A New Wave of Dating Apps Takes Cues From TikTok and Gen Z

Online dating exploded in popularity during the pandemic, and the number of new startups has grown. But will they last?

The pandemic could have doomed online dating. Instead, it sent singles swiping more than ever before. Sanctions on in-person meetups drove the adoption of new products, like video dating, and persuaded more people to pay for premium features. All in all, the industry had a chartbusting year.

“Acceptance and normalization of online dating was already underway before Covid-19,” says John Madigan, an analyst at business research firm IBISWorld, but tailwinds from the pandemic have accelerated growth. In the next four years, IBISWorld predicts that the global online dating industry will increase its worth from $5.3 billion to $6.4 billion.

Where there is money—or at least the smell of it—there are also startups. In the United States, at least 50 dating companies were founded between 2019 and 2021, according to data from Crunchbase. While that rate hasn’t changed much over the past decade, the total amount of funding has grown. These new startups represent a few fresh ideas in the dating space, and a hope that the next dating unicorn could emerge after a year of isolation.

For the most part, newer dating apps focus on Gen Z, a demographic that came of age in a post-Tinder world and represents the lion’s share of the industry’s projected revenue. Snack, which bills itself as a sort of “TikTok meets Tinder,” invites users to upload short videos for potential matches to scroll through. So does Lolly, an app that lets you “match with people while exploring sweet video content.” Marc Baghadjian, Lolly’s 22-year-old founder, says the app’s focus on video gives its users a better online dating experience. “You could be funny, you could be interesting, you could be talented, and you can show all of that in a video, in a way that you never could with your pictures.”

Feels also features a carousel of short-form videos on profiles, where people are supposed to express themselves in more dimensions. It’s marketed as the “anti dating app,” for people who believe that “swiping is boring” and that platforms like Tinder are too superficial. Laurent de Tapol, Feels’ cofounder, says the app has attracted 150,000 users since launching in April. He also acknowledges that most of those users will also create accounts on mainstream apps like Tinder and Hinge, if they don’t have profiles on them already. But de Tapol hopes people will be attracted to the experience on Feels, “where they can share much more about who they are, what they like, and express their very unique personality.”

Other dating apps eschew images altogether. Lex, a dating app for “queer, trans, gender non-conforming, two spirit, and non-binary people,” is inspired by newspaper personals: Its profiles use only text. So Synced, based in London, matches people based on their Myers-Briggs personality type.

Singles might be ready for some fresh ideas in dating, but these startups will largely be competing with each other—not with the industry whales. A single company, Match Group, is behind the largest online dating brands, including Tinder, Hinge, OkCupid, and Match; altogether it represents nearly a third of the market, according to an October 2020 report from IBISWorld. eHarmony controls another 12 percent. The rest is divided among some 2,000 dating companies, the majority of which “operate with a market share of less than 1 percent.” For the most part, the little guys compete with each other, doing little to unseat Match Group as the dominant player.

Which is one reason investors have hesitated to fund dating startups. Andrew Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, summed up several others in a 2015 blog post: It’s hard to retain users, there’s built-in churn, and profitable exits are unusual. A 2019 analysis by Crunchbase found that while there were a number of new entrants into the online dating space, the venture capital didn’t follow. Without substantial backing from investors, dating startups have an even harder time competing with the bigger players.

Since 2019, though, a few dating startups have bucked the trend and hit it big. Hinge, which once marketed itself as “the anti Tinder,” was acquired by Match Group in 2019 (for an undisclosed amount). Bumble, founded by ex-Tinder employees as a female-friendly alternative to Tinder, raised $2.2 billion in its IPO this February, and has exceeded expectations on the public market.

Bumble’s success has been a flashpoint for the industry, says Alex Durrant, who founded the UK-based dating app Jigsaw in 2016. “We’ve had a ton of inbounds from investors, although we’re not fundraising right now,” says Durrant. “Suddenly people are like, ‘Maybe we need a dating app in our portfolio.’” According to Crunchbase, total funding for dating startups in the US has increased from $4.8 million in 2016 to more than $26 million in 2020—still representing a fraction of the overall VC industry.

Jigsaw, which expanded to the United States this year, tries to stand apart with its own gimmick: Profile photos are covered up with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and are only revealed through sending messages back and forth. (Another new dating app, called S’more, similarly blurs profile photos until people start talking.) Durrant says the goal of his app to get people to talk to each other, not to consume each others’ content like a social media feed. “For us, it’s all about building a connection with another person,” he says. “I think that’s the core issue that isn’t being solved.”

Now that Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted in most parts of the country, young dating startups will face a new, and possibly more challenging, test: Whether they can survive the post-vax summer. It’s one thing for a fledgling dating app to compete with a Goliath like Tinder. It’s another to compete with newly reopened bars. Online dating, full of screens and gimmicks, comes with its own forms of exhaustion, as The Atlantic’s Julie Beck noted years ago. “As a result of the pandemic, people may be more dating-app-fatigued than ever before,” says Madigan. Match Group can deal with the churn that comes from swiping burnout; for smaller apps, it could be disastrous.

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