At first glance, YC-backed Muzmatch's dating app might look best described as a 'Tinder for Muslims'. But co-founders Shahzad Younas and Ryan Brodie are clear about what sets their target audience apart from the casual dating/hook-up crowd: a genuine intent to find a partner in order to get married.
Which is why, they say, they're definitely not just cloning Tinder for Muslims.
"Our audience is super captivated, they're so invested in this search," says Brodie. "For a Muslim in their twenties, their upbringing has been so centered to find a husband or wife. And that is for most Muslims. I think some people think it's just like JCrush for Jews. But it's totally not about that from where we stand.
"Not just market size -- we're more than 100 times larger market than the Jewish market, for example -- but the real difference is the seriousness and intent. It's not casual dating. In Islam there's a concept where... you're only ever going to be half way there without your spouse. So this is how central it is. This is where almost all our users come at it from."
Some two years after the launch of the first version of the app, Muzmatch has around 200,000 users, spread across ~160 countries, and is growing around 10 per cent, month on month, according to the co-founders.
"We've had weddings across the world," says Younas. "Right now about 30 people a day are leaving our app and telling us specifically I found my partner on your app or I just got engaged or we just got married."
Growth thus far has coming organically, via word-of-mouth recommendations in the Muslim community, they say. Around half of Muzmatch users are in the UK; around a third are in the US and Canada; with the rest spread all over the world. Gender wise, roughly two-thirds of are male, and one-third is female. The average age is mid to late twenties.
The founders say the matchmaking app has led to around 6,000 couples getting together so far -- and "at least 600 confirmed weddings" -- although they can't be sure the number isn't higher as not everyone messages them with their stories.
They tell a funny story about how they were emailed by a man from Uganda thanking them for helping him meet his wife via the app -- and when they went to check exactly how many users they had in Uganda it was, well, just those two. "When it's meant to be, it is meant to be!" says Younas.
Despite a few 'rest of world' successes to point to, their current "concentrated focus" is on Muslims in the West -- tackling what they describe as the "key problem" for this 60-million community: "low density of Muslims". Which means that Muslim singles searching for a partner of the same faith in towns and cities in places like the UK, US and Canada are likely to face a shortage of potential mates. At least in their immediate vicinity.
These dynamics work in Muzmatch's favor, reckons Brodie, because their target market is already geared up to putting in extra work to find 'the one'. And is also therefore likely to appreciate a tech tool that helps make their search easier.
"What's great for us is there's already an expectation of movement, so we've never had to worry about the network effect. Most dating apps, every user expects to meet the one a mile down the road -- luckily for us, that expectation isn't there, which is brilliant," he tells TechCrunch.
Another advantage of addressing such an engaged user base, according to the founders, is Muzmatch's singles are incentivized to fill out their profiles with lots of detailed information -- given how many criteria can be at play as part of their search (i.e. over and above just whether they find a potential partner attractive, and relating to other factors such as family, culture, tradition, religious level and so on) -- and the app can then utilize all this rich user data for improving its suggested matches.
"With our app, and with the technology in the app, we're really trying to cater to those specific needs," says Younas, describing the difficulties Muslims in the West can have meeting a person who meets all their criteria. "We think that conventional Western dating apps don't really cater to this."
The business is already profitable, taking revenue including via premium subscriptions and in-app purchases which offer users additional features, such as the ability to be matched with someone before they've liked you (as a way to try to get their attention) -- though it's free to join and use the basic app.
"Because there's a more serious intent, people are more willing to spend vs... a casual dating app -- where the expectation is almost free," argues Younas.
And while Muzmatch's feature-set has some basic mechanisms that would be familiar to any Tinder user, like the ability to 'like' or 'pass' on a possible match, and the ability to chat in-app with mutual matches, it also has differences that reflect the needs of its community -- which Younas describes as being "essentially" without a casual dating market, as a result of marriage being "such a big part of our faith".
Half of the world's population of Muslims are under thirty... The growth in Muslim population across the world is phenomenal.
So, for example, all users have to take a selfie via the app so their profile can be manually verified to help boost trust and keep out spammers; users don't have to provide their real name though, and can choose not to display photos on their profiles or blur photos unless there's an active match.
Users are also asked to rate others they have interacted with -- and these ratings are fed into the matching algorithm, with the aim of surfacing "quality users" and promoting positive behaviors that mesh well with a community of singles that's typically really serious about finding a life partner.
Female users can also opt for a chaperoning feature whereby all of their in-app chats are emailed to a wali/guardian, should they wish to observe this type of Islamic etiquette.
There are a few other differences in how males and females experience the app, such as women having more granular controls over who can see their photos, and being able to view more profiles per day before being capped (this is on account of there currently being more male users, say the founders).
"It's transparent to both sides," says Younas of the wali/guardian option. "So both parties in that conversation know that there's a third party involved. And for us these are optional features we give to our users -- depending on where they're at, we don't necessarily want to push a religious angle on people, but what we want to do is give them the option. So if you're very religiously inclined you can pick these options."
"For us being accessible to everyone is really the key to owning this market," he adds. "There's 1.8 billion Muslims across the world, and they're very diverse -- in culture, in language, in their outlooks, in particular religious etiquette, so what we're trying to do is navigate all of that in a very -- I wouldn't necessarily say neutral way -- but in a very accessible way to everybody... And so far it's been working."
The founders say they are intentionally making an effort to discourage the transactional dynamic that can creep into dating apps like Tinder -- so, for instance, there are limits on the number of profiles a user can swipe through in a 12 hour period (although users can also pay to remove the cap); and people can also go back and revisit profiles they previously passed on, or rematch with people they previously unmatched if they change their mind later.
"We've actually had many examples of now married couples that have actually gone back and changed their minds," says Brodie. "Unlike say on Tinder you can actually rematch someone. So you can unmatch if it didn't work out and then in case six months later, something's changed... you can rematch them."
We had a girl message us saying thank god for the rematch feature — because I wouldn’t have got with this guy if you didn’t have it
"We had a girl message us saying thank god for the rematch feature -- because I wouldn't have got with this guy if you didn't have it," adds Younas. "So we know this stuff works."
Younas boostrapped and built the initial app himself, having -- as a young Muslim in London -- been unimpressed with the quality of existing Muslim dating websites, which he describes as "ugly and horrible", and having a "terrible reputation".
Brodie came on board later, after meeting Younas and being excited by the early traction for the MVP -- and the pair relaunched Muzmatch last August.
With growing ambitions, they say they started to feel London was not the ideal base to try to scale a consumer app. Hence they applied and got onto Y Combinator's program -- and will be graduating in the 2017 summer batch of YC startups.
"Our ambitions have grown and grown and grown," says Brodie. "We realized the opportunity we have here and we thought, in London at least, we weren't going to get the ammo that we needed or the thoughts and the beliefs that you have in the West Coast of America... [YC] has got an incredible track record so we just thought let's do this."
While they've started with Muslims living in the West, their ambitions scale to the global Muslim market as a whole -- seeing big potential to grow beyond their first focus on markets with a low density of Muslims.
Indeed, Brodie argues there's even more need for a matchmaking app in majority Muslim countries which he says already have big but -- as he sees it -- ineffective and often expensive matchmaking industries. So, in other words, a high density of potential mates is still a problem for a matchmatching app to fix.
"There's already a huge market of matchmakers [in countries like Indonesia]. But it's incredibly ineffective," he argues. "It's not just a problem in the West, where there's low density, even in a country where everyone's a Muslim, as is the case for everyone, finding partners is very difficult."
In terms of competition, and setting aside the older generation of matchmaking websites, Brodie says there are a "few" others trying to build dating apps for Muslim singles -- a quick search on the App Store brings up Minder and Salaam-Swipe as just two examples -- but claims Muzmatch is at least twice as big as "our nearest app competitor".
"Our competitors are going about this completely the wrong way," he argues. "They are essentially repackaging Tinder for Muslims which we know just doesn't work and is why our competition has really bad credibility in the community."
"The key for us is we've tried to go about this with an understanding of the Muslim culture and the particular quirks and sensibilities in terms of how they find a partner," adds Younas.
"And this is why, for a lot of Muslims, Western dating apps don't work because it doesn't really cater to that particular need and intent. So, for us, from the beginning we've really thought about that, and ingrained that into our design and into our product. And we think, long term, that will set us apart."
The founders also reckon Muzmatch might stand a better chance than typical dating apps of monetizing beyond the business of matching and dating itself -- by offering related services, such as, for example, helping users find a wedding venue. Which may be important if their users are pairing up and getting married relatively quickly.
"I think we have a better chance than most to achieve monetization post-match. Because just the [short] timespan [between Muslims finding a partner and getting married] and the relationship with us is so close to the events unfolding I think, longer term, this might be an interesting space for us," says Brodie.
"Right now the Muslim market is huge, so we're not going to run out of customers," adds Younas.
As they head into YC demo day, the pair are looking to raise funding but Younas says they intend to "tread carefully", given Muzmatch is already profitable -- the aim is to raise to "really accelerate things but on a more sustainable level", he says.
They want to invest in areas such as localization and growing the size of the team (from currently just the two of them), so any funding will be going towards preparing for future growth, such as by investing in headcount and backend infrastructure.
"We have global ambitions," says Younas. "We're not just looking at the US, Canada and the UK. We really want to be the global player for Muslims worldwide looking for a partner."
"Without a doubt, in ten years' time, someone will have achieved this. We want to achieve this -- and part of this raise will be making sure we have the ammo to really go for it," adds Brodie. "We're not just a niche dating app. This is totally different.
"This is a unique product, for 1.8 billion people... Half of the world's population of Muslims are under thirty. In countries like Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of their population are under thirty. The growth in Muslim population across the world is phenomenal."