Though it might make Latin legends Don Juan and Casanova spin in their graves, millions of Southern Europeans are turning to a Russian for help finding a local date.
Badoo, a London-based online service founded by Moscow native Andrey Andreev, has won the hearts of Spaniards, Italians and French by making it easier to find people nearby looking for romance. The seven-year-old company says it has signed up some 200 million people worldwide, 25 million of them active users, making it the biggest dating service, according to ComScore.
“I knew almost no one here in Madrid, and Badoo was helpful in meeting new people,” said Manuel Nogueira, a 25-year-old tech worker who moved to the capital two months ago. “It’s definitely a great way to hook up with girls.”
For serial entrepreneur Andreev, 39, the challenge is to fend off U.S. rivals such as Tinder and OKCupid and to expand Badoo beyond its strongholds in Southern Europe and Latin America.
The company has been profitable since 2009, and sales last year expanded about a third to $200 million, according to Andreev. It has hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc. as an adviser and doesn’t rule out an IPO, Andreev said in the company’s red-brick loft headquarters in London’s fashionable Soho district.
Badoo’s ambition, Andreev said in the September interview, is to become “a social network for meeting new people” rather than those you already know.
Badoo subscribers sign up by posting a photo and basic personal details. Location-based technology lets them check in via smartphone to find users and see how many meters away they are at that moment. People in the same club, resort or neighborhood might get together immediately; with those farther away -- say across town or in another city -- typically make contact for a longer period online before meeting.
Unlike services such as Match.com, Badoo doesn’t charge a monthly fee. Instead, users are invited to pay 1 euro ($1.36) to raise their profile on the site, boosting their chances to be noticed. Since the advantage only lasts a minute or two -- until other users pay to raise their profiles as well -- some people shell out for as many as 20 boosts a day, Badoo says.
A feature called Encounters lets Badoo users flip through photos and mark them with green if they like what they see, orange if they’re not sure, and red if they’re not interested. When two people mark each other as green, Badoo contacts both and suggests they initiate a chat.
Borja Escudero, a 31-year-old Web consultant from Madrid, said he often doesn’t hear from girls he’s interested in, which he blames on the volume of users.
“The problem is the cutest girls rarely respond with a green check on your profile because they receive something like a thousand messages,” Escudero said. “It’s very hard to actually start chatting with the pretty ones.”
A concern for some users is that the site has become a place to troll for one-night hookups rather than long-term love.
“Most of the guys just want sex, and it turns out a bit of a waste of time because I am interested in friendship first,” said Sofia Gonzalez, 24, who works as an assistant in a Madrid auto-repair shop. “I’ve dated about 10 guys using Badoo, but I am overall very disappointed as all of them were really weird.”
Andreev says it’s up to users to decide what they’re seeking, comparing the service to a crowded bar.
“When you come to a night club, there are 1,000 people and they do what they want,” Andreev said. “Some are chatting, some are watching pictures, some are dating, some have some social activity in mind.”
Jessica Delpirou, director of Meetic France, says she’s not concerned about the challenge from Badoo and similar services. She says her more traditional dating site -- a sister to Match.com in the U.S., owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp -- results in better matches, though the cost can exceed $40 per month.
“People seeking serious relations need confidentiality and tend to pay for a subscription,” Delpirou said.
Badoo is far ahead of Jiayuan, the biggest dating service in China, with 19 million active users as of September, according to researcher ComScore. Meetic had 16 million users and Match.com 8 million. Fast-growing OKCupid, also owned by media mogul Barry Diller’s IAC, had 2 million.
OKCupid’s co-founder Sam Yagan, in an e-mailed response to questions, said that his service is superior to Badoo and is rated higher by users. Officials of Tinder, a dating app popular in the U.S., didn’t return an e-mail seeking comment.
IAC, based in New York, has risen about 20 percent this year in U.S. trading. Its Meetic unit in France advanced 45 percent, and Jiayuan.com International Ltd., whose headquarters are in Beijing, rose about 8 percent.
Andreev in 2003 launched a Russian dating site called Mamba. After the service got a lukewarm reception in its initial push abroad, Andreev sold Mamba and moved to Spain, where he started Badoo in 2006.
One of Badoo’s backers from early on has been Russian investment company Finam, which has funded various Andreev projects, including advertising service Begun.
The idea for Badoo’s mobile service came after he stopped by a St. Petersburg bar that had a telephone on each table that patrons could use to call people at other tables who piqued their interest. “I thought: This is cool, we should do the same on mobile!” Andreev said. Today, about half of visits to Badoo come via mobile devices, up from a quarter a year ago.
To keep growing, Andreev is eyeing Asia, Britain, and the U.S. While Badoo has users in more than 180 countries, it earns most of its revenue in just three -- Spain, Italy and France. As he expands, he expects to target one or two cities in each country, betting that will attract users elsewhere.
“Expansion is not about the money, it’s about attracting a significant group of people,” Andreev said. “Once you gain critical mass somewhere like New York, you soon become influential in other cities and states.”