OPW INTERVIEW -- Oct 2, 2007 -- So you want to start your own internet dating site? You can build it yourself, use a white label service. White label services look after the technical and customer service end of things and allow you to have fully stocked shelves, right from the day you start your site. This leaves you to do the marketing work. For a roundup analysis of services email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here's my interview with Mike Fitzgerald, CEO of Dating-Central, a.k.a Bonefish. - Mark Brooks
What’s your founding story?
Me and my business partner Graham started Dating-Central back in 1999. We both graduated from the university with business degrees and somehow ended up in technical positions at the companies we worked for. I was from an insurance background and developing white label sites, so I sort of developed the idea of doing the white labeling we do today. Graham was in more of a programming role.
Although we both enjoyed our jobs, we realized the IT and Internet markets were still quite young and the companies we worked for didn’t really fathom how sites could actually go with the Internet. So, around 1999, we both left our positions. We saved up some money and basically developed the Dating-Central service.
We tried to develop a system that wouldn’t put us in one market. Rather than competing with major sites, like Kiss.com and FriendFinder, we tried to develop an application that fit into each niche market. We had various markets, like gay, lesbian, adult, and romance, which protected us from being forced out of any one market by one player.
After we did that for about six months, we had some 50 or 60 partners from a few of the big niche areas. We had gay, Christian, disabled, and obviously romance customers. They, in effect, launched the service for us. We were both self-financed and didn’t have any backing.
What does Dating-Central do?
We’re basically a white label service that provides a very niche market to each of our affiliates. Instead of just a white label romance site, we can provide our affiliates with a white label romance site that specifically targets a certain age range in a certain location with a certain fee. For example, if an affiliate wants to target brokers in London, we’ll provide them with a romance site with members that match the profile they want, in the area they want. And, of course, the site will match their brand. Since the application we use has been around for about six years, all the bugs are gone and we’re able to provide pretty much any type of site to anybody.
What do you do best?
I would say that in addition to providing the sort of specific niches that affiliates ask for these days, we also provide the personal touch. Our affiliate department is just me and one other person. So, when we take affiliates on board, we tend to have a great knowledge of what they want. I’ll personally speak with them for 20-30 minutes. I’ll get a very good idea of what they want and provide them with the best solution. If the solution isn’t what they think they want, I’ll tell them where it is they need to be heading. I’ll tell them that we can provide them with a service that will compete with companies, like FriendFinder and Match, but that they’d be better off targeting something a little more specific.
The tailored approach has always been our goal, rather than trying to get as many white label sites live as possible because, if we did that, there’d be no emotional link between us and our affiliates. We’d just be providing some sort of faceless service.
Who is a typical partner?
A typical partner tends to be somebody who wants to do this on a full-time basis, but starts off on a part-time basis. We’ll find people who have some knowledge of the Internet, some knowledge of the market that they’re in, and then we tailor the service to match their needs and help them become a full-time affiliate.
A typical affiliate will be somebody who earns 500-1,000 pounds a month in the first year. By the end of their third year, they should be making 3,000-5,000 pounds, at which point they can go full-time. We’ll then try to help them become an affiliate in more than one area. If their strength lies in a particular location or a particular niche, we’ll try to strengthen that by giving them additional ideas in the market or additional ideas in the location. What’s worked for other affiliates may or may not work for them.
How do they typically drive traffic?
That’s a very good question. With our white label solution, we provide the back end and they provide the front. A lot of our big affiliates who are earning 5,000-15,000 pounds a month have their own front end and tend to keep their marketing a closely-guarded secret.
But, on the whole, I would say they target pay-per-click search engines and search engine optimization. We have some affiliates who advertise in magazines and on the radio. It depends on the niche and the location. Quite a broad spectrum of advertising, I would say.
What do you recommend to people who are starting from scratch?
The first thing I would recommend is for them to actually speak to me in person. I think it’s very difficult to give a blanket approach to an affiliate starting out. You could tell them, though, that most affiliates target things like Google AdWords and other pay-per-click search engines to try to get the traffic through. Once they start generating the revenue from the first week or two, they then could look at long-term solutions, like search engine optimization.
Small niches allow affiliates to target small periodicals, local radio stations, and local support groups. Again, it all depends on the market they’re interested in and the size of their budget. If they have a very large budget, then obviously we can do a lot more with it. If they have a very small budget, then we tend to advise they approach other websites in the area. For example, we have a few disabled dating websites that advertise on other disabled sites and appear on programs about disabilities. It’s actually a lot easier to get the advertising and exposure if they’re targeting a very small niche, then it is if they’re advertising a worldwide disabled site.
What are your goals for 2007?
We’re in the process of moving our service back to the USA. We were running it in the UK and had a few problems with that. We have finished version 3 of the service and are waiting to go live. For the rest of the year, we plan to migrate all of our existing affiliates onto the new platform. We have about 600-700 templates from which they can choose, or they can continue to use their existing service.
For 2008, we signed a contract with a marketing agency in the UK that basically will target specific organizations and companies in markets we think have some mileage as far as our service goes. We’re going to try to move into markets that aren’t necessarily traditional dating, which I know is not necessarily a low-risk thing. But we’ll be looking at communities of people who are, for example, English and based in, say, India or Pakistan or Australia and try to use the service more as a contact site rather than a dating service.