Sparkology Puts Elite Spin on Dating and Competes to Enter Y Combinator

4/24/12Follow @jpruth

As more dating websites chase the same customers, it gets harder to see the differences among these companies. Most promise lots of dates, but that does not always translate into successful matches. New York’s Sparkology believes its strategy of only accepting men educated at renowned universities sets it apart from its rivals—and might win the one-year-old startup a spot in the Y Combinator program.

Sparkology’s methods may sound elitist, but founder Alex Furmansky says the goal is to populate his site with men who meet the standards of highly discerning professional women. “We found that the number one complaint women had about other sites was the lack of quality men,” he says.

Sparkology accepts new members through invitations from existing members, rather than the more common method of signing up most anyone willing to create a profile. Furmansky founded the startup last April as an alternative to such sites as Match.com and PlentyofFish, which offer open enrollment. Dating sites that accept the masses with few filters may increase the volume of members, but he believes his screening process improves the caliber of potential dates.

While women must be college educated to join Sparkology, men must be verified graduates of schools chosen from U.S. News & World Report rankings such as Boston College, Columbia University, and University of Oxford. Furmansky confesses, though, that the pedigree of the college is no guarantee of finding the perfect match. “We can’t promise that every man is going to be a genius, rocket scientist,” he says.

This novel approach to online dating, he hopes, will help Sparkology beat the competition to enter the Y Combinator accelerator program. Furmansky is scheduled to travel to Mountain View, CA on Thursday for a final interview. Sparkology raised some seed funding last April from friends and family. Furmansky says acceptance into Y Combinator could give his startup a boost through access to advisors, as well as the network of alumni who graduated from the program.

Sparkology must work hard to prove it is a quality match for Y Combinator. Furmansky says he held an in-house session last Friday with his staff and an investor who bombarded him with questions to help him prepare for the final interview. He believes the metrics Sparkology has collected from the website, such as visitor conversion rates, may give him an edge in getting into Y Combinator. “One thing we have that a lot of companies going in might not is we have a track record of several months of data,” he says.

And there is more technology at play within the website. In addition to screening prospective members, Sparkology uses an algorithm to sort potential dates based on how the users interact on the site. Activities such as responding to messages and liking other users’ profiles help shape the list of matches that members see. Currently Sparkology is only available in New York, though Furmansky plans to expand to cities such as Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles within three months.

Still, the challenge of making tangible headway in the online dating market is huge, given entrenched websites such as eHarmony and Match.com. Furmansky believes there is room for Sparkology, which hopes to position itself as a kind luxury service in the dating world. “Our pool of men versus [other sites] is like night and day,” he says.

Of course such service comes at a cost. Sparkology charges men about $2 to $3 for each new conversation initiated with a woman on the site. Message access is sold in bundles priced at $15 to $30. The expectation is that conversations will be more meaningful if men must pay for each first message. Meanwhile women pay rates for unlimited messaging that range from $25 for a single month to $60 for a six month package. The strategy, Furmansky says, is to cut down on users who send copy-and-paste e-mails to all their prospective dates.

Such spam-like messaging found on some other sites was part of the drive behind the creation of Sparkology. Prior to founding the startup, Furmansky worked in investment banking at Evercore Partners and UBS, and most recently was director of business development for OpenPeak, a Boca Raton, Fla.–based provider of tablets and software to telecom carriers.

After its founding last April, Sparkology had its soft launch last October and an iPhone app followed in January. Widespread marketing of the site began in February. Furmansky has no immediate plans for an Android-version of the app because he says more than 80 percent of the site’s users log in with iPhones when they go mobile.

Although Sparkology is going after a niche audience, Furmansky says the platform can scale up quickly. “With the click of mouse I can enable a new city,” he says. He will have to prove he can make good on that promise and much more if Sparkology wants to secure a spot with Y Combinator. “Odds are very tough but it’s very exciting,” Furmansky says. “I look forward to meeting [Y Combinator founder] Paul Graham.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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