OPW INTERVIEW - Sep 15 - Sam was inspired by Matchmaker.com and started ChristianCafe.com in 1999. He’s also tinkering in the Brazil market. Here’s his founding story... - Mark Brooks
One of the things that made your site quite unique for the longest time was that you had a ‘cuppa joe’ on the homepage instead of having a picture of a happy couple. For a few years you ran a picture of a cup of coffee which I thought was really unusual. Why the cup of coffee?
We were thinking; where would people meet for the first time offline when they had connected online? The most likely place would be a café; it’s unassuming, it’s cheap, they can do it at lunchtime or early afternoon, no commitment, no money involved. It’s a public place so it’s safe. We wanted to capture that whole feeling so we used a coffee cup logo which is actually from a real coffee shop. All the photos you used to see on the site were real people.
Have you tried stock photography vs real people?
Yeah, we are in the process of doing it right now. You’ve got to find a couple that does it from a marketing point of view but doesn’t lack authenticity. We now have a happy couple on homepage, have had for the longest time. We want to rotate different happy couples, real and stock, and gauge which works best.
What are you going to put on your homepage? You mentioned a very personal photograph.
We were thinking about using a picture of my wife and me because our story is very linked to online dating, it’s what we do for a living.
Let’s go back in time. What’s your founding story?
A job came up in Toronto with my brother so I moved there, started a new job but after 6 months I got laid off. So I found myself in a brand new city, only knew 3 people, single and unemployed. I started going online and I discovered personals. I was interested but I thought that the people were weird. To my surprise the women I met were normal. I became addicted. A friend was always complaining that the sites could do a better job and that I should put my money where my mouth is. I approached my brother and he helped finance it. We launched in early 1999. I knew that it had to be niche; I couldn’t compete with Match.com. It took off in the Christian market; within 6-12 months we broke even and from then it has been phenomenally successful.
What dating sites inspired you?
Matchmaker.com, currently owned by Date.com. Their whole philosophy was based on niche markets. Unlike other sites, they allowed full access as if you were a paid subscriber for the duration of your free trial. We still do this.
We have 100,000 actual active members in the last 4/5 months because beyond that we archive people automatically. Other sites say they’ve got 2 million members because they count people who joined in 1999 for a free trial. You should count monthly logins because that is the true representation of how many people are using your site.
You have an interest in Brazil. Tell us more. What sites have you launched in Brazil and how are they going?
My wife is originally Brazilian although she’s been in Canada since 1998. About 5 years ago we decided to open a site in Brazil; my wife speaks Portuguese and knows the culture. But the Brazilian taxation system is medieval and there is so much red tape that we didn’t want to continue. We set it up outside Brazil but Brazilian credit cards can only be used in Brazil.
This is slowly changing as the economy grows. In 4-5 years time Brazil will be #5 in the world for GDP so there is definitely potential. We decided to keep a bank account there and people could pay by printing out a form, going into a bank and doing a transfer. But this is was a big hassle for people and we miss out on impulse buyers. A year ago we decided to operate a free model. We are using Google advertisements but they don’t make us a lot of money.