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Start: Mark Evans

Crazy online dating experiences sparked business idea Add to ...

When Sean Miller got into the online dating world, his curiosity often got the best of him.

His interest in the dating process often prompted him to ask the women he went out with about their craziest dating experiences - something, he said, that didn't help him get a second date but did prove informative and educational.

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It was so informative and educational, in fact, that it provided the foundation for a startup company called Tigits Inc. that he has recently launched.

A common theme in Mr. Miller's dating conversations was how some men refused to take "no" for an answer when the women declined a second date. Mr. Miller said many women told him this made them reluctant to give out their telephone numbers.

That provided him with an entrepreneurial "eureka" moment. He saw opportunity in providing people with second telephone numbers that could be used just for dating, and would be less expensive and easier to get than through a major telephone company.

The notion was similar to how people use e-mail services like Gmail and Yahoo! Mail to separate their personal and professional activities.

It took Mr. Miller, who had already given up on another idea to develop a speed video-dating service with a partner because it was proving too cost-intensive and a competitor had emerged, 18 months to develop his concept.

To get there, he approached a large telecom carrier, which not only loved the idea but decided to become a strategic partner and investor. The carrier, which Mr. Miller declined to disclose, is providing the telephone numbers at a discounted rate.

Mr. Miller was also able to bring on Bruce Croxon, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Lavalife, a popular dating service, as an adviser and investor. Jeffrey Puritt, senior vice-president of Telus Corp. and president of Telus International, is also on the board.

The service, which includes voice mail and will soon offer text messaging, costs $9.99 a month after a 30-day free trial. Tigits' customers get a second telephone number that works just like their regular number. They can block callers, switch number and stop their service at any time.

"The marketing message is this is free and fun, enjoy the dating experience and don't worry," Mr. Miller said.

He finds it "ironic and surprising that many of the people signing up are men. I guess men have the same concerns about online dating, or they're doing sneaky stuff," he said.

One of the surprising developments has been an unexpected customer base: Small businesses have started to use the service, particularly ones that don't want to pay $30 or more for a second line from a large carrier, he said.

In fact, about 30 per cent of Tigits' users so far are businesses; the rest are on-line daters, he added.

"We were so focused on the dating market because it is such a targeted market," he said. "You can advertise on dating sites so I thought, from a marketing perspective, the cost [of acquiring new customers]would be lower. The business market is a bigger play. We found as the word got out more, we are now going to target that market."

Mr. Miller said growth has been steady since Tigits launched in mid-January. While declining to disclose numbers, he said the total number of subscribers doubled during the second month the service was available. He also said about 25 per cent of users have gone from the free service to the premium paid service.

Like many startups, Tigits' biggest challenge is creating awareness and educating people about the benefits of the service. It has been aggressively using social media like Twitter and Facebook, advertising on online dating sites and sending street teams into bars popular with singles.

"People have to understand it first. It is something we hope that people want but they don't know it yet because it is not something in their minds," he said.

Given the market's potential and the niche Tigits is pursuing, Mr. Miller said it is surprising there isn't a lot of competition, particularly from telephone companies that seem unwilling to offer inexpensive second phone numbers.

Tigits' biggest rival, he said, is Google Voice, which recently launched an online service. Mr. Miller said Tigits aims to outflank Google Voice by focusing on second phone numbers while Google wants to aggregate all of someone's phone numbers to provide a single point of contact.

As for Mr. Miller, he said he is still using online dating services, but spreading the word about Tigits rather than asking for crazy dating stories.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is a principal with ME Consulting, a content and social media strategic and tactical consultancy that creates and delivers 'stories' for companies looking to capture the attention of customers, bloggers, the media, business partners, employees and investors. Mark has worked with three start-ups - Blanketware, b5Media and PlanetEye - so he understands how they operate and what they need to do to be successful. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshUniversity and meshmarketing conferences.

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