If Markus Frind stood out at all, it was because he was so ordinary.
As the hungry jockeyed for the attention of the influential in the halls of the Vancouver Convention Centre, Frind – the millionaire founder of one of the world’s top online dating sites – blended utterly into the background after a low-key chat with a few dozen GROW 2012 attendees on Thursday.
The sight of Frind, bespectacled in a rumpled long-sleeved shirt, roomy jeans and sensible sneakers, conveyed all you need to know about the wild success of Plenty of Fish: Namely, that it has nothing to do with polished pitches or flashy design, and everything to do with meeting a basic need through simple execution.
“You can’t argue with success,” Jeff Dennis, a lawyer with Fasken Martineau, said almost as though he’d wished he could, after he conducted a lunchtime Q and A with Frind.
It was a chat punctuated by no-nonsense replies and rudimentary wisdom from Frind, the Vancouver entrepreneur who, at 34, still looks every bit the disheveled programmer who built his unadorned website in 2003. That site, as the Globe and Mail reported last August, draws nearly three billion page views a month, about four times that of his main rival, Match.com.
All that and 50 per cent profits, too, from a free dating service supported entirely by ads, maintained by a staff of 66, with no outside investment.
At a startup conference like GROW, where starry-eyed dreams and clever self-promotion are rarely in short supply, Frind’s unassuming presence was a welcome reminder that success isn’t always sexy.
I found him in a quiet corner, munching on a sandwich well away from the crowd, to continue the conversation.
Q – These conferences are a bit glitzy and sexy, with VCs circulating and eager young entrepreneurs trying hard to score big investments. You’ve succeeded enormously while seemingly ignoring all of that. How?
A – At the end of the day, it’s all about execution.
If you don’t execute, you don’t get anywhere, so when you sit there and you focus on the numbers and focus on the metrics, you’re going to go somewhere.
When I look around at all these people here, there’s a thousand people here and there’s a ton of startups, but the truth is, only one or two per cent of them are going to be around next year.
And the one or two per cent of them are going to be the ones who are analytical, or actually pay attention and know their businesses inside-out.
I’ve gone to events like this for the past six, seven years and it’s always the same thing.
It’s not that I’ve written my own script; it’s just that all the people who are successful tend to follow a similar script.
They may do it in different ways, but most people are here to look for money, or to raise something.
Q – What would you say are the main elements of that script?
A – Analytics.
Just pay attention to absolutely everything, know your business inside-out and know if something’s wrong.
The vast majority of time, people just have no idea something’s wrong, and then, you know, five months later they’re bankrupt.
Q – Why? Are they just not paying close enough attention, or are they focusing on the wrong things?
A – The majority of people just don’t know what analytics is and how to measure things.
Let’s say the seven-day average of your page views is going down, or the visitors are declining. Most people don’t even look; they’re like, ‘Oh, that looks fine’, or last week it was 7,000 page views a day and now it’s 6,500, and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just 500 difference.’
They don’t realize that’s a nine-per-cent drop. If that continues happening week over week, they’ll notice eventually, but by then it’s probably too late.
Q – Can you give me an idea of how closely you monitor those analytics at Plenty of Fish?
A – I look at them every single day.
I look at week-over-week growth; I look at different types of metrics.
It’s very hard; because POF has so many repeat users per day, I have to look at a change of less than one-tenth of a per cent, because there are 50,000 new users a day and there’s three million users a day, and it’s a small number.
Q – How do you do that with 66 people?
A – There’s only two or three of us looking at analytics; the rest of them are programming and doing other things; customer service and whatnot.
Q – So two or three of you to look at analytics for three million users a day?
A – Yes, because we only care about active daily users. They’re the ones making us money.
Q – How big a challenge is that for two or three people?
A – It’s not, really, because most of the reports are created. When you see something funny on a report, you have to try and dig into it and figure out what’s going on.
Q – Tell me a bit about your company; when you founded it, how you funded it, key factors in it taking off.
A – Well, I bought the domain in 2000, created a little rinky-dink site and it didn’t really go anywhere.
Then, in 2003, I rewrote it in ASP.NET, and a lot of people started signing up.
I did some SEO and SEM, and a couple of hundred people a day started signing up, and it eventually got to a point where it became viral and it just exploded in Canada.
It’s literally like I can take a ruler and draw a straight line and I’ll know where I’ll be; I can draw a line for the last seven years of the growth and I know exactly where it’s going to be in six months or a year from now.
Q – What kind of revenue numbers are you dealing with?
A – It’s in the tens of millions.
Q – How has it changed your life, to have latched onto something that took off in such a big way?
A – I can’t even remember life before this now; it’s been so long.
Q – Other than analytics, what would be your advice to youngsters here, who may have stars in their eyes about startup superstardom?
A – Stay focused.
It’s all about focus; analytics and focus. And, if you are doing a product or a startup, do the customer service, read what people are saying, understand what your market really is doing, not what you think they’re doing.
Q – How much of the advice people get at events like this is really useful, from your experience as an entrepreneur?
A – When you go to these events and walk the hallways, all the entrepreneurs and all the VCs are standing in the hallways. No one is actually in the meeting rooms; it’s all the people who have come here to learn who are in there, so for us it’s the same old thing, over and over.
No one says anything revolutionary; it’s all online. You come here to network; you don’t come here to learn, at least for me.
Q – Do you have VCs frustrated that you haven’t come to them for money?
A – Oh, they stopped [coming to me] a few years ago.
Q – Is it a point of pride that you haven’t had to go to VCs?
A – No, I really don’t care.
I’m the sole board of directors; I’m the sole shareholder; I can do whatever I want, when I want.
No one else here can. Everyone here’s got a VC, or they have a whole bunch of shareholders telling them what to do.