At the head of Match Group, the online dating empire composed of Tinder, Meetic and Hinge, this CEO of Indian origin decides millions of people’s love lives on every continent. It's a unique talent for turning digital relationship building into gold.
DALLAS — The place is anything but romantic: a tinted-window skyscraper rising among highways bordered with malls in Dallas, the economical capital of Texas. Yet it’s there, on the fifteenth floor, that Shar Dubey decides on the sentimental and sexual lives of a growing part of the planet.
She is the CEO of Match Group, which owns Tinder and another dozen dating apps including Meetic, OkCupid and Hinge.
It is a Friday in mid-January and the conference rooms named after love songs are almost empty. The company may well offer on-site COVID-19 tests but the majority of employees prefer working from home.
Shar Dubey has been hustling on her standing desk since 8 a.m., following a video conference at 6.30 a.m. with the Korean teams.
These early morning slots are necessary for the 52-year-old CEO: her company revolutionizes the way couples get together not only in the U.S. but also in Europe and Asia. This intermediary on the smartphones of millions of single people represents an increasingly juicy business. According to the analytics firm data.ai (formerly App Annie), Match Group is ranked second among mobile app editors whose users spend the biggest amount of money in the world after Google and before Tencet, video games aside.
Dubey's privacy on social networks
The leader in online dating has grown considerably since the 1995 launch of the Match.com website. These past five years, its income rose from $1.3 to $3 billion in spite of Facebook’s entry on the dating market in 2018. But the group remains more private than the other men-led tech giants. After having become the head of MatchGroup early in the pandemic, Dubey is not one to share all her emotions on social media: she has no Twitter nor Instagram accounts.
I am not an activist.
Despite the Silicon-Valley inspired buildings — visible pipes on the ceiling, ping-pong tables and snacks in abundance — Dubey is wary of the Californian habit of letting societal debates infiltrate the company. Last fall, she nonetheless spoke up to denounce the new Texan law which bans abortion after 6 weeks by creating a fund to cover the expenses her female employees might have to pay if they abort in a different state. “I am not an activist and I don’t think it is usually the CEO’s job to take political stances. But I was asked what I think of this law and I couldn’t imagine replying ‘no comment,’” she says, wearing jeans, white sneakers and a leather jacket.
Competition with Bumble
Her engagement seems sincere, but it also provides the group with a feminist image at a time when its rival Bumble presents itself as a “woman friendly” alternative to Tinder, by leaving to women the possibility of making the first move. In February, Bumble acquired Fruitz, the second most downloaded dating app after Tinder in France, according to data.ai. It also owns Badoo.
Match Group’s CEO doesn't hesitate either to share her career history and the obstacles she faced because of her gender. Raised in Jamshedpur, northeastern India, by her father — an engineering school professor — and her stay-at-home mother, this brilliant highschooler was the only woman to be accepted at the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT) among a hundred male students. “My father was delighted that I got into the ITT, but in my distant family the first reaction was to tell me no one would marry me,” Dubey says.
It was the first time someone married for love in my family.
She then flew off to pursue a Masters at Ohio State University and she became the first woman engineer and the first foreigner to be hired by a Pennsylvanian aerospace manufacturer. “Many employees had been there for years when, suddenly, this girl with a thick accent turned up and told them what to do,” she recalls. Dubey is working on her accent by watching tons of sitcoms, and to fit in she shortens her first name from Sharmistha to Shar.
At that time, she was dating a former coworker from India who had also moved to the United States. “It was the first time someone married for love in my family,” she says. When Mandy Ginsberg called her in 2006 looking for someone to manage Chemistry, the second brand launched by Match.com to compete with eHarmony, Dubey had never laid a finger on a dating website.
And yet she decided to apply. She got along well with Ginsberg, whom she had met while working for a supply chain software producer. They formed a duo that would last for almost 15 years and transform the company. “It became obvious that Shar had some sort of magical comprehension of monetization and of its balance with user experience,” Ginsberg says. She chose Dubey as president when she became CEO in 2017.
Photo of the Bumble logo displayed on a Smartphone
Riding the rise in divorces wave
The Texan group transformed itself to address people of every age and demographic category. “The idea is to exploit the users’ earnings for a long time: young people start with Tinder, move on to Hinge, then Plenty of Fish, then Match and OurTime,” says Jason Helfstein, analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. The company also rides the rise in divorces wave: “The average relationship lasts eight years in the U.S. and in Europe. If our apps work out the first time, the user will come back,” says Match Group Americas CEO Amarnath Thombre, who also graduated from ITT.
In 1999, Match Group was bought by the holding company IAC. Ten years later, Match Group bought People Media and its twenty-seven targeted dating websites. These brands are now outdated but the segmentation strategy still prevails on the U.S. market, where communitarianism is not a bad word. In the last four years, Match Group created BLK for African Americans, Chispa for Latinos and Upward for Christians.
Match then bought the French group Meetic, which allowed them to extend their markets to Europe, and OkCupid, a popular start-up among hipsters. “The first generation of apps was closer to the way arranged marriages work, that is you think you know what you’re looking for. But it often turns out to be wrong: on our platforms we have the advantage to see that even if you say you like tall men, that is not such an important criteria for you,” Dubey says.
The freemium model
While Match, Chemistry and Meetic required payment to send a message, OkCupid and Plenty of Fish (bought in 2015) innovate with a freemium model: sending messages is free, but users have to pay for certain features. This model boosts these websites, notably for young people, erasing little by little the “loser” image associated with using them.
“The internet has become the most popular way for heterosexual couples to meet in the U.S., even ranking better than mutual friends for the first time in 2013,” sociologist Micheal Rosenfeld says. Dating apps use has increased since. “When I first started at Match.com, 3% of marriages in the U.S. were born from an online encounter. Today it’s 40%,” Match.com’s director Hesam Hosseini says.
People evaluate others in an algorithmic manner.
The use of dating websites is also developing outside of Western countries: Japan became Match Group’s second biggest market after the U.S. two years ago, after the acquisition of the wedding-focused app Pairs. “Japan has a declining population and a Loneliness Ministry, to such an extent that the government is beginning to consider dating apps as a solution,” Match Group Asia CEO Alexandre Lubot says.
And the pandemic sped up this process: “In the post-COVID world, the places where you’d meet people physically have disappeared. After #MeToo, it has also become harder to meet people at university and at the workplace,” Dubey says. Jessica Pidoux is a postdoctoral researcher who wrote a thesis about dating apps. She feels that the Tinder mindset is exporting itself beyond smartphones: “People evaluate others in an algorithmic manner, saying whether they like someone or not very early on.”
The Tinder rocket
Tinder did change it all. The app was created in February 2012 by the entrepreneur Sean Rad and the developer Joe Muñoz. It is free, and “it became popular immediately thanks to its efficient design. Here, no need to show off. If you like a person, you merely have to swipe right on the screen,” journalist Judith Duportail writes.
It was inspired by Grindr, the 2009 dating app for LGBTQ+ men which switched complex questionnaires for a higher focus on pictures. But Tinder added the “double opt-in”, the need to mutually swipe right to start a conversation. “Tinder’s big input is that it solves the problem of rejection,” Dubey says.
A decade later, Tinder has become Match Group’s driving force: the app generates 55% of its sales revenue against 31% five years ago, thanks to a threefold increase in the number of users — now more than 10 millions. Tinder’s creators sued Match Group, accusing them of having underestimated the app’s value. The litigation was settled out-of-court last December, with Match Group paying $440 million.
Dubey strongly contributed to the transformation of the startup into a cash machine. In 2017, she traveled every week to Los Angeles to launch Tinder Gold, a paid feature that allows users to know who swiped right on you, inspired by Who Likes You on OkCupid. “This company knows how to take a brand’s best recipes over to another one,” says analyst Jason Helfstein. Since 2015, Tinder had already limited free swipes to 50 a day per person, offering a paid subscription to those who would want to go beyond that limit, and the possibility to buy 30-minute profile “boosters” for instance.
Photo of Shar Dubey, CEO of the online dating giant MatchGroup
A love supermarket
But Tinder Gold takes monetization to the next level, with prices of over 30 euros a month. The company launched an even more expensive formula last year and does not plan on stopping there: “Most of the monetized functionalities that we have created until now aim to render male users’ experience more efficient, since they do not want to be restrained by a certain number of swipes,” Dubey admits. “One of the things we are working on is finding what we can offer to make women pay, like getting a better control of who they see and who can see them.”
Designed to be deleted.
Romantic people are protesting against this transformation of the quest for love into a supermarket where everyone is pitted against thousands of others. And many users feel like the algorithm disadvantages them. In 2019, journalist Judith Duportail found a patent mentioning a “desirability score”: if someone with many likes swipes right on your profile, you will get more visibility.
Tinder assures it doesn’t use this system anymore, but has never explained what it replaced it with. “Algorithms are not very smart, but they improve with the time you spend on the app, and what you do on it. On Hinge, if you keep liking pictures of people in nature, we will deduce that you are more attracted to this kind of people,” Amarnath Thombre says.
Hinge — whose slogan is “Designed to be deleted” — is Match Group’s new gem. Dubey says it is “about to become the second biggest dating app in the world in a few years.”
“I had this strong feeling that some part of the millenials wanted something centered on serious relationships,” Thombre says — he was the one who orchestrated the buyout of the startup in 2017.
People who are interested in someone can only contact them by answering short answers to three questions or liking their pictures, so they can break the ice more easily. Hinge only exists in English for now — other European languages are meant to come soon — but the platform counts 800,000 users and its sales revenue increased sixfold in three years.
Flirting in the metaverse
Newcomers in the dating app market are “limited by the more important companies’ possibility to patent popular functionalities,” says lawyer Evan Michel Gilbert.
Before Match Group tried to buyout Bumble, the company had sued their rival for infringing their “swiping” patent. They also sued Muzmatch, a dating app for Muslims, for the same reason, as well as for also using “match” in their name.
“We only sue other companies to preserve our brand and our patents,” Dubey says. She prefers talking about her efforts to remain at the forefront of innovation, her new mission being to “make sure users do not pick someone merely because of a picture.”
Last October, she launched Tinder Explore, a tab giving access to interactive experiences. Last year, she also bought Hyperconnect, a Korean company with a strong interest in the metaverse. “They launched a beta experience in Seoul, Single Town, in which your avatar can go to clubs or to the beach and make unexpected encounters,” Dubey says.
Flirting may have disappeared in real life, but Match Group is desperately seeking to revive its appeal.
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