20-somethings looking to date? Try getting off your phone and meeting IRL

So much has been written about the phenomena of online dating that I thought I’d pretty much read it all. It’s obvious, right? Matching people via online profiles in which they may or may not be truthful in is clearly a challenge, in both the data and the unpredictable human element involved. The efforts are often unsuccessful and have their pitfalls, but companies who get it right have the potential to make a lot of money. And yes, tons of Americans are doing it.
But as a single 20-something I never assumed dating sites were really geared toward my friends and me. While most of the stigma around online dating seems to have gone away, the sites still felt like services for people in their 30s, 40s, or older. Sure, my generation is supposedly all about hook-up oriented apps and social location-based apps, but those seem to solve a different problem. Frankly, traditional online dating sounded kind of stuffy.
So I was surprised this past weekend when I logged onto Facebook and found several of my friends — all 20-somethings living in urban areas like myself — posting about Grouper, a Y Combinator-backed dating site that pairs two groups of three friends and sends them to a bar on a group date. I was surprised that I found myself thinking, “I might actually do that.”

Wisdom of the crowds

There’s nothing new about the concept of a group date, but what makes Grouper and other sites like HowAboutWe interesting is that they’re using technology in a vastly different way than traditional dating sites to tackle the problem of human chemistry. Instead of using questionnaires and databases to figure out which qualities in people might make a successful match, the sites are taking a more limited approach. Grouper gives people just a few questions to answer, matches them up using location and mobile technology, and then puts them together in real life to see if there’s a good fit. And so far, perhaps surprisingly, these in-person dating sites are appealing mainly to 20-somethings. (Perhaps we’re less emotionally-stunted and smartphone-connected than people have assumed?)
Grouper CEO Michael Waxman said his company views technology as a catalyst for bringing people together and solving some of the logistical barriers to interaction, but not as something that ultimately creates the bonds between people that sites like his aim to provide:
“One of the bigger picture things we think of a lot is how traditional social networks are sort of weirdly isolating. I mean, the typical use case of Facebook is you’re by yourself in your room at the glow of your computer,” he said. “I think that technology could be actually social and not isolating, so we said, ‘what does it look like to use the same technology that isolates us to actually bring us together?’ Let’s put down our phones and computers and use technology to make stuff like this possible, but then enjoy the company of the people we’re with.”
HowAboutWe, a site that allows people to select each other based around an activity and meet up offline, has seen similar success in this field, having just announced one million dates created this week.
“It aligns with how the web actually works and how dating actually works,” said HowAboutWe co-founder Brian Schechter. “Traditional sites are more like interviews, where you lay out information and then you go out on bland coffee shop-like dates. Whereas here, you actually connect around mutual interests and then go out and see if there’s a spark around some other person.”
Grouper pairs up two groups of three friends (three guys and three girls, three guys and three guys, etc.) and sends them to a bar, where the first round of drinks are covered by the $20 per person fee. The company picks the bar, confirms the date, and doesn’t give you info on the other group until you arrive at the bar. The company even texts you during the meet-up to ask how it’s going — a task that Waxman said started to seem overhwhelming as Grouper grew, but an idea they’ve been able to scale by building their own custom CRM to accomplish.
So how do they make the pairs? Waxman said it actually involves a good combination of human intuition and technology — an actual person has to sign off on each Grouper that’s created.
“It’s half human, half machine,” he said, noting that having six people join each group solves another problem common to dating sites, which is that if they do their job too well and start making matches, you lose your customers as soon as you’ve found success. With six people, the chances of three couples pairing off is pretty low, but the chance of one couple creating a good story for the other four people to share is much higher.