Changing the dating industry and building the right team

Sanjay Panchal is the founder of the anti-ghosting dating app for people who want to find a genuine connection.

What is one thing you do to unwind?

I’d like to do more drawing. I used to love that when I was younger. And if I can get out, I’m trying to get better at golf. It was one of the things that I played when I was younger and then during lockdown when we were able to meet a couple of people outside. I caught up with some old school friends and we started playing golf again. If I can do that more, that’d be great. Well, it would be great if I could do it and not be terrible at it.

Can you tell me about the time when you decided to start Elate and get into the dating industry?

I came out of a relationship in 2019 and went on to dating apps because I’d used them before. I thought I knew what to expect but realised it was a very different experience compared to a few years ago because there’s so many more people on them now.

It was a lot of work swiping through superficial profiles. When I did match with someone, juggling the different conversations felt like so much hard work at a time when I was busy at work and I wanted something more real. It was a frustrating experience that felt more like a part-time job than actually something enjoyable and trying to meet someone.

I would have conversations with dates and with friends who all had the same complaints. What we all wanted was a dating app that actually screens and does the hard work for you.

The way that these dating apps work is that they rely on volume. They were all focused on the casual dating side of things and that meant they didn’t have to go down the route of heavily screening people to make sure that they’re right for you because people like that fun gamified approach of swiping through some faces.

The problem is the current generation of dating apps aren’t designed for serious relationships. Problem is those same millennials are now looking for something serious and that swiping approach doesn’t work anymore.

I think people are looking for a way to save time and effort and have a little bit of help. I compared it to professional matchmakers in Eastern countries, which is quite common although still relatively expensive. The idea that you have a matchmaker means there has to be a bit more thought and effort into who you’re put together with.

It’s very much an elite experience in the West. The professional matchmaker can cost 1000s of pounds but the good thing about them is that they get to know you and they will screen people for you. They’ll ensure a quality database then they’ll put you together with a small number of people. Then you go on the dates and give them feedback and they’ll use that feedback loop to get you more dates, and then eventually you hit that right approach.

I started thinking about how I could bring the experience of a professional matchmaker to a wider audience. We launched as an anti-ghosting app because we did the research into it and the biggest problem is ghosting. A major reason for that was people were juggling too many conversations and matches, people suffer from a paradox of choice or get distracted by newer matches.

We designed the app to have a set number of recommendations per day so you’re not matching with tons of people. You’re not getting overwhelmed with people and it makes you a bit more thoughtful.

The key thing is you can only talk to three of your matches at a time and the rest wait in a match queue. If you want to talk to someone else in your match queue, you have to end the chat and we let the other person know. They get a simple message to say that the chat ended and they should free up space for a new match.

That seems to have resonated with a lot of people, the idea that they’re not competing for attention for someone who’s got other matches but also the fact that they know where they stand. It’s still rejection if they get that message but they’re not left wondering and waiting.

I think what is interesting about messaging on dating apps is conversation starters. Are you helping people with that?

There’s a lot of talk about how painful chatting on apps can be. And I think what sometimes people forget is that part of the reason that it can be difficult are some of the underlying issues that I’ve talked about. All of those major apps that started as casual relationships are now a bit of everything.

They suffer from a massive gender imbalance. There have been reports of it being like 70-80% men on these apps. Women are in short supply, whereas the men are competing for attention with a whole bunch of other people. They could match with someone then they suddenly get pushed down 10-15 places within a day for all the other people that she’s matched with because every person that she swiped right with is a match.

This translates into men having to decide whether or not it’s worth putting in the effort with every single match because there’s a good chance that that person may never respond or even see your message.

The interesting thing is, as soon as you take away casual relationships, the gender balance becomes 50/50 again. It’s not necessarily unsurprising but it’s a big part of why these apps are so difficult and make so much money and then you come down to the fact that you have to pay to be boosted. That means more people will see your profile because they weren’t seeing it before or pay for a Super Like which is where they’re monetizing their most attractive users. You pay to send this person a Super Like or a rose and they will see your user profile when they wouldn’t otherwise see it. They won’t respond and they won’t like you back because they’re getting tons and tons of these. 

It becomes a cost-benefit thing. There was a big piece of research done that said, if you’re a man on Tinder, you could swipe right on all women and there’s only a 0.6% chance of liking someone who will like you back, which is a horrible statistic. So why would you put the effort into a detailed message?

Then on the flip side, if you’re a woman on these apps, why would you bother putting loads of effort into your profile when you have no problems getting matches. It’s this false confidence because they think they don’t need to bother. But then on the flip side, that means men have nothing to work with in terms of trying to come up with an interesting opener.

The gender balance makes it a real problem, because why should people bother putting effort if they’re not going to get anything. And then on the flip side, if you’re a woman on these apps and you’re looking for a straight relationship, why should you put in loads of effort when you’ve got so many options? Both sides are hoping that they’ll just stumble onto something that will flow.

What we found is that, ultimately, a little bit of effort goes a long way. And so the best thing that you can do on these apps is to be more thoughtful about who you match with in the first place and not right swipe on everything. And if you do match with someone to put the effort in on both sides, and simple things like if you’re asked a question, ask a question back once you’ve finished answering it.

I want to find out what was happening with you before you decided to start the business. What led you up to that point?

I was due to start with another startup. My background is in marketing. I’ve largely been in tech consumer marketing for about 15 years. I moved into the world of startups a few years ago, which I had a briefly been in when I was younger. I’ve loved it and I’d always been meaning to get back into because I’ve worked at bigger corporations and how far removed you are from the product was a very frustrating experience. I wanted to get something closer to having a real impact on where a business goes and what the product is.

I was able to sidestep from the pure marketing side into a head of growth role for the money management app Yolt. I was quite involved on the product side there, partially from my own making, because I wanted to learn and to get engaged with that. And that helped because I was a massive fan of the product itself.

Was starting your own thing something that was on your mind to do? Because there’s a big gap between jumping from the corporate world to the startup world but there’s an even bigger gap from joining a startup to starting one yourself.

Funnily enough, growing up with immigrant parents and seeing how hard they worked and did so much to give us a better start in life. They both worked and they owned a shop. That put me off the idea of owning my own business. I saw how it takes up everything and I didn’t want that for myself so I went the university route and then joined companies after that.

As soon as I got experience of big companies, I realised that I wanted to be more involved in everything. And I think that’s where it comes from. I like having more involvement and the only way that I can do that is to work at smaller companies. Soon into my career, I knew I wanted to have some experience doing my startup.

I joined a smaller startup pretty early on in my career and I did a brief stint in it but I saw the worst part of it. It was a very tough thing and I saw my CEO having a tough time with it. I didn’t think I was necessarily ready at the time. And I thought I was gonna go straight into another company, and then stay there for 10 years or whatever, but I ended up trying a couple of different roles which were great for me.

Eventually, I got to go back into startups. I made the Yolt role more of what I wanted because I was passionate about the product. I wanted to get more involved in a growth role as it was defined in the States. Not growth, as it sometimes gets called in the UK, where it’s pretty much the performance or acquisition marketer. Instead, a growth role where it’s defined as what the product can do to help grow whether it be product marketing or improvements. That was a great experience.

What did you learn from that experience, trying to move that growth role into a more Silicon Valley or something that would be in the States rather than the UK?

It was more a case of doing a course in it. I got to have a product that we were trying to grow. We had good feedback from users and we were growing but we weren’t necessarily retaining customers. At the same time, I was trying to absorb everything I possibly could about the startup world. I was trying to learn as much as I could and trying to implement what I could.

It was a bit of a struggle because Yolt wasn’t necessarily a standard startup - they were born out of an incubator for ING. And that meant they moved quite slowly in a lot of ways. They wouldn’t be able to get a measurement partner, which was one of the biggest struggles throughout trying to get that implemented. You had to go through their compliance procedures because we were working off of their banking licence and they didn’t move like a startup. There was never any real talk of things like product market fit and the marketing team was run as if it was a bigger brand doing brand-led things rather than product growth things.

It was a half-step toward startups and it was great to learn as much as I did but doing my own has been a completely different experience. I’ve been involved in everything and I’ve been able to try different products and implement something much quicker and that’s been brilliant. I’ve genuinely loved every moment of it.

What’s been the most difficult thing for you to learn and do well in your business that you didn’t quite get from the experience you had with Yolt?

I think it was partly what I’ve learned at every company which is pulling the trigger and doing stuff. It’s not something I’ve learned, it’s something that I’ve adapted to. I talk to people about what it’s like to be in a startup if they’re thinking about moving into startups. I tried to talk about if you’re coming from a corporate world, the first thing that you need to understand is that your experience in a bigger role isn’t necessarily going to help you that much in a startup role because you’re not going to have the resources that you would in a bigger role.

Was there an inkling at the back of your mind thinking you needed to move on from this before you had your breakup in 2019? Or was it that just that one event where you decided dating apps are awful and needed to create your own?

The Yolt role was a fixed-term contract and I’d been offered a role with a mortgage finance startup, which I was quite excited about because it was almost exactly what I wanted. It was completely from the ground level. I was going in as the first marketing hire but in a partnership with the founder. It was a great idea but it was taking time to get their ducks in a row. Firstly because of Brexit holding up negotiations with the banks then eventually the pandemic here and everything was put on hold.

I actually started Elate to keep myself sharp. I ended up partnering with the same development agency that we were going to use for the other startup because I’d met them and liked their approach. When the other startup got put on hold again, I didn’t want to take another contract role. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and started this idea.

I thought it could end up being an interesting balance. I could work once the other startup got up and running and I’d have a relationship with them so I could make tweaks to Elate and it could almost be like a side project. If it took off, then I could decide what would happen but I was focused on the fintech startup to be the next thing I’d do.

When the pandemic ended up being a lot more serious than everybody thought and it didn’t look like the other thing was going to start anytime soon, I kept working on Elate. 

By that point, I had been heavily into the design of it. I’d started testing it and I was having too much fun to try and look for another job. In my mind, the other one could still eventually start and in the meantime, I don’t want to stop doing this. 

I am genuinely having more fun than I had in a long time, working in a job because I got to be involved in everything. Anytime I had an idea, I could tweak the design a little bit and test it with users and create our website. It was a lot of work because I was doing everything that wasn’t writing code. In the early stages, we had a designer to do the early stage of the product design but then I took that on as well. I was doing everything from wireframing and changing the colours of buttons and things like that to then testing with the developers.

I got everything I wanted in terms of being involved in everything as well as testing the app and promoting it then doing the PR to try and get some press coverage for it.

Can you name check the dev partner?

They’re called Founder and Lightning. They are based in London but they’ve got developers in different parts of the world. They’re a great bunch!

Do you think your background in drawing helps your designing of the website?

It definitely did! It meant that I could go in and change things because I’ve used design programmes before. It’s almost like a semi blessing, but also a curse because I’m not a designer.

I have quite strong instincts when it comes to design but I can’t always translate them into what I want to. If I do, it takes me a lot longer to try and recreate something as I want in my head versus going to an experienced designer and getting them to do it.

That’s one of the major roles that I want to hire into the company early on. Finding an amazing UX designer who’s passionate about this to the same level that I am and wants to have a real ownership of what it looks like. It’s cool to be able to create and design something and see it come to life. When you have so many ideas, you can’t always think of what the perfect execution could be then you could talk to an experienced designer who knows what you want.

You spent hours on end trying to sort it out and it’s taken them 30 seconds to sort it out.

When I was working at Yolt, there were a couple of good UX designers and despite the fact that they couldn’t implement the designs that easily because of the difficulties in developing because they were doing everything from scratch. When they were knocking up the prototypes, I was shocked at how quickly they would do it. They would go away from a meeting and come back with something amazing. I can see how the programs that exist now make it so easy to do that but there’s definitely a skill and one that I wish I had more of.

How is your pre-seed raise going for you?

It’s a learning curve because I hadn’t come from this world. I’m definitely one of those people who tries to learn everything about something before I execute sometimes. And I’m trying not to do that as I want to get this particular thing right because we know how difficult fundraising can be. Especially for an industry, such as online dating, where it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

I’ve tried to identify who will be the right people to bring on board and the things that can help us get the best chance of getting investment so we can have a clear story. It’s taken a little while to pull them together and to get the story right. I think I’m there and we started talking to people, we’ve got some early conversations that are going quite well. So that’s good.

It’s been bootstrapped up till now. We’ve managed to get thousands of users for our MVP in London. We were in GQ and Evening Standard’s best apps of the year lists last year. So that’s been great to do that while bootstrapped but there’s so much more that we can do. There are so many plans already in place. Now, we need that injection of cash so that we can build out the team that can really execute the vision.

What are the things that you have learned in order to get your ducks in a row to go out for the funding?

It’s more a case of learning what the raising process is. I’ve tried to absorb as much information as possible. And there’s some great sources of information, whether it be Twitter or people who are sharing information online. It’s been a fun process - I enjoy learning and I enjoy this topic.

That being said, I now want to get back to the product. It’s been great to learn about it. But now I’m keen to get the fundraise sorted so I can start getting back to improving the product and getting more people into relationships.

How much are you looking to raise?

We are looking to raise £500,000, that will give us a good 18 month runway. Given the climate, I think it’s better to raise for the full 18 months if possible. And that will mostly be on the team, product development, to launch the Android version, to launch our first version of premium and focusing on product market growth.

The focus is on London while we’re iterating on the product. Once we get those first indications of product market fit, then we’ll also be focused on growth after that. We’ve got thousands of people on waiting lists for cities outside of London so we need to get back to those people.

What’s in the pipeline for the next six months?

The biggest focus will be hiring. We’re looking for a full-stack developer that can come on board and get those core people in as well as the UX designer.

How do you know they’re the right people? And how do you think you’re going to manage them afterwards?

I have got some good partners in Founder and Lightning and they’ll help me vet the candidates. I’ve also been lucky to get a few ex-CTOs and some dev people who I’ve met over the last six months to a year or through past roles. They’ve all kindly offered help and advice to help me vet the candidates.

A big part of what I’m looking for is someone who is going to be passionate about the goal of what I’m trying to create. I’m not looking to create another dating app where it’s based on some particular niche or gimmicky idea. I’m trying to develop a real digital matchmaker, something that is more akin to that professional matchmaker experience but at scale.

It’s been an interesting journey already, being focused on the glaring issues with the industry that nobody seems to be interested in solving. But when we started solving them, people loved it. It’s not that hard to listen to what consumers want.

The main thing for me is the passion for what we’re trying to create and the ability to get on and do it and learn. I’m not expecting everyone to be able to figure out exactly what we need straight away. That’s the whole joy and beauty of the startup process.

How did you come up with those ideas and the USPs for Elate?

The three chats at a time that was largely personal experience. It felt like a good number where I wouldn’t be distracted if I was a user.

I’d had a bit of back and forth with people about whether you could pin some messages at the top or you can just have three favourites. I wanted to make it so that you could only talk to three people at a time, so you could continue to look at profiles and match but you weren’t getting distracted and harming the conversations and the rapport that you’re building.

I found interesting research and talks by various experts, including one by the Chief Scientific Advisor to Match Group who own a majority of the dating apps. She said on multiple occasions that we suffer from this paradox of choice and when we’re presented with loads of options, we get cognitive overload. 

You’re not built to juggle more than a handful of conversations at a time. And I think she recommends stopping when you’re talking to five people. I stuck with the three in the end because of how difficult it is to find someone on these apps, the average person has three apps on their phone. Even if I only limit you to three conversations, you’ve probably got a couple of things going on somewhere else. That’s how we got to that and it seems to work at the moment.

What are you most looking forward to for the business in the rest of 2022?

Being able to release the Android version eventually would be great because there’s a lot of people who are on a separate waiting list for that. There’s a lot in the app already, that is using the data that we’ve got to be able to give us a good insight.

One of the things that the app has is a separate compatibility feed where we show snippets of people’s profiles. We may show an individual photo from one profile and another photo from someone else’s profile so we can learn what you like in terms of looks. Separate to that, we’ll add in different bios from different profiles or how people have answered our profile prompts then we use that as a proxy for personality so we can find out what type of personality you like. Then we try and recommend the best of both for you.

And that compatibility, for me, is one of the most exciting things because we’re going to be able to add in more. The snippets are there already, but we want to be able to add in like different quizzes, lots of information. One of the challenges with something like matchmaking is getting that information from people to give you a better recommendation.

Dating apps as they stand don’t have to get that much information because their approach is volume and they’ll send you as many people and you figure it out for yourself. The older style of first generation dating sites do it by making you complete a 40 minute questionnaire at the start. Interestingly, they still have an overwhelming number of recommendations so it still doesn’t do the curation that I’m trying to get with Elate.

The problem with doing a 40 minute questionnaire is that you lose a lot of people in the onboarding process, so you don’t get as many people as you could do. And it limits your potential pool of recommendations to find the right person. We had to find a different balance of getting that interesting information and letting people use the app, keeping them engaged on the app, and also getting more information from them so that we can use that data to inform our recommendations.

That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to playing with a bit more. I want it to be something that almost becomes a bit like a social feed. There’s a lot of talk about dating apps that use video only and they want to be the TikTok of dating. The beauty of TikTok is how insanely good their algorithm is. You spend five minutes on that thing and it knows you intensely. We want to find a way that can show you the content that you can engage with that then informs us of who you are as a person so we can then find better recommendations and better matches for you.

Do you think people can be defined by an algorithm?

I don’t know whether it can be defined to the Black Mirror level but I think we can do a lot better than we currently are. If you think about dating apps as introduction services. We can do a lot better at introducing you to the right person to get the ball rolling.

One of the challenges right now in society as it stands, especially in Western countries, is that we’re settling down later in life. It means you’re less likely now to meet your partner at school or university or even in work when you’re socialising with work colleagues more. And in this hybrid remote working world, it’s even harder to meet people through work.

There’s been articles that show that millennials, and Gen Z are not going to clubs and bars as much as they used to, because of social media and the pandemic. I think relying on dating apps as they are now means that you’re only really doing it based on looks and it’s not doing a fantastic job of screening to make sure that the people that you’re going to the effort of actually meeting in person are at least someone that you will get on with.

They may or may not be perfect for a relationship but there’s a lot more nuance and complicated stuff that goes into making a relationship work. The approach I want to take with Elate is to do a better job of screening so the introductions are better. I want to help people build a rapport because there are relationships that could be amazing but the messaging part is difficult.

Finding out that a person is right for you from a quick chat or a first date at a bar is quite difficult so if we get the recommendation part right then at least we know that it’s worth giving them a bit more time to get to know each other.

People are flaky and they ghost a lot because they’ve decided within five minutes that they haven’t got the same interest as me and they’re not right for me so they move onto the next person. What I want to happen is for people to give this a try because Elate recommended this person for a reason.

People want it to be a rom-com where they happen to have all the same interests, find out they’re so amazing for each other and they fall in love. I think we should be able to give them more of that experience, which is why we’re taking more data about people, but not plastering that over someone’s profile.

What I want people to do is trust that Elate has chosen this person for the right reasons and then they can have that experience of getting to know each other and realising that they’re right for each other independently from looking at each other’s profile.

Right now, the onus is very much on the person to look at a profile and determine whether they’re right for them. I want to get to a point where we’re taking a matchmaker approach, we’re learning about each user then we’re finding the right matches and they can find that out for themselves as well.

Sanjay, I wish you the best of luck for the future. Thanks for joining me. Where can people find out more about Elate? 

People can find out more here

James Parris

Managing Director

James was recently poached from the world of elite sport bringing his wealth of experience developing high performing teams to Rbbl