|In the recently released feature film Must Love Dogs, Sarah, a forty-something schoolteacher played by Diane Lane, gets talked into seeking her soul mate on an Internet dating service. One of the catches, as the title suggests, is that said soul mate has to be a fan of the canine set. Not far fetched really. I mean how many times does a pet owner’s affection for the four-legged get in the way of potential romance?
But more often, dogs have the capacity to bring people together – without even trying. Noticing that rather unique ability, Silicon Valley techie Robert Yau decided there was something he could do with it.
“I really got inspired by walking my dog in the park,” says Yau who has a background in software design. “I noticed whenever I was with my dog people approached us and talked to us. They would pet him and that typically started conversations. So a light bulb clicked on in my head.”
While Yau was recognizing the connective clout of canines, Internet dating was reaching a new level of respectability in American culture. No longer the realm of the creepy and the deviant, I-dating was being transformed by sites like eHarmony.com and Match.com. But many of the services seemed to promise the same things with little to differentiate them. Yau reasoned that a Web site that used people’s love for their pets to join them could tap an entirely new market.
After spending some time developing a prototype for DateMyPet, Yau hired designers to flesh out the product. He launched it as a Beta site in April 2004. “At first people thought it was a joke,” he says. “That actually helped us market it and get the word out. But then when people realized it was a real thing, it started to grow.”
DateMyPet.com went live as a legitimate company in September 2004 with Yau as founder and CEO. Over the last year, he says the site has averaged between 50,000 and 100,000 visitors each month. Today, DateMyPet.com has members in all 50 states and beyond, with the majority coming from the east and west coasts.
The Web site is subscription based. Users must create a profile to use the services. A basic profile, allowing users to post their information and respond to emails sent to them, is free. A premium subscription allows the user to initiate contact with other members via email. Premium membership is $10 a month.
Not long after the site launched, Yau says something unexpected happened: non-singles wanted to join in. “When we started it we were focused on the singles, but a lot of animal lovers who were married or had a boyfriend or girlfriend wanted to be part of the community. So we developed the concept of ‘pet dates.’”
Those not seeking romance on DateMyPet can set their animals up on play dates at dog parks or wherever, allowing them to mix and mingle with other couples who love their pets. “It’s been a successful part of the business,” Yau says.
Running a dating site, which by its nature must provide constant customer support, can be tricky. “Some people find the site great, others find it difficult to use,” Yau says. “You cannot satisfy everyone all the time. And since we cater to a lot of non-computer literate customers, we have to hand-hold them a lot of times to get them used to the site.”
But, he says, he’s pleased to finally be getting feedback on his work. “Being from a technical background, I was used to writing a piece of software and never being able to see people’s reactions. The great thing about being in Internet services is you get feedback, positive or negative, immediately.”
And though it seems like a hit so far, Yau says even if the business doesn’t work out, he enjoys knowing he’s helped bring people together. “We know that people who met through DateMyPet are actually getting married. There will always be the satisfaction of knowing that we’ve affected so many people’s lives.”
Under a section of the Web site called Successes, DateMyPet members talk about their experience with the site. One writes, “My now husband and I were both newly divorced and had custody of our dogs. He came up in one of my matches, we had similar stories, so I emailed him. We emailed a couple of times, met up at a dog park and the rest is history! We've been married a month and have a very busy household with two dogs and my cat! We talk about meeting through this site all of the time. We never would have met without it. We were truly just looking for someone to spend time with and to socialize our dogs. We ended up meeting the person each of us was meant to be with! “
Yau says there are plenty of dating sites that say they can help find a person’s perfect mate. Often they use a series of questions – ranging from what kind of car an individual drives to how much their mortgage costs – to match up members. “We want people to go there not expecting to take things too seriously, just go to have fun,” he says. “In my experience, when I meet someone we tend to be friends first. The idea is to find someone and have a good time. If you get along, great. If not, that’s okay.”
With the matchmaking realm stable, Yau says he now wants to develop other services and offerings on DateMyPet.com. One section offers a virtual marketplace featuring promotions and offers from pet service and product providers, while another focuses on the dos and don’ts of pet adoption. “This should expand into a place where when people think about pets or they want to find out things about pets they will come to us,” he says. “We want to grow this into a community.”
Though many people claim to be pet lovers, how they exhibit that affection can vary greatly, Yau says. “We have members who love their dogs to the point of treating them a substitute for a child and we have members who treat their dog like a dog,” he says. “What we’ve found is that when they communicate, they tend to gravitate towards others who match their personality.”
The release of Must Love Dogs has grown the site’s number of users significantly. Yau says one factoid he’s discovered is that mothers who find out about the site are sending the address to their daughters to get them to join. Whether or not mom’s efforts to help her girl snag a man are successful, the film’s tagline may offer some tongue-in-cheek wisdom: “the hardest part is making them stay.”