knowledge into our applications. Our customers are receiving a dedicated development team, which is developing more and more communication tools for them without them even having to worry about it. We are releasing a desktop component that is a whole new system for a dating site.
Where do you expect to see the biggest growth in the online personals industry over the coming year?
We’ve been splitting our focus between two worlds; online dating and the Web 2.0 community world. I think those two worlds will drastically collide. You’re going to see a huge influx of intelligence in search engine friendly and Web 2.0 websites that will basically add on online dating to their already existing communities and will do that for free. They will be monetized from advertising, micro transactions and premium features. I have a feeling that whether it is this year or next year, it will be something that affects the online dating market place in a good way and bad way. More ‘interest’ based niches will begin as opposed to religious or ethnic based niches, such as fitnesssingles.com versus JDate. We are also seeing an increase in premium rate features and memberships. Sites are typically not doing anything that has tiers of memberships where you have a junior level member or a senior level member with access to some better features. We believe a lot of free sites will be introducing these multi-tiered premium memberships into the marketplace. I believe that when that comes out it will affect online dating dramatically and will increase the market size. Just as people are finding with mobile dating, cell phone manufacturers have been the masters of charging incremental amounts for small volumes of communications and there’s quite a few dating sites and online communities, in general that are thinking the same way… i.e. if I want instant messaging, I’ll have to pay ‘X’ and if I want access to video profiles, I’ll have to pay ‘Y’. Our tools are set up to enhance that model, but we haven’t seen a lot of companies in the past that embraced that. Recently we have had a wave of new interest.
What are your plans for Userplane through 2007?
We have a lot of product we are putting out, and we are dealing quite a bit with interoperability between different instant messaging networks, which will make a lot of sense to certain dating sites. We’re doing it in a very different way…it will actually be a real ‘aha’ for dating sites. We are working very hard on a new desktop piece, which should be out in the next month or two. Again, I think this will be another big ‘aha’; we’re going to be giving a lot of functions and features to dating sites at a very low cost. The goal is that everything we do is enhancing their community, enhancing the user communication, allowing our clients to drive more revenue.