Last year was big for Spark Networks. At an open-bar mixer and comedy show in January to celebrate the re-launch of its flagship website, JDate, the company’s CEO was exuberant.
There was one metric in particular Michael Egan wanted to highlight when he took the stage at the Improv in Hollywood on Jan. 20: the number of Jewish marriages that have resulted from the service.
“We think we’re responsible for more mother-to-child conversations than any other website — we’re still trying to prove that one,” he told a room full of Jewish singles interspersed with a few JDate success stories invited by the company.
Since he took the CEO job in January 2015, he’s been in charge of JDate and ChristianMingle, which together form the bulk of the web company’s portfolio, and he’s had some figures to brag about.
In particular, Spark Networks introduced mobile apps for JDate and ChristianMingle last year, growing to more than 318,00 active mobile users from virtually zero late in 2014.
That’s not to mention JSwipe users: Spark Networks purchased the upstart millennial-targeted Jewish app in October for $7 million, with a potential extra $10 million going to JSwipe’s four founders if they meet certain earning targets. (In July 2015, just a few months before acquiring JSwipe, Spark Networks had sued the app for infringement of its copyright on the name “JDate.”) Egan said the mobile app will begin pursuing profit strategies this year, but existing services will remain free.
Egan is neither Jewish nor single. Having been married 19 years, he’s never seriously used a dating app a day in his life. He uses the word “gosh” and speaks excitedly about building Internet communities, having spent a decade in Web businesses and another in crisis communications.
On a recent day at Spark Networks headquarters, which occupies the sixth floor of a Westwood office tower, the bald and wiry Egan wore a salmon button-up shirt and blue jeans with a sports watch and Oakley eyeglasses, ditching the blazer he’d worn at the Improv.
“I missed this entire online dating thing,” Egan told the Jewish Journal. “And I told [Spark Networks] that when they were asking me about the job. I told them, ‘Look, I might not be your guy.’ ”
Spark Networks is a publicly traded corporation on the New York Stock Exchange valued above $90 million (its stock ticker is LOV). Just months before Egan was hired, a group of shareholders put up what he called a “proxy battle” and succeeded in replacing the board of directors.
In August 2014, the new board chairman, Michael McConnell, replaced the CEO of three and a half years, Greg Liberman, taking on the role of executive chairman. After a corporate restructuring, the company announced Egan’s hire in December 2014.
Since then, Spark Networks has hired a new chief financial officer, chief marketing officer and chief technology officer.
The company’s executive team isn’t all that looks different. Its two top websites have undergone re-launches aimed at streamlining features and integrating them into the same Web platform.
As Egan explains, the makeovers were part of the vision of the new management. For years, the company had used stable profits from JDate’s monthly subscribers to grow ChristianMingle, he said.
“But what started to happen was that JDate got a little old,” he said. “It had no mobile application, and we know that the world has shifted very heavily into mobile.”
Since 2012, the world has seen the advent of the dating app Tinder, widely popular with singles in their 20s, where users select or deny each other by swiping left or right on one another’s photographs. In April 2014, JSwipe launched as its Jewish counterpart.
Spark Networks evidently had some catching up to do.
“The new board recognized that, hey, mobile is critical, we’ve got to reinvest back into JDate,” Egan said. “JDate is sort of the crown jewel of this company, and it’s been ignored for too long.”
In addition to JDate and ChristianMingle, Egan took charge of a host of Spark’s much smaller niche dating sites, including SilverSingles for older singles, LDSSingles for Mormons and Adventist Singles Connection for Seventh Day Adventists, along with JDate’s Israeli, French and United Kingdom counterparts.
With the acquisition of JSwipe, Spark Networks received an additional block of users: At the time, the mobile-only platform boasted 450,000 downloads and 40 million messages between users.
(Adding further drama to the incestuous world of the Jewish digital dating space, Joe Shapira, who cofounded JDate in 1997 and departed in 2004, last year launched a competing Jewish dating app, Jfiix, which operates like a cross between JSwipe and JDate.)
The acquisition of JSwipe also made Spark Networks’ Jewish user base a lot younger.
Whereas about 85 percent of JDaters are 35 and older, 90 percent of JSwipers are 30 and younger, according to the CEO.
JDate, Egan said, is “a more serious dating site — you come to us when you’re tired of playing the crowd and you want to actually settle down and find somebody to marry.”
Accordingly, the customer satisfaction surveys he implemented this year show that departing users either love JDate because they met somebody fabulous or hate it because they feel ripped off. Egan said the company plans on rolling out curriculum about dating and relationship building, such as webinars and blog posts, as well as live events, so that even those customers who don’t meet the love of their life can still feel as though they’ve gained something.
It was largely that category of still-single customers who attended the re-launch party at the iconic Melrose Boulevard comedy club on Jan. 23.
One attendee, a divorced schoolteacher, said she’d gotten on the service because of a Black Friday deal. She wasn’t alone. One of the comics, Taylor Williamson, complained that JDate had cheated him by offering a promotional deal and then charging him full price, leading to the inevitable “cheap Jews” joke.
The prevailing mood of the evening, at least among the comics, was jaded and self-effacing.
“My dating pool is like a picked-over clothing rack at T.J.Maxx,” said Nicole Aimée Schreiber, the night’s emcee. “I’m a woman over 30.”
Then the crowd of Jewish singles watched gleefully as the evening turned in on itself, a PR event cannibalizing the product it intended to hawk.
When the night’s headliner, Adam Ray, pulled a victim from the crowd, he unwittingly picked a Spark Networks employee, proceeding to grill him about his love life and inadvertently turning the evening into an awkward JDate office party.
He asked the bespectacled employee’s name and received an extremely Jewish-sounding one.
“Really?” he asked. “Was Matzah Ball Circumcision taken?”