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Interview with Stephen Stokols, WooMe

Stephen Stokols is CEO of WooMe (www.woome.com), a Los Angeles-based online, Web 2.0 dating site which has raised funding from Atomico, the investment fund run by Niklas Zennstrom, one of the founders of Skype. The web-based service, which also has operations in London and San Francisco, is looking to bring the concept of speed dating to an online site, and is currently in beta. Stephen spoke with Ben Kuo.

What's the idea behind the service?

Stephen Stokols: Essentially, what WooMe is, is an introduction platform which leverages the speed dating model. It takes the offline phenomenon of speed dating, where you interact one on one with someone, to an online platform, where you meet five people in five minutes. What's we've done is leverage cutting edge technology within a browser, providing a rich communication medium, which allows you to have a voice-only or video speed dating session. You can get high quality video through your browser, without requiring something like Skype or a download. It's a very slick, cohesive experience. That's the high level concept.

There's a lot of competition in online dating space, why would people use you instead?

Stephen Stokols: We're not necessarily going after the hard core, online dating sites. We're in a position between social networking and online dating. Social networks like MySpace are used to meet people without the stigma of online dating sites. We're the next step of social networking and online dating, we're bridging the online and offline worlds in a way that hasn't been done before. Specifically, we allow face to face interaction--how people meet in bars, and have in the offline world, for thousands of years. We're trying to replicate that experience online. We hold live voice sessions, and this is centered around a session and not individual profiles. Instead of spending 30 minutes looking at someone's profile, this is based on real chemistry. Academic research shows that in five minutes after meeting someone, you can tell if you'd be interested in them. You can email someone fifteen times, and when you finally pick up a phone to set up a first date, you might hear their voice--they might have a thick accent, or sound back, or sound like a geek, and you can tell you're not interested. You can tell a lot from a voice alone. If you add a video image, it's eight times more accurate to tell if you would like someone. Offline, when you go to a bar, you know five seconds after you meet someone if you like them. This has been working for thousands of years, and we're bringing that online. There are lots of other sites, who are moving in the other direction, towards avatars and a virtual world. We're bringing in the real world, and real interaction.

How are you funded?

Stephen Stokols: We got funded by Niklas Zennstrom and Atomico, his investment vehicle. Niklas has actually been pretty engaged in the product, helping to shape it. We were initially funded when I was living in London, our other investors as Klaus Hommels, who is Benchmark's partner in London; and the third is Mangrove Capital, one of the top two or three seed investment companies in Europe. They funded Skype, Joost, and other hot companies in Europe. The Skype guys have been pretty valuable in shaping our products. The communications quality impressed them--it's Skype quality, without a download.

The service is based on sessions--not profiles, but sessions. What I mean when I saw session, is a group of people - five girls, five guys, who go through a speed dating session. With any session, you can talk to people through live voice and video, for one minute each. The session might be called nature lovers in San Francisco, or another topic. After the sessions, if someone else liked you, you can pay one dollar to get their contact information. It's all about introductions. We're not looking to find soul mates, and people can use the platform how they want.

We were originally going to create the topics for sessions, but we've opened it up to allow people to create sessions on any topic they want. We've seen a huge influx of creative applications. People are using it to find travel partners -- for example, if they're looking for travel partners to Europe for Christmas, you can meet each other and see if there's a strong enough of a connection. We have also had people use it for roommate finders. I'd credit the Skype guys for influencing us to open it up, which has gotten us to a point where the application is more diverse than we envisioned originally.

What's the Los Angeles/London connection?

Stephen Stokols: When this started, I was living in London. I was a vice president at British Telecom, I was the youngest Vice President at British Telecom, responsible for innovation. Any new technology they wanted to bring to market, it fell under my responsibility and my organization. However, I was originally from Southern California. My little sister, who is 23, is very heavily into social networking and online dating. One of her friends came up with the idea around speed dating. She was telling me how dating sites are lame, and she'd never use them. But, she's always on Facebook, and talked about how fun the offline speed dating phenomenon was, and how cool it would be if it was online. That's where it kind of clicked.

That's the Southern California connection--it's where my roots are, where the idea came from, and that's why we're launching the company based out of Southern California. It's where I'm from, but more importantly, it's a ripe demographic for that kind of proposition. It's more of a subtle point, but we didn't want to hit the European market hard, then gain traction, and have a competitor take the idea into the U.S. We've done quite a bit of outreach with local schools like USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, and other universities down there. We've been busy running campaigns to drive traffic here.

How far is the geographic spread for the site right now?

Stephen Stokols: Right now the site is global, and looking at the thousands of pre-registrations, we've got people from everywhere--South Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere. But, what we are doing is starting our marketing efforts in California, with our team out of Southern California. With any site, you've got to start somewhere. Facebook started at Harvard--MySpace started in Los Angeles. With every social network, you have to start locally and gain a critical mass, which is why we're spending our marketing money in Southern California.

How far along to your launch?

Stephen Stokols: We're in closed beta right now. We've got thousands of registrations, people who have heard about the site from blogs and word of mouth. What we are going to be doing over the next several weeks, is bring more people onto the site. We have had alpha and beta users on the site for the last six weeks, and they have played over thousands of sessions, with over 30,000 people requesting one-on-one introductions. Of those 30,000 people, we had close to over 10,000 who had mutual connections. That's quite a bit of traction. What's awfully interesting is the topics that people have created, they have been pretty creative and entertaining in their own right. Over the next few weeks, we will be opening up registration and launching the site in open fashion.


 

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