India wasn’t even on Adam Sachs’s radar when he and two friends founded Ignighter, a dating site that allows users to organize group dates. But the site quickly attracted the most traffic from India and other Asian countries, where one-on-one dates are still not the norm and young people going out in coed groups is more widely accepted.
Ignighter has now turned its focus to India and recently set up an office there. The site is positioning itself in the middle ground between social networking and matrimonial sites where users, their parents or other relatives log on specifically to search for a future spouse. In an interview with India Knowledge@Wharton, CEO Sachs discussed the company’s growth plans and how it is negotiating the ins and outs of navigating India’s cultural landscape.
An edited version of the transcript follows.
India Knowledge@Wharton: You recently made your first trip to India. What were your impressions?
Adam Sachs: It was unbelievable. Our company has been operating in India from New York City, but our user base has been [concentrated] in India for about a year. But none of us had been there. So in my head, India was a concept and it wasn’t reality until I actually stepped off the plane. Immediately, the sights, smells and sounds just hit you. And it’s such a different place. I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life, [but] nothing really compared to the entirely different world that India is.
India Knowledge@Wharton: It’s sensory overload.
India Knowledge@Wharton: And you were there for a month?
India Knowledge@Wharton: You traveled to India to establish a physical presence for Ignighter. Can you tell us a little bit about the site?
Sachs: Ignighter, my start-up, is a group dating website, which basically means that you and your friends [create] a profile together. You find another group and you all go out on a group date. The idea is that it’s a safer, less awkward, more fun approach to online dating.
India Knowledge@Wharton: How did Ignighter take off in India?
Sachs: We had never been to India. None of our partners had been to India. We started the company with the idea of building [a site] for ourselves: We were 20-somethings living in New York City, wanting a better way to meet new people. But what happened was that the site took off in India. Over 2009 and into 2010, while we were focusing on markets like New York City, Philadelphia and Boston, we would go into our analytics and see that places like India and Malaysia and Singapore and Indonesia were just growing like crazy.
At first we thought, that’s interesting, but it’s not our focus. So we ignored it. And we said, “Well, we’ll track the growth, but we won’t focus on it.” That only lasted a few months, because the growth continued and it started to get to the point where we looked at each other and said, “Guys, what are we doing? We don’t know exactly why, but there’s something really working here.” That’s when we decided we were going to change our focus and figure out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong and continue to optimize our site for these markets.
India Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think you were doing right in India?
Sachs: I think the model is right. I think the fact that we’re a group dating website is right [for] India. I didn’t know this at first, and I’m learning it more and more now. The more people I talk to, people like you, people who grew up in India, people who understand Indian culture, … I tell them [Ignighter’s] story and I say [the site’s growth in India] was really a surprise, it was an accident. And to them it’s a no brainer. They say, “Of course, it makes perfect sense that group dating is working in India. Culturally that’s a perfect fit.” And so that’s what we’re learning.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Can you also give us some of your impressions about the entrepreneurship ecosystem in India?
Sachs: I think it’s just starting to take off. I was able to meet with some really great entrepreneurs. I think what it’s going to take is a couple of big exits. The U.S., Silicon Valley, even New York have had some really big successes. In India, an IPO [initial public offering] or a major exit is the kind of thing that is going to get the smartest people, the most driven people, to question taking the traditional path after school, [to think about] trying something new and to realize that there’s big opportunity in taking a risk. I think that that’s just starting to happen now.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Is there now a lot of support around entrepreneurs who do take the plunge?
Sachs: Absolutely. I met with a lot of great VCs…. I don’t know the history of the VC world in India. But from what I understand, it’s a pretty nascent environment and there’s a ton of early-stage money out there looking for great companies. I’ve been able to work with, not necessarily take money from, some of these VCs in India. The type of support they’re providing to start-ups, even start-ups they’re not investing in, is tremendous. The amount of time that they’re putting into these start-ups is really amazing.
India Knowledge@Wharton: What’s your future plan in India for Ignighter?
Sachs: Our future plan is to continue to understand what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. That’s the first step. We’re in the process of opening an office in Mumbai and hiring people. We want to hire a product team in India. We have our first hire; we’re just completing that process. The first steps are going to be looking at our brand identity in India. The site, the brand, everything associated with the site, was built for a U.S. audience. Some things happen to be working really well in India. We’re starting to figure out what those are. And some things are not going to be working well in India and we need to identify those and change them. From there, we’ll look to continue to step on the gas and grow.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Can you tell us a bit about your personal trajectory, how you actually took the plunge into entrepreneurship?
Sachs: Entrepreneurship was always an idea at the back of my head, but it was never something that I knew I wanted to do. I grew up in New Jersey. I went to Northwestern, University in Chicago [and] majored in film. I always thought I wanted to be a writer for TV. After school, I started working in television. But a college buddy who was also living in [New York] — he was working in finance, I was working in television — and I started to throw around this idea. We looked at our social life and realized that every weekend was becoming the same. It was the same group of guys going out with the same group of girls. We were [in our] early 20s. We wanted to meet new people. We wanted to meet women. We were sort of afraid and turned off by the existing options on the web. We realized we liked going out with each other. We felt comfortable going out with each other and trying to meet new people.
So we started to talk a bit about this idea of group dating. The more people we spoke to in our demographic, the more people said that the idea was brilliant. It got to the point where we couldn’t stop thinking about it. At that point, once you know you’ve become obsessed with a concept, you’ve become obsessed with a potential business, there is no choice. We had to dive in.
India Knowledge@Wharton: So there was no way you could continue as a TV writer?
Sachs: No. I figured I was going to give this a chance. If it failed, I would go back to becoming a TV writer. But I wanted to give it a shot.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Can you give us any tips on dating?
Sachs: … I think I understand a little bit about dating. I think I’m going to become an Indian dating guru. I think Indian people need to be a little bolder. It’s going to be harder to convince the girls to be bold. But even the guys need to be bolder. Just like young people in the U.S., young people in India want to go on dates. They want to meet new people. But they’ve grown up in a more conservative environment that makes them a little scared to initiate that conversation. My tip is there’s nothing to lose by initiating a conversation. If you can just take the plunge and say hello to people, you can see where you can go from there.
India Knowledge@Wharton: Who is Ignighter’s target customer in India?
Sachs: Our average age on the site is between 23 and 24, recent college grads, the urban young adult. The biggest cities in India are where we find most of our users.
India Knowledge@Wharton: From a management perspective, what do you see as your main challenge in India going forward?
Sachs: I think operating a company on two sides of the world is going to be a challenge. India is by far our biggest market and our primary concern. But it’s also not our only market. We have had success and we’re having a lot of early successes in other markets on that side of the world. Being able to reconcile handling a business that’s operating in many different countries with many different cultures is going to be our biggest challenge.