When Priyanka, a social media manager, broke up with heartbreak. A few weeks later, a friend told her about an app to chat with guys. "I decided to try it," says Priyanka, 23, who requested that her surname be withheld. "The thrill of chatting with someone without knowing anything about them was new," she says. The app was Tinder, which entered India in 2012 to help millennials old quest for love.
For generations, the terms 'casual sex' and 'hook-up' were taboo, but Tinder has inspired a whole set of Indian dating platforms to bandy the words about. When it made its foray, Tinder's competition was matrimonial websites BharatMatrimony and Shaadi, but over the last four years, home-bred apps like TrulyMadly, Woo and Aisle have thrown their hat into the ring to change the way young Indians meet.
Just following Tinder's model of offering matches based on location won't work in India because of the cultural differences, says Sachin Bhatia, who launched Truly-Madly on Valentine's Day in 2014. "Online dating is a 20-year-old phenomenon in the US but here in India, we have growth over the past year."
TrulyMadly screens people registering on the platform "because we only want genuine profiles of singles looking to meet new people," he says, adding that the rejection rate is 25%. The verification process is done via Facebook, before checking identity proof and LinkedIn profiles.
Doing it differently: Despite the lack of checks, the simplicity of swiping is working for Tinder. In just three years, India has become Tinder's largest market in Asia. Last month, the company opened an office in Delhi, its first outside the US. In November 2015, Tinder said it saw a 400% increase in downloads in India in the past year, and active than men.
Investors, however, are betting big on the fact that domestic players are not operating like Tinder. "For a global company like Tinder, it is difficult to modify its product to the needs of different regions.
That is where domestic players have a chance," says Sanjeev Aggarwal, senior managing director at Helion Ventures, which invested in TrulyMadly.
TrulyMadly has 2 million users, the same as Woo, an app launched in 2014. Woo, which targets the 25+ age group, withholds names of women and makes users answer a set of questions before allowing them to chat. "Given the security concerns of women, this is best. It may seem unfair to men, but since when has the world been fair?" says founder Sumesh Menon with a laugh.
Man's world: February is the month when people seem to look for love and the startups consider Valentine's Day the Diwali of their business. An Intel report says 40% of users of dating apps are likely to increase the amount of time spent on them ahead of V-Day. Menon agrees that Woo sees an increase in users, especially women, around this time. "Perceptions are changing, and a lot of women love to use the apps," he says, while acknowledging that users are still largely male.
In India, the ratio of men to women on dating apps is 70:30, which could be a reason why a Tinder-like model won't work well.
New Jersey boys Josh Israel and Devin Serago learnt that lesson the hard way when they moved to India to start Thrill in 2012. "When we launched, we got a lot of guys.
The male-female ratio was 90:10," says Israel. Girls are fewer because men are more desperate, he says. "Girls get hit on by guys all the time. Why will they come an app just to meet men?"
Since Thrill was following the same model, Tinder was unassailable competition. So in 2015, Israel launched Frivil, an app that lets people rate one another on looks and matches them based on their score.
"Our idea is to match hot people with hot people. It may sound superficial but that is exactly how people operate," says Israel.
Frivil, he says, is getting a lot of women users because "women want to know how they are judged on the basis of how they look."
Getting serious: Since apps like Tinder and Frivil are largely about hooking up, Indian startups are trying to customize apps to suit those looking for something a little more serious. Able Joseph tried to address his own dissatisfaction with existing dating apps and matrimonial websites when he built his platform, Aisle, in 2014.
"It's pointless to be on a platform that has two million men and just 2,000 women," says Joseph, who describes Aisle as a cross between a dating and a matrimonial app, where one signs up for free but pays to chat. "Since you have the privilege of handpicking, the chances of you making it work with the person you talk to would be higher," Joseph explains. Almost 25% of Aisle's users have paid up, he says.
Are only city folk using them? Not at all, says TrulyMadly's Bhatia. "Initially we didn't think we'd get users from non-metros but we realized demand for companionship is the same no matter which city you live in," he says, adding that 45% of TrulyMad-ly's users are from non-metros.
"We are seeing users from Ranchi, Surat, Puducherry and Theni in Tamil Nadu," says Amit Vora, co-founder and CEO of iCrushiFlush, a dating app backed by IDG Ventures. It gets 70% of its users from smaller cities. "Since cultures are so different within the country, we have a customized model to engage with users in different regions," Vora says.