Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise of FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies. So, I am very excited today because I’m here with Shayan Zadeh and Alex Mehr who are the co-founders of Zoosk. Zoosk is the largest social network for dating. With that said, we would love for you to give our audience a brief bio.
Shayan Zadeh: Sure. I’ll get it going. I’m Shayan. I was born and raised in Iran. I went to a computer science program, undergrad there and then moved to the U.S. for graduate school. I went to Maryland here, got a masters in computer science and then joined Microsoft. I worked at Microsoft for a couple of years and left Microsoft to start this company.
Alex: All right. My name is Alex Mehr. I’m a math and science guy turned entrepreneur, too. I was born in Iran. I went to the same school that Shayan went to, and we actually came together to the U.S. for graduate school, and we were roommates during graduate school. Go Terps, University of Maryland. I did my masters and PhD there, in mechanical engineering, worked for NASA on several of the space projects and after that I started business school at Berkeley, but I dropped out to start this company with Shayan.
Matthew: What is Zoosk, who is it for, why are you so passionate about it, and what makes it unique?
Shayan: Zoosk, in its essence, is a social network for singles, and it tries to help them with their dating life. If you think about the social networking landscape, you have companies like Facebook or MySpace that provide experience for everybody, with the purpose of keeping in touch with your existing friends, but that doesn’t help you to meet new people, especially when it comes down to dating experience and Zoosk fills that gap. We have a different angle on social networking. Your friends on Zoosk are people that you would potentially go on dates with, so they’re not people that you already know. That facilitates a smoother, less pressured environment for people to meet new potential dates, engage with them, talk with them online and eventually go on physical dates.
Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist, and where do you see things developing for the future in your space?
Alex: Everything is basically going social, mobile and local. Our business, by its nature, is social, local and mobile. So, the direction that we have taken online dating in is integration. Make the online dating, actually, a social network by itself, integrate with existing social networks, such as Facebook, and also emphasize the mobile and local aspect of it. So, on Zoosk, the friends that you make are people in your local area, and that’s how your social network forms on Zoosk. Also, we have found out that with the explosion of the mobile platform there is a huge opportunity for even a bigger segment of the market to interact with our product, through our iPhone and Android apps, for example.
Matthew: So, we covered your background and a brief overview of the market. Can we dig into the story of how you guys started at Zoosk? How did you come up with the idea?
Shayan: Alex and I, when we decided to start a company, we actually started building something that was not online dating, was not Zoosk. This was early in 2007, and the idea that we had originally was social media was exploding, businesses want to reach consumers, let’s build a market research company that leverages social media. We built that application, launched it and a couple of weeks after we had our soft launch, the Facebook platform opened up. We felt, OK, social media fits right into what you’re doing, let’s bring the product right into Facebook platform. We did that, and that was our opening into the Facebook platform in early2007, just learning the lay of the land, what’s happening and the opportunities there.
While doing that, we wanted to have some promotional vehicles for this market research product. So, we used the same technology we had built for distributing these questions and polls, video images and text around the web to build fun games inside of the Facebook platform, to get more adoption from consumers.
One of them, had a dating connotation, and that thing just exploded. There was so much demand in the generation that was spending time on social networks, and nobody was providing anything dating related at that time. That was really meaningful and useful. So, it took us a couple of months to actually realize it, but this side project of ours was growing so much faster than the main business. And after a couple of months, we finally got over the denial phase and said, “OK. There is so much demand here. People are asking for it. It’s growing very rapidly. Let’s pause, regroup, launch a product that’s directly going after this market,” and that’s how we ended up in the online dating business.
Matthew: You said that you’ve known each other since school, back in Iran. How did you meet and when did you know you wanted to be co-founders and what qualities were you looking for in your co-founder?
Alex: When we were college students, we weren’t really thinking about starting a company, back then, but once we came to the U.S. and went to graduate school, Shayan attended this entrepreneurship workshop, for free pizza, I believe, and then he dragged me into that in the next session. After that, we actually decided to start a company together, back then in graduate school.
There was a business plan competition at the University of Maryland. We built a product, and we competed in that business plan competition. We learned a lot about the business just by doing that, building a product, thinking about the market and the strategy. But, we had the difficulty of not being able to actually start a company, because we were both on student visas back then. So, we talked to an immigration lawyer. They said, “Well, right now the laws are not favorable. So, wait until you get your green card and become a citizen and then start the company.” We really didn’t want to, but our hand was forced. So, both of us found our jobs and got our green cards and became citizens. Then, we started the company.
Shayan: We complement each other in a lot of different ways. So, that’s definitely a positive thing. We had lived together, worked together and gone to school together, so we knew each other’s personality very well. I think is very important to be comfortable with the person that you’re getting into business with, because you’re going to have a roller coaster. There are going to be tough times. There are going to be good times. So, knowing that you can count on the person, have full trust in them and be able to go through that process together, is very important. And, it’s just fun working with this guy. He’s so smart.
Alex: Even before this company, like I said, we tried to start a company earlier, in the first year or second year of graduate school. Also, ever since, we’ve kept in touch, even though we were living in different cities, trying to work different ideas. We have designed a Wi-Fi enabled, remote-controlled cat feeder together. I mean, we’ve done a lot of things together, just thinking about different ideas, and different businesses, all the time.
Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take, and when did you actually launch Zoosk?
Shayan: Building the original idea didn’t necessarily translate into this company, but we learned a lot of things along the way that helped it. But, from the time that we decided to build Zoosk, as it became the product, it was about two months for a group of four people. Then, we launched Zoosk in December of 2007.
Matthew: Are there any unique metrics or social proof about Zoosk that you would like to share with the audience?
Shayan: We are one of the biggest social networks for singles. Even when you compare us to traditional online dating, we’re actually neck and neck with the big players that you’ve heard of over the years who have established their brands. The last publicly available number for us is about 50 million users and we have had out there for a while. We’re not updating that anymore. The company is growing very rapidly right now. We are in 25 languages in over 70 countries today. There are lots of people meeting through us across the globe, and that just makes us happy.
Matthew: We know founders face new challenges when they decide to launch a company. What was the hardest obstacle in launching Zoosk, and how did you overcome it?
Alex: The biggest obstacle is actually to figure out what you really want to do and focus on it. So, initially, you start with an idea. You’re sort of committed to it but you’re not quite there, and you keep jumping, and jumping, and jumping until you find a place where you say, “OK. This is what I’m going to do and I’m going to focus on this one task and I’m going to really excel at it.” Reaching that point of clarity, where you say, “This is who we are and this is what we’re going to do,” is, in my opinion, the biggest obstacle.
Shayan: It’s so challenging. It takes time.
Matthew: Is that driven primarily by data and market feedback, or is it also driven by your own desire and aspiration to approach a certain problem?
Alex: Both of them.
Shayan: Yes. It’s a combination. It is also where your skills work the best. Where do you have more advantage, compared other people that want to do it?