In 2013, I led a team to create FriendsPlus, a mobile app that was acquired (and killed) right at launch.
It turns out Facebook’s new dating app, announced last week, is very similar. Let’s see how Facebook talks about it:
Facebook Dating product manager Charmaine Hung tells me that “I have 2,000 Facebook friends. I’m not best friends with all 2,000 people, and there’s a good chance that one of that could be a really good match with me. I trust them, I appreciate them and I know we’re compatible. The only thing missing is knowing if we’re both interested in being more than just friends without the fear of rejection if you were to do this in real life.”
An overview of Friends+ as pitched to investors and later, acquisition partners. The application and technology platform were acquired pre-launch in Q4 2013 by Vietnam’s largest dating service, Noi.vn
I first started work on FriendsPlus in 2013 while I was COO at Cyworld, a social networking service. When I first arrived in Vietnam in 2006, it was still common for women to get married as early as age 18 and slightly older for those who went to university. My theory is that limited life options in education or careers streamline roads to marriage and children.
As women started to build great careers in the blooming (tiger) Vietnamese economy, there was less time to focus on relationships; some of Cyworld’s female employees became increasingly frustrated at growing older but not finding marriage partners.
Going deeper into the problem, traditional methods such as matchmaking could be a bit archaic or difficult if a woman was working away from her hometown. Dating apps like Tinder were primarily focused on (ahem) male psychology; women needed a digital tool to help them meet people in a way that still felt conservative and true to the values (less about hookups) with which they grew up.
After hearing about these problems for some time, I decided to take action. I formed a new company to help my female employees find love: FriendsPlus.
From my user research, I learned that Vietnamese women did not want to meet random people. At the same time, it was not yet culturally acceptable to make the first move (unless you were my future wife).
My problem was how can you bring two people together in a natural, almost magical way?
The solution we proposed was: serendipity.
At the time, Facebook was already the most popular (sigh…Cyworld) social networking service in Vietnam, and you could still pull in friends lists from the service. We let users connect their Facebook accounts to FriendsPlus and select up to the second degree of friends (friends of friends) of people they were interested in as “romantic crushes”; the idea was to include your friends and people that you might have known or seen occasionally but were still a bit shy around.
From here, the app was “set it and forget it.” As other people started to use the app and set their own crush preferences, our system would monitor when two crushes were in close proximity (ex. 1KM away on a weekend afternoon). If you were both around each other, the app would ping you and try to convert you two into meeting – this would also be the first time you knew about each other’s mutual interest. This was a magic moment that might not happen again for a very long time.
FriendsPlus was about removing frictions to create a real meet up and opportunity at love. One point that spurred furious internal argument was leading users to meet offline in the real world instead of to chat. My argument was that if you start chatting, it’s easy to postpone a meet, and basically never meet. Chatting was also what every other dating service did; I felt that the case for chat was the common mistake of seeing what everyone else was doing and assuming you needed to do the same. FriendsPlus needed to be clearly different in how it operated and generated successful outcomes for users.
If you have noticed, however, FriendsPlus had a problem, at least in comparison to social apps of the day: engagement. In 2013, success was about creating addiction, a problem we understand more clearly in light of Facebook, YouTube, and fakes news / junk content / data privacy. FriendsPlus was a utility that only appeared in your life when something special was about to happen.
Thus, there wasn’t a clear business model (though we could have highlighted places to meet as ads, that ad volume would have been low) or virality. Before launching, we also added ways for people to meet people at random, my homage to ChatRoulette. You can see a preview of that below.
Feature: Allowed you to propose a meetup right now based on the type of activity and person you would like to do and meet.
To be honest, the app was not going to be easy to launch and have traction grow on its own; this is why I ended up selling it to Noi.vn, Vietnam’s most popular dating service. Noi never launched the app either. I suspect it was hard to get internal support for something that did not work on traditional engagement metrics.
Going back to Facebook, its Dating team is going to face the same issues in defining success. After you set up crushes, what do you do? FriendsPlus would wait for that magic moment, but if the user does not take action right away with Facebook Dating, she will not go back into the app. It’s also not like you add new friends (I guess this rate declines with age) constantly and consistently over time and can be reminded to set new crushes.
I imagine the real-world usage as follows: I set some crushes. Some time later, as not all users will use the app at the same time, a crush of mine may also use Dating and set me as a crush. Facebook whisks us into an awkward chat:
Facebook: “You guys seem to be crushes. Go chat!” (at a random time of day in which the pair may or may not be busy)
You: “Hi” (anywhere from immediately to days later, have you seen how the modern generation replies to messages?)
Me and You: [Uhhh, what now?] (Hopefully, not a dick pic)
Potential awkward fail, at least based on how the app is described in the TechCrunch article.
The Facebooks and Googles of the world get easy media attention any time they release a new app. My impression is that most of these apps are tests from product teams that need to build out their resumes. These apps are not real businesses; they get 15 minutes (seriously, go search Techcrunch) of media attention and die out months later.
While this sounds like a humble brag, I claim this more about my failure in social products: I feel I hit my peak as a social innovator in 2012/2013, seeing pain points and constructing social utilities to solve them on a monthly basis. Because I was in Vietnam, these ideas died; I could not get investor support for anything without clear virality (“build it and they will come” and gamification are not strategies) and revenue models. (Cyworld and Mimo failed in significant part because unlike MySpace, Facebook, and Snapchat in the West, we had to grow users rapidly and make money.) Months or years later, I would see these same ideas I had get millions in funding in Silicon Valley, like Facebook Dating. They unsurprisingly all failed, though perhaps some like FriendsPlus in Vietnam eventually got acquired.
That is what I expect to happen here.