By Olga Kharif Tim Sullivan has proved that he's a match for anybody in e-business. Since becoming president of online-dating community Match.com early in 2002, the 39-year-old has taken the site from a distant second in its category, behind Yahoo! Personals, to the top of the heap.
Today, Sullivan laughs at his doubts about leaving Los Angeles to head Dallas-based Match. Still, back then, it seemed like a risky step: Online dating was still unproven. Yet, Sullivan took the job -- partly because his sister had met her then-boyfriend on Match. Sullivan made the right choice. (So did his sister -- she married that boyfriend a month ago.)
Now, Match.com, which allows singles to search for potential dates using parameters such as salary and age, is booming. The site, a wholly owned subsidiary of TicketMaster (TMCS) and part of USA Interactive (USAI), saw its subscriber base rise 178%, to 604,000 users, between the second quarter of 2001 and the same quarter of 2002. And the number of profiles on the site has ballooned to 3.25 million recently (anyone can post a profile for free but needs to subscribe in order to contact other users). Today, Match also powers dating services on MSN, America Online, Excite, CompuServe, and Netscape.
GOOD FISHING. Even amid all this rapid growth, Sullivan has not lost sight of the fundamentals: Match is profitable. Revenues rose 177%, from $10.7 million in the second quarter of last year to $29.5 million in the same period of 2002. Without certain charges, such as taxes (Match and TicketMaster's parent, USA Interactive, doesn't break out the site's financial results), the site generated $9.7 million in income in the second quarter of 2002, vs. $2.8 million for the same quarter of 2001. And this could be just the beginning. Says Sullivan: "We're defining what online dating is all about."
Match is in a sweet spot. Dating ads generate the most revenue of any online content. About 15 million U.S. residents will use online personals in 2002 -- and that number should reach 24 million by 2007, according to consultancy Jupiter Research. Match should grab a lion's share of that market. Using its database "is like casting your net into a very wide ocean," says Stacy Herron, an analyst at Jupiter. "Your chances of finding someone to connect to are very high."
Now, Sullivan is trying to expand Match into a huge empire of services for singles. On July 22, he launched MatchTravel, a service that plans and hosts singles vacations around the world. He's also making some international moves. Match, which already has offices in London and Sydney, will offer sites in different languages in a few months (right now, all Match profiles are in English).
BIG SPENDER. At the same time, Sullivan is improving the user experience -- which, according to many accounts, is already unmatched. On July 22, he launched Match.com Messenger, which allows subscribers to interact -- instantly and anonymously -- while on the site. In the future, Match might allow singles to post and swap audio and video files.
Sullivan is making sure Match keeps its high profile. This year, the company is shelling out $1 million a month on online advertising, Sullivan reports, and it will spend $10 million more in 2002 on TV and newspaper ads. "Match.com is leading the way in legitimizing the category," he says. The going is already getting easier. "Online matching has already caught on," says Charles Martin, chairman and CEO of NFI Research. Now, the greatest challenge for Sullivan may be simply keeping up with the growth. Kharif writes for BusinessWeek Online from Portland, Ore.