In the Name of Love

Tinder business
Online dating sites are being used in ways never intended by their creators: advertising, networking, job hunting Zohar Lazar

A common gripe about online dating is that there are far too many generic messages, lazily copied and pasted and spammed to hundreds of romantic prospects. In November 2013, Zach Barnhorst, a bearded, 37-year-old clothing designer, used this strategy with a different goal. In a two-hour period, he sent an identical message to roughly 800 women he "matched" with on the dating app Tinder, encouraging them to shop at ZB Savoy Bowtie Co., his San Diego-based business.

"Hey, check out my new bowtie company…for all your Holiday shopping for dad, brother, uncle Jimmy!" the message read. It included a direct link to an online store that sells bow ties with names like "The Blondie" (pink, with white polka dots), "The Rip Van Winkle" (gray herringbone wool) and "The Hemingway" (a skull-and-crossbones print). In the days that followed his message, Barnhorst saw a 200 percent increase in unique visits to his site, leading, he said, to a modest bump in sales.

Barnhorst was surprised by the positive feedback he received on an app notorious for no-strings hookups. "There were only about three people who were really upset that I was trying to market on Tinder," he says. "They thought I was being sacrilegious on this holy ground…like we need to keep Tinder pure."

Barnhorst is not the only one experimenting with the business potential of dating forums. Tinder's 27-year-old co-founder, Justin Mateen, has heard of the app being used by modeling agencies as a scouting device and by party promoters to send invites en masse. Tinder allows users to quickly surf through images of local singles on their smartphones, swiping to the left for "no" and to the right for "yes, please." (If two users "like" each other's photos, they can proceed to a private chat.)

"All we are doing is allowing the introduction of two people," says Mateen, whose co-founder, Sean Rad, used the app to hire his assistant. "We don't even consider Tinder a dating platform—it's a connection platform."

Traditional online dating sites have also seen more users job hunting, recruiting, marketing and networking. "We don't track it, but I've heard it enough times to know it's real," says OkCupid founder Sam Yagan. OkCupid's algorithm calculates a "match percentage" based on users' answers to a questionnaire. ("Do spelling mistakes annoy you?"; "how often do you keep your promises?"; "STALE is to STEAL as 89475 is to…") The answers provide a look into a user's attitude and trustworthiness, information that is less transparent on a résumé or LinkedIn profile. According to Yagan, OkCupid also "over-indexes" on "geeks with advanced degrees," which primes the site for recruiters.

On Valentine's Day 2010, Sue Khim, a then-23-year-old entrepreneur, signed up for OkCupid to find a right-hand man. She was looking for the perfect candidate to co-found her start-up, Brilliant, an online community for the world's smartest young students in science, technology, engineering and math. She tried it because it was free, and she could not afford Khim was a 97 percent match with a 23-year-old programmer, Sam Solomon, whose profile mentioned that he mentored robotics competitions—an indication, Khim thought, of leadership qualities.

"It was clear what motivated him," Khim says. "He wasn't interested in getting rich quick or having a 9-to-5 job, [which was important because] starting a company is all-consuming."

For months, the two emailed back and forth, before successfully pitching their start-up to the incubator TechStars Chicago. Today, the company is based in San Francisco and has 15 employees. In 2012, Khim was one of Forbes's "30 Under 30: Education."

When Manuel Caminero, a 26-year-old art director in Sydney, was struggling to find a job, he downloaded Tinder. He swiped everyone, regardless of appearance, to the right, then asked his matches to provide him with feedback on his portfolio or job connections. "[It] would be great to have matches with people who [are] already working in the Advertising Industry," he wrote in his Tinder bio. Caminero says his campaign connected him to people in his field from "all over the world."

But not everyone appreciated Caminero's self-promotion. "One guy was super-honest with me," he says. "I asked if he could give me some feedback about my portfolio, and he told [me], 'I am here for the sex. Bye.'"

"It's sort of a labor-intensive way to market," says Barnhorst, whose Tinder profile does not mention his bow tie business. In his photo, he poses in a newspaper-print bow tie, with his shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal a Celtic arm tattoo. Below that, his tagline simply states, "Just lookin for a sweet girl who can pull off a polka dot sundress."