Ian Isherwood, the founder of Date Me Kenya, describes himself as a 31 year-old white Kenyan. Born and raised at the Coast, he gets a little annoyed when people keep asking where he is originally from.
Ian has always had a flair for business – the more unusual the better. It stems from his father, he says, the original entrepreneur of the family, though he died when Ian was just 14.
“I would have loved to … have had that mentorship. It would have been amazing, but such is life. These things happen,” Ian says. His mother moved back to the UK with her four sons after her husband’s death. In 2011, however, Ian packed his bags and came back to Kenya, the place he has always considered home.
He spent the following year travelling around the region, settling back into the Kenyan way of life and sniffing out potential business opportunities.
“I looked into online dating when a friend of mine said he couldn’t meet enough people. I had seen the success of online dating around the world. Of course the Kenyan market is extremely different, but at the end of the day, we still have that need for a partner.”
Ian proceeded to research the online dating scene. He was especially interested in the US’ Match.com and Eharmony, which are the world’s most successful dating websites. In June 2013, Date Me Kenya (DMK) was born.
“I wanted to make this huge. Millions of people were getting into online dating across America and Europe and I thought, yes, I am going to change how people date in Africa. I was a bit naïve, perhaps, and I have realised that it takes time.”
Still, slowly but surely, DMK has made strides in the dating landscape, achieving 182 per cent growth last year.
In 2015, the site had 10,000 members, which increased to 30,000 last year. Today, Ian says, DMK has 43,000 members, despite approving just six per cent of applications received.
“I have now been in this for four years and I have gained a lot of knowledge. I understand what people like and what they don’t like. We have had success stories, including four weddings. People, however, don’t tend to openly talk about this as Kenyans can be very judgmental,so people still keep it a secret that they met their partner online.”
Ian walks us through what he has learnt while building DMK.
1. Research your intended business
Once I knew I wanted to get into the online dating business, I did my research on how others around the world were doing it. What made this an attractive investment opportunity is that online dating is a $4 billion (Sh412 billion) industry. Africa remains untouched. Everyone has the same basic need. You need food, you need water and you crave love. If you can offer a service tailored for Kenyans, and Africans, that assures them of quality, you will find that people are willing to pay for this.
2. Raise your capital
I was lucky in that I had savings from my previous ventures – which included selling collectibles online and running an online ticketing site – to fund Date Me Kenya. I started my first business at 18. To get off the ground, we needed a cash injection of roughly Sh4 million, the majority of which went towards web design, marketing, social media and graphics.
3. Design a site that makes good use of data
DMK’s site was designed in Scotland and has an in-built algorithm that sorts through the responses that members give to a set of questions. These responses help the system get to know the members through their likes and dislikes, and matches them with like-minded members. It’s never 100 per cent accurate, but it’s a fun and sophisticated way to find those who have things in common.
We also structured three levels of membership: Rafiki, which is free and offers limited features; Chui, which costs Sh1,000 a month if you sign up for a year, or Sh4,000 for a month; and Simba, which costs Sh1,700 for a year or Sh7,000 for a month. These last two levels offer a lot more features.
4. Set yourself apart
What sets DMK apart from other dating sites is how selective we are in signing up new members. Quality is very, very important to me. We manually approve everything and have to be physically in front of a computer accepting a new photo or new post, which allows us to maintain quality control.
Kenya has a very unusual ecosystem of dating where you find that having a ‘sponsor’ is acceptable. As much as relationships are very personal, I would love for people to fall in love for the right reasons and to meet for the right reasons, not because of finances.
Another differentiating factor is that all DMK members are in Kenya, making it possible to pursue real relationships.
5. Drive clients to your site
We chose not put too much into this. You can throw a lot of money at something at an early stage, and you will get the attention but not necessarily the growth, especially if the market isn’t ready. We chose to launch, get the site going, plant the seed, get people talking about it and develop a good reputation organically.
I did talks and events, and things evolved from there.
I knew that my image was also very important to the success of the business. Those who saw my passion were encouraged to check us out. Word of mouth is very important, but for us, this was difficult to cultivate as members didn’t want to openly talk about dating online.
6. Be patient
I was a bit naive in the beginning and I have realised that it takes time to grow a business. It was tough to get enough members to match up. I never gave up. Since then, we have made significant strides, with roughly 1,000 new people signing up every month. I have five and ten-year business plans. I know what I want to do and I now understand that it will take time. Match.com took 15 years to get things going.
7. Adapt to changes in your industry
Tinder (a mobile phone app that matches people looking for dates) has been great for us as it has brought awareness about meeting online and how fun it can be. After people have been on Tinder and are looking for something more serious, where are they going to go? DMK is a long-term project for me. I want to be a site with a great reputation and I am building that now. With all the new apps in the market, I don’t have to go out there and create awareness. Now everyone has heard of online dating.
8. Look to the future
Since we currently only approve six per cent of applicants, we need to convert the other 94 per cent into DMK members or offer them another website that will work better for them. We want to grow across Kenya and then move into Africa. You can’t just be content with today. You need a plan to deal with future upheavals or opportunities.