Growing Business header Darren Richards

In his quest for love, Darren Richards stumbled across a business idea that would secure his fortune

I was running a small business importing children’s novelty toys like Tamagotchi, virtual pets and that sort of thing from the Far East and I found the internet incredibly useful in locating products. I was the only person who I knew who had the internet back in 1996; it was still very much in its infancy. I ran this business quite successfully for two or three years up until about 1999, when my relationship with my girlfriend came to an end as a result of the time I was spending away from home.

One night soon after the relationship had failed, I found myself visiting a search engine – it’s hard to believe that Google didn’t exist back then, I think it was Altavista or something – and I typed in ‘single people’ and ‘dating agency’. I was quite surprised that nothing actually came back in the UK.

There were a handful of websites in the United States which I had a good look at. I wasn’t particularly impressed by them but I did feel that there was probably an untapped market in the UK. After all, I couldn’t possible be the only single person in the UK that would consider using the internet to meet people. It seemed bizarre that the internet was allowing me to meet people in the Far East to buy products from, so why shouldn’t it allow me to meet other people in the UK to go on a date with? It seemed a logical step forward.

I began looking at traditional dating agencies in the UK to find out how they worked because I had no prior knowledge on the market whatsoever. I came into it totally green as far as dating services were concerned and the only previous knowledge I had of the internet was as a user, so I didn’t come from a technical background either.

However, I was able to put a very basic website together consisting of two pages – it was more like a forum – where people could put up postings and display their email address. I would then categorise those into counties and requirements, you know, ‘male looking for female in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire’ and so on and so forth, so people were able to tick the boxes and just read the messages and contact each other.

It got to the top of the search engines very quickly because I was pretty much the only online dating service (if you can call it an online dating service) at that point in the UK.

It suddenly dawned on me that although I was running this successful business importing toys, it was this little thing that I was messing with on the side that was becoming very popular with people using the internet. I wasn’t making any money from it at the time but it very quickly occurred to me that if I could charge people £5 a month and I could get 100 people a day to sign up, I would very quickly get a decent amount of money.

I then started researching how I could evolve this business into an actual website that could be database driven and used in a format that people recognised. I found a company in Birmingham that was able to do this, which allowed me to build the website from the very basic form into something that was actually functional.

One of the initial difficulties was that I had little cash. My credit card application actually got turned down five times by all the major banks because they didn’t believe that online dating was a viable business and they couldn’t possibly give me credit card facilities for something that wasn’t understood at the time.

The way I got around that was by going down to the head office of Barclaycard in Northampton to see the head guy there where I gave him a full presentation of what the website did.

It was never a case of convincing myself it was a viable venture, the users of the website were trying to convince me. Once I had convinced the bank manager that there was nothing seedy or underhand, we were off. Fast forward ten years later and I’m a multi millionaire. All I need now is to meet my soulmate; ten years working in online dating and I am still looking…

Darren Richards was speaking to Hannah Prevett.


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