Vidya Madhavan always wanted to be in business. Growing up in India, she thought she might be in the business of running a factory, given the power and influence of outfits like Tata Group, the Indian multinational conglomerate.
She certainly had an affinity for school, graduating at the top of her high school class, nabbing a mechanical engineering degree in India, and more recently landing at Stanford's business school. Except that instead of creating the more traditional business she once had in mind, Madhavan found herself tinkering with an entirely different idea: A matchmaking app called Schmooze that combines machine learning and memes to connect people based on what Madhavan calls a humor algorithm.
The idea dates back several years when, as an analyst with McKinsey in India who was debating whether to attend grad school in California, Madhavan cold-emailed 10 people on LinkedIn who had attended U.S. business schools for advice. Only one of them replied, but over the next couple of days, she says, "we exchanged, like, 200 emails, all of them fundamentally jokes."
Reader, she is now married to that person. Indeed, she says it's because she believes their shared sense of humor brought them together that she began tinkering with the idea of Schmooze, initially as a way to foster new friendships. It was when she saw the way things were trending -- people were really looking for a love match -- that she refocused the idea as a dating app for Gen Z users who already communicate largely with memes.
It has been taking off since, says Madhavan. Though it hasn't yet spread Facebook-like across college campuses, a beta test in late summer with 200 Stanford students has since led to more than 10,000 downloads around the country, where people are swiping right -- or left -- to more than 5,000 memes that are culled entirely by still-in-beta Schmooze (until it's big enough to deal with content moderation).
Currently about 200 memes are added each day, while others are deleted. ("No one cares about the U.S. elections anymore," Madhavan notes.)
Using tagging and machine learning, combined with the bios that users create for themselves, Schmooze gets to work. Some users might show a predilection for particular topics, for example, like physics or finance. Some who say they're interested in entrepreneurship might reveal an even stronger passion for music through their choices. There are similar divides when it comes to dark humor, and people who really love puns -- and those who hate them.
Whether the algorithm truly works will take time, and lasting unions, to know. Madhavan says that 90,000 matches have been made to date, but naturally, a far smaller number have moved from 'matched' to in-app messaging.
Schmooze has plenty of competition in the meantime, both from traditional dating platforms and from newer apps and questionnaires that similarly try pairing people based on shared interests rather than looks.
It's also easy to imagine more meme-based dating apps suddenly springing into existence, particularly given today's go-go market. (Crazier things have happened.)
Still, Schmooze appears to hold promise. It recently closed on $270,000 in seed funding from Ulu Ventures and others to tinker with its product. The company is finding success reaching its audience on TikTok. There is also a lot of money to be made in the world of online dating and its tiered-services business model, as industry watchers see over and over again.
As for Madhaven, she is in love, to her own surprise, with her five-person startup. Partly because of her formative years and partly because she never dated online before serendipitously meeting her husband through LinkedIn, she says with a laugh of Schmooze: "It's unexpected, in many many ways."