TrulyMadly claims to be a serious dating app and enables users to find compatible matches with the help of proprietary AI-based gatekeeper algorithm nicknamed, ChowkAIdar
More than 54% of its new users and 42% of its revenue come from Tier 2 and Tier 3 locations, it claims
The dating services sector in India is estimated to clock $387.6 Mn in revenue in 2022
In India, the freedom to choose a romantic partner is still a privilege enjoyed by the urban few. For an overwhelming majority, marriages are orchestrated by parents, relatives, neighbours and well-wishers. It is a popular social norm, and a 2018 survey by Lok Foundation and Oxford University revealed that 93% of modern Indians still opted for arranged marriages.
Despite this steeped-in-tradition social fabric, dating apps have found their way into the country. In 2014, MakeMyTrip cofounder Sachin Bhatia and Letsbuy.com’s Hitesh Dhingra, along with Rahul Kumar (former product head of MMT), set out to usher in a sweeping change. On February 14, globally celebrated as Valentine’s Day, the trio launched the online dating platform TrulyMadly.
At the time, online dating minus social policing was a pretty new concept. The global dating app Tinder came to India a year ago but was already notorious for the huge number of fake profiles uploaded on the platform.
Perhaps the nearest things to dating apps were the matrimonial websites. “They used to specify stringent conditions around religion, caste/community and looks. But modern Indians do not care about all this,” said Snehil Khanor, one of the founding team members who worked as the product manager at TrulyMadly until 2016. Then he left the company and became the vice-president at Zimmber, an on-demand home services marketplace later acquired by Quikr.
In 2019, TrulyMadly underwent a major makeover as Dhingra and Kumar left, and Khanor was back as the new cofounder and CEO. In the same year, Amit Gupta, the cofounder of the proptech startup FellaHomes and dating app Delta (shuttered), joined the Delhi-based startup as the cofounder and CTO.
As for Bhatia, he had been instrumental in the transformation of the company. “He helped reorganise the company and provided us with the capital. Even now, he is associated with us as a silent partner and a mentor,” said Khanor.
Unlike casual dating sites, TrulyMadly claims to be a serious dating app, a perfect combination of social networking, ‘friending’ and a romantic interlude without the pressure of matrimony. In simple terms, users here are looking for suitable matches that may culminate into long-term relationships or tying the knot. Also, in sync with our digital lifestyle, tech plays a critical role and finds the best matches with the help of a compatibility assessment test. Also, fake profiles and phishing accounts are weeded out using proprietary AI-based gatekeeper algorithm, Chowk-AI-dar.
“We observed that most people using our app were likely to get married after 26-27 years of age. So, we decided to double down on this age group and came out with the tagline, Start Your Love Story,” said Khanor.
In three years, the app clocked 11 Mn registered users. The company claims to be growing at a CAGR of 90% and targets $100 Mn in revenue by 2026. Interestingly, more than 54% of its new users and 42% of its revenue comes from Tier 2 and 3 locations, according to the CEO, indicating how Bharat has adjusted to modern times, and TrulyMadly is successfully catering to young people serious about compatible companionship.
Playing Cupid, One Match At A Time
Khanor told Inc42 that the compatibility test had been curated by psychologists and relationship counsellors, keeping Indian users in mind. When people sign up, they are asked 20-25 yes-no questions. These may vary from how cool you are about sharing your mobile password with a partner or whether it is okay if your spending habits differ.
“Usually, you get to know these things after three-four months into dating. But we try to handpick the right person for you from the get go,” said Khanor.
Additionally, the trust score ranging from 0-100% ensures that the profiles are not fake. TrulyMadly authenticates them by verifying user data, including name, gender, age, relationship status, education, profession and photo. The higher the trust score, the better the profile visibility.
Users can increase trust scores by uploading verification documents or linking their social media accounts. For instance, linking a LinkedIn account (or any other social media account for that matter) earns 10%, connecting the profile to a verified email ID gets another 10%, and mobile verification adds 20% to the total score.
For a selfie verification (TrulyMadly runs a real-time facial recognition scan to determine that the picture in a user’s bio tallies with the actual user), one gets 30%. Again, 30% comes from linking a profile to a government ID like the Aadhaar card, passport or driving licence. Earlier this year, the dating platform partnered with CRED, a reward-driven credit card payments app, to make profile verification easy. Linking one’s CRED profile scores 100% as these profiles are pre-verified and meet all mandates.
Trust scores apart, the startup’s proprietary gatekeeper algorithm, nicknamed ChowkAIdar, works with manual assessment tools to reject bots and fake/phishing profiles.
Filtering fake and spam accounts is the need of the hour, given the rise in frauds and scams on dating platforms. According to a 2021 report by Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky, 51% of global users said they had been catfished (impersonated), while 17% said their identity was stolen for other profiles on a dating site. On average, TrulyMadly rejects 43% of profiles applying to become a member.
The company has adopted a freemium model and claims that 3-3.5% of its non-paying users turn into paid members after using the app for 30 days. Plans start from INR 699 a week and go up to INR 1,799 for 20 weeks. Paid members get additional benefits, including higher visibility, compatibility checking before liking a profile and more. According to Khanor, 98-99% of the startup’s revenue comes from paid subscriptions, and the ARPU (average revenue per user) stands at INR 1,600 per month.
How Referrals Paved The Path To Bharat Heartlands
“Love marriage has always been aspirational in India. Somehow, dating is taboo. But when you think about it, dating is the only way to do a love marriage. We want to spread the message that dating is safe,” said Khanor.
And sure enough, online dating is picking up, thanks to the fast-changing male-female dynamics of a young, tech-savvy society. According to the CEO, the app has gained traction in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 locations due to its unique value proposition – trust. TrulyMadly prides itself on its ‘serious’ intent and its use of a cutting-edge tech stack, ensuring that fake profiles would not hinder the ‘safe’ dating experience promised to its users. This has led to referrals and word-of-mouth publicity, pushing young people keen to be out on a date, even if done virtually.
Also, the rise of internet penetration in recent years (currently at 61%) has opened a new world of opportunities away from the metros, claimed Khanor. “These days, young people do everything online – from ordering food to shopping to watching movies and engaging with friends on social media. So, why shouldn’t they find love online?”
The other plus is the absence of any location-related restriction. “A person sitting in Varanasi can be a match for someone in Lucknow. Our compatibility tests allow users to find matches with the same interests and values. When someone is looking for a serious relationship, these are things they focus on,” said Khanor.
Besides, people in small towns and non-metro cities have small social circles, and word-of-mouth travels fast in those locations. While helming the company, he had come across many instances where couples meeting on TrulyMadly recommended the service to their friends and relatives.
Better still, the power of referrals and word-of-mouth reduces the customer acquisition cost (CAC). After all, a low CAC over a long period is critical for businesses like TrulyMadly that lose two users as soon as a successful match is made. Despite this retention paradox, Khanor believes that satisfied customers are bound to recommend the app to others.
In addition, he said that, “Your first match will not necessarily become your life partner and users take their time to explore different personalities before finding ‘the one’ compatible partner . So the dating cycle is long”. This ensures that the user base does not dwindle.
Furthermore, building on its growing reach across Bharat, it has launched the app in 11 vernacular languages, including Hindi, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and more.
However, the startup primarily depends on influencer marketing to spread the message of safe dating. So, it has partnered with well-known names like actors Disha Patani, Radhika Madan and Sidharth Malhotra, and comedian Tanmay Bhatt.
Challenges, Funding And The Road Ahead
Lately, Indian players have woken up to the vast potential of virtual dating apps. And the same is reflected as a slew of homegrown apps like TrulyMadly, Aisle, DilMil and Frnd that promise their users a chance to find love in modern times.
But in online dating, instant customer gratification or desirable outcomes will not lead to ‘repeat orders’. So, companies like Tinder depend on a ‘healthy churn’ and keeping the chase alive (for a better match), according to product intelligence firm Amplitude. But there is always a looming risk that dissatisfied users will go away sooner than later, leaving the business high and dry. Therefore, local variants like TrulyMadly and its ilk are constantly looking at product innovation to boost waning user interest.
Take, for example, what Bengaluru-based andwemet, a high-intent dating site for Indians above the age of 25, has been doing for healthy traction. The startup recently held a location-agnostic meet-up campaign, asking users to meet potential matches in real life and experience dating in the good old fashion.
Moving from online to a hybrid dating culture may soon become a trend. Meanwhile, TrulyMadly is expanding its product portfolio and scaling its reach to stand out from the rest. For instance, it has created TM Cafe, a video chat for paid members, where users can interact with others through audio/video calls. The call automatically disconnects at the 90th second, and users can decide whether they want to match. The feature is still in beta, but the company plans to invite more users in the coming weeks.
Its efforts and outcomes have also gained investor interest.
Under Khanor’s leadership, the platform raised two rounds of funding. The first was $1.1 Mn in pre-Series A from AngelList, Inflection Point Ventures and The Chennai Angels (TCA). This round also saw participation from Unacademy’s Gaurav Munjal, Innov8’s Dr Ritesh Malik and Josh Talk’s Shobhit Banga, among others.
In April 2021, the platform raised another $2.1 Mn from Venture Catalysts and 9Unicorns. All existing investors took part in the round, as well as InMobi’s Abhay Singhal and Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma.
“TrulyMadly has come up with various fresh ideas and innovation. TCA’s bond with the company is only getting stronger and leading to follow-on rounds,” said Kayar Raghavan, TrulyMadly’s lead investor from TCA, a prolific angel with a diverse portfolio.
The company is now preparing for overseas expansion. “We are building an NRI playbook for the Dubai market that has a large Indian diaspora and aim to use it for the US, the UK, Canada and Singapore in the next three-five years,” said Khanor.
Are Dating Apps Changing India’s Cultural Sinews?
The significant rise of online dating speaks of a massive cultural transformation. In 2021, TrulyMadly conducted a survey which revealed that 50% of Indian mothers are comfortable with their children finding love through online dating. These findings indicate that Indians are warming up to the western concept.
According to Statista, India’s dating services sector is estimated to clock $387.6 Mn in revenue in 2022. By 2025, the revenue is estimated to reach $403 Mn.
Both global and local players are in the race for a big chunk of this consumer internet business. In February 2022, ASO intelligence platform AppTweak found that Indian dating app QuackQuack saw average daily downloads of 16K, 4.6% more than Tinder, the second-best. The list of top 10 dating sites in India (by average downloads) also included Bumble (13.5K) and homegrown entities like TrulyMadly (8.68K), Aisle (6.62K) and DilMil (4.26K).
The numbers are impressive, and few businesses can ignore this traffic. It further indicates the popularity of Indian (and overseas) dating apps modelled and tweaked to fit the desi context. But what matters most is: Will investors look at this space with renewed interest despite the funding winter? Will TrulyMadly and its homegrown peers manage to find more love and turn into global success stories?