Andrew Connell is the CEO of DinnerDate.com, a startup which has been in beta in San Diego for the last few months, and is just now expanding out to new markets. The startup--created by Robert Earl (Founder and CEO of Planet Hollywood), Grant Hosford (formerly of eHarmony), and Connell (formerly of Nokia)--is using the Internet to arrange group dates at local restaurants, to connect people in person and offline. We spoke with Andrew about the startup and what it's all about.
Andrew Connell: DinnerDate.com is small group dating. Typically, we put together a table of 10 single people together in restaurants. We like to call it enhanced serendipity. People complete a short profile when they register on DinnerDate.com, where they can express interest in other people on the site. They can choose to go to a dinner that is advertised, and if they've previously expressed interest in a person, we let them know if that person is going. It's very low pressure, and allows you to just meet people for a meal, or connect if you've seen someone on the site and liked their profile. We have about fifty restaurants in each city, and we've chosen restaurants that are both interesting and slightly eclectic, which have great talking points, whether that's a great menu or decor. We try to make all those initial conversation points around the table incredibly easy, so they can talk about the restaurant, about the food, and just get to know people to see if you have any connects in terms of friends or potential future dates.
Where'd the idea for DinnerDate.com come from?
Andrew Connell: We've been around for just over a year now. The idea really came from looking at the dating industry online. A number of people were telling us that it was beginning to feel like when you create a resume, where you have to make sure you do hours and hours of background work, to polish your profile online. It was taking people an incredible amount of time to get out and just have a cup of coffee with someone, and lots of emails and phone calls. All of that takes the fun out of dating. We wanted to use the Internet to make things easy and help create initial connections. To do that, you do it the old fashioned way, by people meeting other people in person. When you do that, you know immediately if there is any chemistry of future romance and friendship, and if not, at least you get a great dinner. It's born out of trying to address the problems that have developed in the modern dating industry over time.
What's your background?
Andrew Connell: I was previously at Nokia, and ran Nokia's e-commerce business globally in fourteen markets. I have a background that's combination of startups and corporate. At Nokia, I was building relationships with consumer front ends, and prior to that, I worked with big mobile carriers. It was a mixture of mobile and device-centric and Internet development. That's why our next push will be into mobile, and where we're taking DinnerDate next. We're already getting a huge amount of traffic through that medium anyway, and it's one of the big next stages of development for us.
How did you get from working on mobile to online dating?
Andrew Connell: It was fortuitous. Robert Earl, who founded Planet Hollywood, the restaurant company and I both knew the management at Universal Music. I had helped launched music products at Nokia, and they put us together. What fascinates me about dating, is, even though it feels like a departure, is it's using the core skills of the Internet and understanding telecommunications. I love the fact that it's the ultimate human industry. It's trying to help people solve a problem they are passionate about. What I also like, is I'm a massive foodie, and love to cook and entertain, and this was the perfect combination. It's a combination of the Internet, and all the things I've done to make things easier and simpler, and also the food side of me with the restaurants. It's a fascinating mix I couldn't turn down, and good enough I moved across the pond.
You've been in beta in San Diego, can you talk about how you're planning on scaling that out to other markets?
Andrew Connell: We've been through two or three iterations of our beta in San Diego, and have been tweaking our business model and how we are getting to consumers at the front end. We've now identified about ten cities in the U.S. where we'd like to roll out to in 2013, under the DinnerDate.com brand. We've also got some interest overseas, from three different countries and entrepreneurs who want to work with the brand there. The second route, is we've been approached by companies who would like to white label what DinnerDate.com provides, and we're also looking at that business model. It will be a combination of those two things, our own brand, our own restaurants, and a B2B model, where other brands will view us as a white label service.
What have been the biggest challenges you've found so far in launching?
Andrew Connell: There have been two or three things. One, is getting the right type of restaurants, menu, and event structure. That's taken lots of fine tuning. It's about finding passionate places that create interesting conversation. The second thing was really just what you find with most web businesses, which is figuring out how people are flowing through the web site, optimizing conversions in the right places, and really engaging them on that journey. We've been doing some really interesting partnerships with Clear Channel Radio in that area, where we've had DJs in San Diego attending dinners, and doing phone-in polls. The great thing about dating, is people all have interesting dating stories, and they love to pull that out for other people. It's helpful, because it enables them to see the benefit of the model we're offering, which is much less pressure.
What's the next big thing for you?
Andrew Connell: We're looking at expansion of DinnerDate.com, and also looking at this as a yield management opportunity with restaurants. We've created another business on the back end of the restaurant platform, and have been offering a beta of that business at EveryOccasion.com in Orlando. It's in the very early stages, and only a few weeks old, but that service helps you to organize group events in restaurants, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and wedding celebrations. It's a one stop shop. We're buildling up a series of yield management businesses in the background, which helps restaurants get away from the kind of things that are being offered to them now, which are either coupons in the local paper, or things like Groupon, which are not that popular with the majority of restaurants, because they take too much margin from the restaurants, and customers didn't repeat. The idea is to help restaurants gain extra users, but not through discounts. It's all about adding value to the bottom line, and bringing new customers that come back.