Triangulate Raises $750K for “Data-Driven Dating” on Facebook

7/27/10Follow @wroush

If you’re at least a casual Internet user, there’s already lots of information about you laying around in semi-public databases. Twitter knows what types of people you follow. Netflix knows what movies and TV shows you like. Foursquare knows where you check in. Pandora knows what kinds of music you like. Facebook knows who your friends are, and how old they are, and whether they’re married or single. And so on.

What if there were an online dating service for singles that gauged their compatability with potential matches simply by pulling in all this existing information about their media preferences and social activities? That would save these singles all the hours that go into filling out exhaustive eHarmony-style questionnaires. And given people’s tendency to embellish or redact the truth when comes to self-descriptions, matches based on this kind of verifiable, real-world data might even be more successful.

Well, that’s the whole idea behind Wings, a Facebook dating app launched last month by Triangulate. The Palo Alto, CA, startup said today that it has raised $750,000 in seed funding to capitalize on this new form of Internet-era transparency, with Trinity Ventures, the Menlo Park, CA-based early stage venture investing firm, and Rick Thompson, the chairman of Mountain View, CA-based social gaming powerhouse Playdom, fronting the cash.

In another big boost, Facebook has selected Wings as a featured app in its applications dashboard. Being anointed in this way can have roughly the same effect on Facebook app signups as when Apple features a specific iPhone app in one of its TV commercials. The Wings app went into rotation on the application dashboard last night, and “we’ve already seen some of the results impact on our numbers, which we’ve been very happy about,” says Triangulate co-founder and CEO Sunil Nagaraj.

“Data-driven dating” is Nagaraj’s term for the basic concept behind Wings. And there’s no question that the app represents a geek’s take on dating. Befitting its name, Triangulate is reframing the search for love—probably the most unpredictable and anxiety-filled of all human obsessions—as a math problem.

The company postulates that the problem with dating today—the reason so few dates work out (and, as a not incidental side effect, that people keep shelling out more for dating help)—is that the parties have imperfect information. “The online dating world is incredibly inefficient, and that inefficiency is driven by a lack of transparency and a reliance on self-reported information,” Nagaraj says. “If I knew who you really were, and you knew who I really was, we could interact better. And now, for the first time in human history we are at a place where most of your life is documented.”

No longer is finding the right soul mate simply a matter of chance, flirting skills, or pheromones, Nagaraj says. It’s now a matter of crunching the numbers to gauge whether the similarities between your social media profile and your potential mate’s profile are, statistically speaking, the same types of similarities found among happy couples.

In essence, the Wings app matches people up based on its understanding of thousands of test couples who agreed to have their social media profiles mined by Triangulate. “We have studied enough happy couples that we feel confident that we understand the factors that are predictive of a successful relationship,” Nagaraj says, “This is the first time in history where we can boil that down to hard numbers, because enough of the happy couples’ lives are spent online that we can put together a rich picture.”

To use a simplified example: Triangulate might notice that for straight couples where the man likes the movie Gladiator, it’s often the case that the woman likes Dirty Dancing. So the next time Wings comes across a single guy who likes Gladiator, it will recommend a single woman who likes Dirty Dancing, or movies like it. That’s not too different from the way Match.com or eHarmony work—except that when it comes to movies, Wings draws the information from the users’ actual Netflix profiles, rather than from lists of movies people say they like.

Nagaraj says the seed that grew into Wings was planted years ago, when he was a consultant at Bain & Company and had to spend long hours waiting in airports. “I’d be sitting there with my manager in a terminal, and we’d play this game of guessing who people were by the way they walk,” he says. “Often, people can be described by what they do more accurately than by what they say about themselves. That was the genesis of Triangulate.”

After finishing his Harvard MBA, Nagaraj and his fellow Harvard graduates David Chen and Matt Weisinger decided to see if they could build a business around the idea of aggregating objective information about behavior. They considered several application areas, but “dating was the first vertical that resonated with us,” says Nagaraj. “It’s a billion-dollar industry with 4 million people paying monthly fees. Yet there has been no real innovation since Match.com launched in 1995 and then eHarmony in 2000. That’s 10 years with no innovation except for changing the questionnaires.”

Nagaraj says Triangulate chose Facebook as the environment for a dating app in part because 40 percent of its half-billion users are single. But there were other obvious factors too. “When I look at a social media service, I try to understand first whether it could be an interesting data source for us, and the other lens is whether it could be a distribution platform,” he says. “For the moment, Facebook is by far the best data source and the best distribution platform.”

In the Wings app—which starts out free but requires payments in the form of virtual coins for certain types of interactions, such as sending a message to a potential match—users are asked during the signup process to let Triangulate connect with their various social media accounts, including Twitter, Netflix, Foursquare, and (soon) Pandora and Blippy. (Nagaraj says Triangulate is starting out with the services that have the most up-to-date application programming interfaces, or APIs, allowing information be extracted from their databases.) Of course, users already have Facebook profiles by definition, which gives Wings access to even more information, not to mention photos.

Once users have answered a few questions about their age and location, and their basic preferences in a potential date, Wings scours its member database for potential matches. As of yesterday there were only about 40,000 Wings users, so matches can be sparse, depending on the user’s location. In my tests, the app found only two possible matches, one of whom I rejected right away. (Since it doesn’t administer a formal questionnaire, Wings couldn’t have known that the cigarette hanging from this dude’s mouth would be a non-starter).

But Wings has many of the makings of a Facebook smash hit. There’s a viral element: users can use the app to ask friends to weigh in with descriptions that help to fill out their profiles (the name “Wings” originally came from this “wingman” concept). There’s a “gamification” element—users can earn the virtual coins that are the app’s currency by answering more questions about themselves, or by inviting friends to send input. There’s the fact that people can use the new Facebook Credits system to buy more coins—Nagaraj says Facebook selected Wings for the application dashboard in part “because of the way we incorporate Facebook’s new payment system.” And above all, there’s the simplicity of it. Why go to the trouble of teaching a dating site’s matching algorithms every last fact about you, when so much of this data is there for the taking on the Web?

In a press release today about the funding announcement, Triangulate says Wings “brings ‘one-click dating’ to Facebook by removing the burden of profile-building.” The “one-click” phrase is a little misleading, as I had to click through seven or eight screens to authorize Wings to connect to all of my lifestream data before it could generate matches. But that’s a still a heck of a lot easier than struggling through hours-long questionnaires.

“Dating just got much simpler,” Patricia Nakache, a general partner at Trinity Ventures, said in a statement. “In recent months, we’ve seen social media data become ubiquitous, and Triangulate is perfectly positioned to leverage this new data set through applications such as Wings. Their proprietary engine and algorithms do all the legwork, so consumers don’t have to.”

Nagaraj says Triangulate is working to tap more social media APIs to make Wings’ matching algorithms more accurate. And he says the startup could eventually apply the same social media profile mining and statistical analytics concepts to interactions outside of dating. Imagine how using data from people’s social media streams might streamline product recommendations, for example, or employment and recruiting.

“The question I put to myself a lot is what we could do better for you if we knew who you really are,” Nagaraj says. “One of those things is finding you a better soul mate. But there are several other very exciting and monetizable things that we could do for you if we were in a trusted relationship where you gave us the data.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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