Photo: Josh Green
Looking to date the perfect vegetarian? What about a man with a great mustache?Thanks to a crop of niche dating websites, you can find your ideal mate based on very specific criteria.
We talked to the men and women behind niche dating websites to find out what makes their crazy ideas so successful.
From simple revenue models to familiarity with their customers, niche dating site creators believe they have a handle on their specific market.
We also asked online daters what drove them to join the super-tailored sites and whether they have found love in the digital world.
Noel Biderman, CEO
Ashley Madison, the website for people looking to have affairs, has the honour of being the largest niche dating site in the world, Biderman said.
He got the idea for the site in 2001 after reading a news story that claimed about 30 per cent of people on dating websites weren't actually single.
'I thought that would be an interesting vertical to tackle,' Biderman said.
Since 2001, the site has grown to 13.2 million members worldwide, nearly 8 million of whom live in the United States. The adultery website raked in more than $50 million in 2011 and predicts profits upwards of $80 million in 2012.
The business model responsible for such impressive numbers is pretty simple.
'It's a communication platform,' Biderman said.
Registration for the site is free and members purchase Ashley Madison credits that can then be used to contact other members. Members can also purchase virtual gifts like virtual champagne or virtual roses.
The site might be thriving, but it isn't without its enemies. In 2008 the Archdiocese of Massachusetts decried the site's ads.
But, his site is serving a purpose, Biderman said. It gives married people a way to get off sites like Match.com and, in some cases, it can help users strengthen their primary relationship.
Biderman said he heard from one user who was caring for his wife with Alzheimer's, and when the disease progressed, the man said he felt uncomfortable being intimate with his wife because she didn't recognise him.
The man joined Ashley Madison and found a lover whom he saw once a week. That arrangement allowed the man to preserve his life and continue caring for his wife, Biderman said.
'Anything can happen when an affair comes into being,' he said.
Steve Urow, CEO and Creator
Vegetarianism is a significant lifestyle choice, Urow said, and something meat eaters just don't understand.
'For a lot of people, it's more than what they eat,' Urow said. 'It's how they view the world.'
He created VeggieDate as a safe place for vegetarians to share their lifestyle with other vegetarians around the country. Plus, at the time he created VeggieDate, there weren't many vegetarian sites and people needed a way to connect, he said, adding, 'it's important to be on the same wavelength.'
VeggieDate, which launched in 1999 and has around 13,000 members, makes money through a combination of membership fees and ads. Urow offers members a free two-week trial, after which memberships cost $10 for three months or $20 for a year.
In addition to membership fees, companies pay to place banner ads on the site.
'I tried to keep it relatively simple,' he said.
However, he said the money isn't the focus. The site is a labour of love.
'I make strong efforts to be vegan and I say I'm nearly vegan,' he said of his connection to the site.
Randy K. met her husband Glenn in 2007 after posting a profile to the site. But romance wasn't her ultimate goal when she checked out the vegetable-friendly site.
'I'm a vegetarian and I was looking for recipes,' she said.
After checking out veggie-only recipes, she said she searched for vegetarian dating sites just for fun. Randy, who was 50 years old when she met Glenn, ultimately found VeggieDate and spent a few minutes filling out a profile.
When she and Glenn connected on the site, they emailed for about a week and talked on the phone for about a month before finally meeting.
'The first thing I said to him was 'Can I see your driver's licence?'' Randy said about their initial meeting.
The two eventually tied the knot.
'And I got married, un-freaking-believable, a year and a half later,' she said. 'We tell everyone about VeggieDate. I mean, VeggieDate? It's ridiculous.'
While Randy said she was initially embarrassed that she signed up for a dating website, now she and Glenn flaunt the fact.
'We launch into the absurdity of it so we get to laugh with them,' she said.
While their attitude toward their meeting might help with naysayers, Randy said she thinks there is still some stigma attached with the concept of online dating.
'But they're not going to say to my face 'Yea, no, that's for losers.''
After the end of a four-year relationship with a 'meater' and witnessing a friend get engaged to a man she met on eHarmony, vegetarian Katie L. decided to give VeggieDate a try.
'I remember thinking, 'man this is low budget,'' she wrote in an email to Business Insider. 'But it was very easy to use and had all the tools I needed.'
After 10 days on the site, she met Ethan R. in January 2010. She was 25 and he was 32.
The pair met in person two months later.
Katie ultimately moved from Arizona to Washington, where Ethan lives, about a year and a half ago, she told us.
And while she initially got some grief for her decision to use VeggieDate, Katie is now OK with her decision.
'You initially feel embarrassed but as a friend who met her husband on eHarmony said, you get over it, then you start to brag about it,' she wrote. 'There are people like my brother that said that's weird and two years later he's on Match.com. The famous line on an online dater to your parents when they freak that you met some Internet stalker online is, 'It's better than meeting a guy in a bar.''
Michael Carter, Creator
Passions Network, which now encompasses 206 niche dating websites and 2,700,000 users, started as a dating directory in 2002.
'As I was building out the directory, a lot of things began to change in the market,' Carter said, citing the fact that Match.com and other sites were beginning to gain prominence. 'But it was still kind of sketchy.'
As the online dating industry began to splinter, Carter created separate pages in his directory for all the niche sites that were already out there.
Eventually he contacted a programmer he knew and the pair decided to build a network of niche dating sites on their own, starting in 2004 with 100 standalone websites. Eventually he expanded his network to include super-specific websites such as Stache Passions and Pirate Passions.
'There's a whole nerd twist to it,' he said. 'I went deep with the nerd.'
While the specialty sites might get mocked, they pull users into the network. And once they're hooked, the network uses their answers to the start-up questionnaire to connect them with sites they might actually use, such as Jewish Passions or Christian Passions, Carter explained.
The network, which is completely free, uses targeted ads to make money. Google's ad system places ads on the sites that are specific to the site's content. Carter also utilizes direct affiliate relationships with companies to place their products on his sites.
And while he doesn't release revenue figures, Carter said the network's profits pay for him to work on the site full-time, as well as covering the cost of hosting the network and the network's expansion.
Carter is currently working on developing new Passions site, one of which might be History Passions.
'I know there's nobody else doing what I'm doing, certainly not to the extent that I'm doing it,' he said. 'I'm sure we have a good number of the pirates out there that are on that site.'
Meet Passions Network member xxxDovexxx, who wasn't looking for love when she joined. But she found it.
xxxDovexxx, who asked to be identified only by her username, said she joined Passions Network simply to connect with other vegetarians, not to find a date.
'As much as I fought it, that I did NOT want to get involved in a online relationship, I did,' she wrote in an email to Business Insider.
xxxDovexxx, who lives in Australia, met a man based in Seattle through the site. She said the two spent quite a bit of time becoming friends before advancing into a romantic relationship. The fact that they were forced to get to know each other via the Internet, and had no physical contact actually helped strengthen their eventual relationship, xxxDovexxx said.
'The positive thing about it was that unlike *real life* where it was based on your looks and body structure, being online forces you to get to know your mate from the inside,' she wrote. 'A lot of this is missed due to getting lost in other emotions that centered around physical attributes. We don't find these things out till much later in a relationship.'
xxxDovexxx's partner eventually traveled to Australia last year where the two took a road trip from Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef. They will celebrate their three-year anniversary next week, she wrote.
However, xxxDovexxx said her unexpected happiness has not come without judgment from friends and family.
'Well of course there is the judgment from a lot of people that a LDR never works.... or is rare,' she wrote. 'I like to think both me and him have pushed aside everyone's judgments and have decided that its not up to anyone to understand it but us.'
Robert, now 19, joined Passions Network sub-site Trans Passions when he was 18.
But he wasn't expecting to find true love. Rather, he initially joined the site as a joke.
'Literally it started off just talking to old perverts,' he said.
However, the site exceeded his expectations. While he thought he would just be meeting 'weirdos,' Robert said he's met some interesting people who have become his friends.
'They're very real,' he said.
While the site generated some unexpected friendships, it hasn't yet lead to a successful romantic relationship.
'Just as in a real relationship, they don't all work out,' Robert said.
Robert hasn't told many people, including his parents, that he's a member of the site, so negative feedback from those closest to him has been minimal.
Even though the site hasn't yet introduced him to the love of his life, Robert advises others not to quickly dismiss the idea of online dating.
'You might get lucky and find a good one,' he said.
Joshua Zader, Founder
Ayn Rand fans everywhere now have a place to unite thanks to Zader's dating and social networking site.
'In a nutshell, of course I'm an admirer of Ayn Rand's novels myself,' Zader said about the reason why he created the site.
He got the idea for The Atlasphere in 2003 from a fellow Ayn Rand fan. Zader, a web developer and designer, recruited a web producer and the site was born.
The Atlasphere, which boasts a total of 26,000 members, is made up of two parts. The first component is a network directory of all users. The dating website, which has around 15,000 users, is an extension of the network directory and focuses more on establishing romantic connections.
'The business model we decided to pursue was based on Match.com,' Zader said, meaning members pay for contact privileges.
Members must also pay to see photos posted on other members' profiles.
'It's been a successful business model,' he said.
Despite the success, Zader said he's working on a new business model that will more closely mirror that of OKCupid. Under the new plan, everyone can use the site for free and pay only for premium services, such as the ability to see who has viewed your profile.
The Atlasphere doesn't collect testimonials from members who use the dating website, Zader said.
'Mostly, people feel kind of private about it,' he said.
Whitney Thompson, President
Thompson, the first plus-size winner on Tyra Banks' reality show 'America's Next Top Model,' got the idea for her site after stressing about how to describe herself on more mainstream dating websites.
If she posted that she was a plus-size model, men would expect a bigger girl. But if she simply posted that she was a model, men would expect a smaller girl.
'I was just kind of sick and tired of it,' she said.
The Big & The Beautiful, which launched December 2011, is filling a void and providing a dating website where women don't feel pressured to post an older, more flattering picture of themselves and can just be honest about who they are, Thompson said.
Men going to the website are looking for women bigger than stick-thin models, meaning that female members can find someone who loves them for the way they are, she added.
'We're all about just being honest,' she said. 'And we're all bigger than size 6.'
Thompson's website makes money from its $40 membership fee. That fee lets users talk among each other as often as they want.
'It's just kind of a flat rate,' she said.
While most people have been supportive of the site, Thompson said she has encountered some who think it's a fetish site. Which, she stresses, it is not.
'You know, like any site, there's perverts,' she said.
Matt Sherman, Founder and CTO
After breaking up with his girlfriend about four years ago, Sherman said he was looking for a well-read woman.
Hence, Alikewise was born.
'It was something I wanted for myself,' he said.
Sherman said he held a good job before launching Alikewise in 2010, but decided to quit his job and take the leap with the site.
Through the site, Sherman said he's learned that people aren't as concerned about having the same taste in books as their partner as much as they're concerned that their partner reads at all.
The fact that they read is the most important thing, Sherman said.
Since the site is so niche, its users number in the tens of thousands, it doesn't serve a large enough market to turn any sort of profit. Both Sherman and his partner have to work full-time jobs, in addition to running the site.
'It's a labour of love, no pun intended,' he said.
Despite its small presence, Sherman said Alikewise has spawned some successful relationships. One user moved from the East Coast to the West Coast to pursue a match started on the site.
Greg Hodge, Director
'Beautiful People is based on a fundamental principal of human nature,' Hodge said, explaining that people only want to date someone they're attracted to.
He capitalised on that idea when creating his exclusive dating site.
'It's millions of years of evolution,' he said.
The idea for the site, which now includes more than 750,000 members worldwide, was conceived in 2002. But before launching, Hodge and the rest of the site's directors had to come up with a way to define the subjective concept of beauty.
'What we came up with is giving the power to the members,' he said.
Prospective members must submit a picture and basic profile to the site. Current members then vote on profiles of the opposite sex to determine who is attractive enough to be granted membership.
More than six million people have applied for membership but only one in eight who apply are accepted, according to Hodge.
'It's a gated community for the aesthetically blessed,' he said.
The site operates on a subscription-based revenue model. Members pay about $25 per month to belong to the website, or, as Hodge puts it, to gain access to the world's best little black book.
The site has founded more than 700 marriages and spawned countless families.
'There have been thousands of beautiful babies born,' Hodge said. 'That's the most rewarding side of the business for us.'
While there has been a push against the site, Hodge said his website isn't doing anything new, claiming it's no different than approaching an attractive person at a bar.
'It is politically correct? No, it's not. It's certainly very honest,' he said.
According to a Taylor G., 19-year-old model, the general pool of online daters left much to be desired.
'I was on some other dating websites and just getting a little bit frustrated by the kind of people I was finding on them,' she said, adding that the daters were 'just kind of in a different group.'
Then, in a fit of rage, she said she Googled 'dating for pretty people' and found BeautifulPeople.com, which, she says, has been really great.
While the site requires members to vote on the attractiveness of all future members, the application process didn't faze her, Taylor said.
'It's a lot less nerve-racking than you would think,' she said, explaining that she kind of liked being able to see how current members had voted.
She hasn't yet started a relationship with anyone she's met on the site, but she has met friends and fellow models with whom she exchanges industry advice, Taylor said.
'It's been really cool,' she said. 'It's dating but it's also social.'
And for any of the naysayers who deride the site's superficial nature, well, that's just the way it is.
'Whether or not people like to admit it, there has to be an initial attraction to someone,' she said. 'The initial attraction is what gets you to a point where you're not going to let go of someone.'
The premise that everyone on the site is attractive also evens the playing field. Taylor said she has dated people who were less attractive than she is, and while she didn't initially have a problem with it, issues started to arise when her partners' insecurities spawned jealousy.
With BeautifulPeople.com, that issue can be avoided.
It's been a whirlwind from the start for Jonathan E. and Dora M., who both joined BeautifulPeople.com in 2009.
'We both kind of found it in the same way,' Jonathan said of the dating site aimed only at attractive people.
Both Jonathan and Dora had heard of the website and were simply hoping to meet new people and seek validation that they were attractive enough to be approved as members.
'We were both just curious about the site,' Dora said. 'It's a high-class dating site.'
That interest overcame any anxiety about the site's membership policy, which requires current members to approve of any new additions to the site. Both said they were curious about whether they would be approved for the site and wanted the ability to peruse fellow members.
The pair started communicating in March 2010 when Jonathan was 28 and Dora was 29. In Sept. 2010, the couple kicked it up a notch and Jonathan decided to travel to London to visit Dora, who was living across the pond at the time. After the pair met in London, they immediately hopped on a plane and traveled to Spain.
'That was our first whole week together,' Dora said.
For their second trip together, Dora ventured to America, where she and Jonathan went to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, among other stops. It was during this trip that Jonathan proposed.
The pair also traveled to Egypt together the following June.
Dora will eventually move to America to wed Jonathan, saying she hopes to have her visa approved by August.
While their friends and family now approve of the couple's impulsive relationship, at first they were concerned it was just an adventure and not a serious relationship.
Spencer Koppel, Founder
About seven or eight years after Koppel retired, he was in search of a new project. The former actuary wanted to try something different from his former field, so he ventured into the online world.
After a few failed business attempts, his daughter suggested the idea of a dating website for geeks.
'She came up with the idea actually,' Koppel said. 'Both she and I are geeks.'
More traditional dating websites, such as Match.com or eHarmony, don't really work for geeks because they have to scroll through so many profiles to find someone they're compatible with.
But if a geek found the profile of another geek on a geek-only website, then they know they at least have that in common.
But how to define a geek?
'The easiest criteria is, if you think you're a geek, you're a geek,' Koppel said, adding that a geek can be anyone from someone who's into video games to a sports fanatic who handles all of a team's statistics.
'The concept of being a geek is no longer a negative for most people,' he said.
After he launched the site in 2005, Koppel tried to fund it through ad revenue, but quickly realised that wasn't a sustainable method. Now, the site makes its money through membership fees.
There are three levels of membership. With the free membership, users can view other people's profiles but can't communicate with anyone on the site.
Silver members pay $14.99 per month, which allows them to send messages, but doesn't let them receive messages from other membership classifications.
Gold members pay $18.99 per month and can communicate with any member on the site.
A geek-centric dating site seems to have found success. Koppel said he recently heard from a woman about to celebrate her fifth wedding anniversary with a man she met six years ago on Geek2Geek.
Brandon Wade, Founder and CEO
The key to any successful date, according to Wade's philosophy, is generosity. SeekingArrangement sets up 'sugar daddies' or mommas with 'sugar babies.' The 'sugar daddies' are often wealthy men looking to spend time with, and pamper, a younger, attractive woman.
With What'sYourPrice, one member pays another member to agree to a date. Members of the site aren't allowed to communicate until a price is set.
'The fact that you're a gentleman and you're generous makes it all the more likely that the woman will give you that shot,' Wade said.
If a man finds a woman he wants to date, he offers an amount that he will pay her in order for her to agree to the date. If the woman agrees to the price, the communication tool is unblocked and the duo can begin planning their date.
Wade came up with the idea for the site after noticing the disparity between genders on other dating sites. He would have to send hundreds of emails per day to women in order to find one to date, while his sister was inundated with emails from single men.
'There were obviously a lot more men than the attractive women that they demand than there actually are on those normal sites,' he said.
Both of Wade's sites rely on membership fees for revenue. With SeekingArrangement, 'sugar daddies' pay $50 per month to belong. The site is free for 'sugar babies.'
With What'sYourPrice, members purchase credits. They then use those credits to unlock the communication tool with their future dates.
The agreement is fair to both sexes when you take into account the amount of money and time women use when getting ready for a date, according to Wade.
They pay to have their hair and nails done, to buy a dress, and it takes them longer to look ready, so it's fair they shouldn't pay for the site or should be compensated, Wade said.
Steven Pasternack, Founder
After Pasternack left his Wall Street trading job for the sunny beaches of Miami, he met quite a few women who complained about not being able to find a successful man.
The idea for SugarDaddie.com was born.
Pasternack said he wanted to create a site that would connect successful men with attractive women.
'It's for guys that are looking for an above-average looking woman,' he said.
The site, which launched in 2003, has more than a million users. Male users pay $29.99 per month to belong to the site, while the female users pay $24.99. While he won't release revenue figures, Pasternack is pretty happy with the results.
'It's safe to say that we've done pretty well,' he said.
Pasternack said he has receive a lot of positive feedback from users but there has been some opposition.
'It's brutally honest about what people are looking for and it pulls no punches,' he said.
Greg Liberman, President and CEO of Spark Networks
Liberman's first Internet dating success, JDate, launched in 1997 as an online dating community for Jewish singles.
But by 2005, he had created 30 niche dating websites, including ChristianMingle.com and BlackSingles.com, all unified under Spark Networks.
'JDate by any measure is the most successful niche dating site out there,' Liberman said of the site.
The entire network boasts 4.4 million users. But it doesn't make a profit from everyone. Users are classified as either members or subscribers. Members have filled out a profile, can search for fellow users and send prepackaged messages.
Subscribers, on the other hand, pay for their membership and are able to send custom messages and can communicate in a variety of ways, including instant messaging and sending longer messages.
Subscription fees vary by site.
His business model has become very profitable, both in terms of revenue and member experience, Liberman said.
According to Liberman, a ResearchNow survey credits JDate as being responsible for more Jewish marriages than all other dating sites combined.
Jim and Lisa R. met on ChristianMingle.com in 2006. By March 10, 2007, they were married.
'The Lord was absolutely in it all the way,' Lisa said.
Jim and Lisa, who were 51 and 49 respectively when they met, were both divorcees and turned to ChristianMingle after finding members of other online sites somewhat lacking.
Their faith is a big component of both of their lives and the two said ChristianMingle made the most sense for them because they knew prospective matches shared the same values.
'By the time we met, I knew he was a solid Christian,' Lisa said of Jim.
Lisa initiated contact but since Jim had been in two long-distance relationships with women he found on the site, and as Lisa was still living in Colorado at the time, he had doubts.
'I wasn't absolutely thrilled when I started long distance with her,' Jim said.
The pair eventually met up on Aug. 21, 2006, at the first Starbucks ever opened during one of Lisa's business trips in Seattle.
'And we had three glorious days and nine dates in three days,' Lisa said.
The couple became engaged that December. They attribute their smooth engagement to the fact that they are complementary colours, something they found out after continuing a test ChristianMingle administers to all of its applicants. The test reveals what colour one's personality is, and what colour it should be matched with.
'What the colour code called us was just a hand-in-glove relationship,' Lisa said.
Lisa and Jim recently celebrated their five-year wedding anniversary March 10.
'We are still living that dream,' Jim said.
Brad Armstrong, Founder and CEO
Armstrong got the idea for his network of niche sites in 2002 from another popular medium.
'What we saw was the fragmentation of television,' he explained.
He took the concept of fragmentation and created White Buffalo Ventures, a network that includes sites like DemocratSingles.com and TattooedSingles.com
All the sites in the network are subscription-based. Membership costs $19.95 for a month or $99.95 for a full year.
But one subscription won't get you access to the entire network. Each site has its own unique database and members have to pay subscription fees to join each individual site.
Josh Meyers, CEO of People Media
While Meyers operates 28 niche dating websites through People Media, we primarily talked about his standout site, OurTime.com.
OurTime targets baby boomers, encouraging them to undergo a renaissance during the second part of their lives.
'The category is growing significantly,' Meyers said.
OurTime, which is the second version of Meyers' earlier website SeniorPeopleMeet.com, launched in 2011 and currently boasts a million active users, with 10,000 new members joining daily.
According to Meyers, it differs from SeniorPeopleMeet.com because OurTime.com resonates more with the idea that your 50s are the time to try new things and focus on yourself.
'We were seeing a lot of success in the category,' Meyers said. 'We say OurTime is their time.'
People Media created OurTime as the destination for vibrant singles older than 50 to come to meet.
'With so many members and having been at it for a while, we've amassed a really significant number of success stories,' he said.
Meet a FarmersOnly member who couldn't find anyone in Silicon Valley that shared her passion for the outdoors.
Amol Kelkar, CTO and Co-Founder
It only took one relationship with a PC user for Kelkar's partner Mel Sampat to conceive Cupidtino.
'His girlfriend was really not happy he took his iPad with him and he was spending time with his iPad,' Kelkar said of his partner's relationship.
In 2010, the pair decided to create a dating website only for Apple fanboys and fangirls, the idea being that people who choose to purchase Mac products already have some base personality traits in common.
Unlike competitors, Cupidtino only charges members to read messages they've received. Most dating sites charge users to send messages, with no guarantee they will see a return on their money in the form of a reply.
'We have flipped that around,' Kelkar said.
It costs members $4.79 to purchase a subscription from the website. However, if they buy a subscription from the dating website's app, which is free to download, it costs $4.99. Asked why users would pay $.20 more to purchase a subscription on the app, Kelkar said it's a convenience thing.
If users are already logged onto their iTunes and other iPhone products, it's easier for them to subscribe on the app.
'We actually haven't heard any complaints from users about the difference,' he said.
While Apple has not officially endorsed the site or the app, the company showcased Cupidtino's app in its list of top dating apps.
Kelkar said he doesn't expect preferential treatment from the revered company but that Apple unofficially approves of his site.
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