Wed, 26 June 2019
A Digital Meet Cute
How Geoff Cook linked up dating apps and live-streamed video to form a happy and profitable relationship.
Geoff Cook has built a small empire of successful meeting and dating apps—beginning long before anyone ever swiped right on Tinder—by following a philosophy of fearlessly trying new things.
“Ten years from now, what will I have regretted—losing half a million dollars or not having done the thing that I wanted?”
Of course, the fact that he has a half a million dollars to lose in the first place should be some indication that a lot of those risks have paid off. Thanks to a series of auspicious business decisions, starting with a profitable essay and resume editing business he launched as a sophomore at Harvard, Cook is living proof that experimentation lies at the heart of a successful startup career.
While his fellow Harvard-attendee Mark Zuckerberg was busy refining Facebook, Cook launched his own spin on a social media platform. Rather than focusing on adding friends that users already knew in real life, his platform would be geared toward meeting entirely new people. So myYearbook was born.
Today, myYearbook has evolved, changed hands, and expanded to encompass a whole collection of meeting and dating apps, all housed under The Meet Group, where Cook serves as CEO.
“I tend to be a tinkerer,” he says. “I’ll push forward an idea even if it seems strange, just because it’s an itch and just keep moving the ball forward. Sometimes, opportunities fall out of that, and sometimes you just lose a lot of money. But it’s an itch I had to scratch.”
In this instance, Cook’s itch proved to be so much more.
Cook started his first business in 1997 when, while still writing college essays of his own, he decided to put his economics classes to work and start a small side hustle editing his classmates’ papers and resumes.
But in astoundingly short order, EssayEdge and ResumeEdge had scaled to millions in revenue, and the Thomson Corporation was knocking at his door with an acquisition offer.
So Cook sold his first business in 2002, and just like that, he had the seed money to begin his first post-grad venture. But it wasn’t until he was in his mid-20s, when the social media era had just begun, that the light bulb flicked on.
“The thought was that there needs to be a place to connect to people you don’t know,” he says. “It seemed both MySpace and Facebook were heavy into connecting to your real life friends.”
Teaming up with his brother and sister, who were both still in high school, he created a social network designed to introduce rather than deepen existing friendships. Using games and his search algorithm, making new connections was simple.
All they needed now were users. Luckily, the Cooks had the perfect in.
At Montgomery High School in Skillman, NJ, where both of the younger co-founders were still in school, myYearbook rolled out in 2005. In the first two weeks, there were hundreds of users. Within nine months, there were over a million.
But the road to a million required some clever maneuvering.
“I think we built a pretty good mousetrap in the beginning, but we had nobody in it,” he says, laughing. “What really helped it take off was…we were able to create this great quiz app that ended up getting millions of users every month.”
Reminiscent of today’s Buzzfeed quizzes, users would take a quiz to determine what Seinfeld character they were most similar to. They would then share their results on their MySpace profile, and when a friend—intrigued to learn whether they were an Elaine or a Kramer—clicked on the link, it whisked them away to myYearbook where they were invited to register.
“Quizzes are a very high-uniques business,” Cook says. “You get a lot of uniques, but you get very few page views per unique, because you only basically need to see the quiz and the quiz result. So we turned that business from two page views per user to closer to two or three hundred, because we brought them into a very social experience.”
Once the former MySpace users began chatting with the new people they met through myYearbook, the platform blossomed.
“That was when we were basically off to the races,” Cook says.
But unfortunately, “the races” had an expensive entry fee.
‘The Servers Were Melting’
“We had to raise some money,” Cook says. “The servers were melting. The traffic was growing. The expenses were going up.”
So, in 2006, to keep their rapidly growing platform afloat, Cook and crew decided to begin their first round of funding. The success of this venture round left them with enough money to put a team and an office together.
The social media website continued to flourish, and in 2008, they began a Series B round of funding that enabled them to raise $12.8 million just before the financial crisis laid waste to the economic landscape.
Grateful for their luck, but tired of raising capital, they vowed that this second round of funding would be their last, which meant only one thing: it was time to monetize. Luckily, Cook had a rapt audience at his disposal.
“I’m of the belief that if you can amass a big enough audience…you can monetize it,” he says, “especially if it’s an engaged audience that’s spending 10 or 20 or 30 minutes a day with you.”
In 2011, revenue was up to around $25 million to $30 million, and Cook was thinking long term. What was next for his company?
When he was introduced to Quepasa—a company similar to myYearbook but for South America, and the first publicly traded social network—he knew he’d found a fit. The two companies merged, transforming myYearbook into a publicly traded company, and Cook thought the time had come to rename the company, as well.
“We were always a social network for meeting new people, but the name [myYearbook] to people who didn’t know that made people think of Classmates.com,” he says. “It was not really what we were about, so we changed the name to Meet Me.”
As part of the merger, Cook stepped into the role of COO with the intention that he would soon move back into the CEO role. In 2013, he made his return as CEO of the company, a position he has held since.
When asked how the job of CEO at a private, venture capital-funded company differed from that of a publicly traded company, he says that the two roles are far more similar than they are different.
In a privately owned, venture-backed company, he says, the CEO answers to several large investors who are knowledgeable about the industry and who demand growth. It’s the same for a CEO whose company goes public, he says. There are just a whole lot more investors to keep happy.
Cook says it can be difficult to know when the time has come to take a company public, but he did offer some insight for founders.
“I think the best time to be public would be when you have a lot of insight into your future revenues and profits,” he says. “One of the key differences of a public versus private company is that…you offer some guidance for the year—or even long-term guidance—on how the business is going to go, and then you’re measured to a quarterly yardstick on that.”
Without a degree of foresight, he says that going public would be an extremely difficult task.
“If you don’t have enough insight into your business to know your revenues except within a very wide range, or to know your profits except within a very wide range, that’s probably not the best candidate to be public,” he says. “You’re just setting yourself up to have some very bad quarters.
In other words, the key is predictability. But he reminds business owners that even the most predictable companies can present a challenge.
“You’re never gonna know everything, and there’ll always be some surprises, because things happen,” he says.
But despite the added pressures and challenges, Cook insists that there are many advantages to being publicly traded.
“There’s definitely pros and cons of being public,” he says, “but I would say we’ve had more pro than con.”
And the primary advantage of going public for Cook was a clear path toward acquiring other companies.
Forming the Group
Not long after myYearbook became Meet Me, the business was renamed The Meet Group, the moniker it’s known by today. Because the business encompassed more than a single app, the name change was apt, and it only became more appropriate as the years passed.
In late 2016, The Meet Group acquired Skout, a meet-up app that was approaching its 10th birthday. Then in 2017, they acquired Tagged, the San Francisco-based meeting app with high engagement in the African-American community, and Lovoo, a European dating app. And this year, The Meet Group also acquired GROWLr, a dating app geared toward the gay community.
But Cook says all of these acquisitions stemmed from a strategy inspired by one popular Chinese dating app. The company decided to start building a live-streaming video product after seeing its success at a Chinese dating platform called Momo.
Cook felt the app was somewhat similar to Meet Me, and when Momo added live streaming, he says that about 90 percent of Momo’s revenue was a result of that service. The Meet Group wanted to give it a try.
“We were also kind of clear-eyed enough to know that building a live-streaming business is a big commitment,” Cook says. “It’s essentially kind of an all-in sort of company bet.”
It was the kind of bet Cook was comfortable making. So they dove in headfirst and got to work building up the infrastructure, talent, and moderation capabilities they would need to execute their plan. And it paid off in tens of millions. Cook says that their annualized live video revenue grew from $0 to $82 million in just 16 months. This became the inspiration behind their acquisition of meeting and dating apps—to integrate video and watch as revenues skyrocketed.
“If we believed in our story enough to make that bet, well, then we could make that bet again and again,” he says. “There’s no reason not to double down, triple down, quadruple down on it.”
As they acquired social apps and fitted live-streamed video into them, they noticed that the engagement on those apps markedly increased.
“In meeting- and dating- and chat-oriented communities, there’s often periods of time where you just don’t have any inbound chats,” he says. “So, it’s kind of boring.”
But rather than exiting the app, the users of the video-fitted apps can simply hop into the tab labeled “Live” during those gaps.
“Our users are coming to us for human connection,” he says. “Meeting new people is kind of all about that. Interactive live video is actually human connection, right?”
Cook says that around 20 percent of their users visit the live streaming sections of the apps each day and that those users, on average, spend 20 minutes more a day on the app. Users can watch popular streamers, send them comments and witness their reactions. They can also buy and send digital gifts to the streamer.
“They do this because they want the attention of the streamer,” he says. “It’s almost like buying someone a drink at the bar. You don’t have to, but if you want a better shot, you maybe should.”
Cook is pleased with the success The Meet Group has found by incorporating live streaming into the apps—but he still has his eyes on Momo. Thirty percent of the Chinese app’s users visit the live section daily, a goal that Cook wants to push toward.
He also wants to continue pushing the boundaries of live video and sees one-on-one live video and various video dating experiences in the company’s future.
As the social media landscape continues to coalesce around a select few apps, this self-proclaimed tinkerer believes that the unique nature of his business will allow it to keep flourishing.
After all, as long as there are people searching for connection, there will always be a need to meet someone new.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo