Up to date with Vana Koutsomitis: An interview with The Apprentice runner-up

Coming second to Joseph Valente back in 2015 with her gamified dating app DatePlay, Koutsomitis is quizzed by Startups' about her business progress

It’s often said that winners spend the majority of their lives in second place, so for Vana Koutsomitis to have already come within a whisker of winning The Apprentice, start-up success could only just be around the corner.

Finishing runner-up to Young Gun Joseph Valente in 2015’s series, New York-born Koutsomitis is keen to prove that just because Lord Sugar doesn’t fancy your idea, doesn’t mean your business dreams will remain on the rocks.

On starting her business after The Apprentice:

Launching her gamified dating app DatePlay on Valentine’s Day of this year, minus the coveted £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar that the winners usually receive, Koutsomitis was keen to ensure that her exit from the reality TV show was the start, not the end.

The Apprentice was like a starting point in my entrepreneurial journey because I had to build the business after I pitched my app on the show, because I didn’t have the app yet while I was presenting.”

While acknowledging it’s a tough, and rather oversaturated, sector to enter (according to Mintel, the UK dating market will grow to £225m by 2019), Koutsomitis saw an opportunity to get involved in London’s entrepreneurial community and build, as she calls it, “a real start-up”.

On attempting to disrupt a very competitive industry:

Currently operating out of Wayra, Telefónica UK’s tech accelerator, the DatePlay app uses quizzes and multiple choice questions, coupled with a more traditional matching algorithm, to help find users potential prospects.

Asking questions like “What are you most afraid of?”, “Would you rather eat…”, and “Which is your worst date faux pas?”, DatePlay aims to understand users beyond their superficial preferences – attempting to match them with people who complement them on more than just looks.

While chatting to other users, these collected answers or “fun facts” flash across the top of the screen – immediately building common ground between the two hopefuls.

“One of the most successful features has actually been the fun facts. In the chats you’re going to be informed of what you do have in common, because one of the most difficult things in online dating is knowing how to break the ice.

“A lot of the time it’s unfortunate because the funniest people or the wittiest people have the best first one-liners but we want to make that fairer and easier.

“We want to give people a better understanding of what they have in common so you don’t have to quickly think of some funny catchphrase in order to get a date.”

Looking to add a freemium model in the next couple of months which will allow paying users access to a range of additional features, (Koutsomitis remains tight lipped on what these will be), the social media entrepreneur believes DatePlay’s objective of “bringing personality back into online dating” is essential for the app’s long term success.

Competing against the likes of Tinder, Bumble and eHarmony, Koutsomitis, who is half-Greek and half-Colombian, believes there’s been a “real shift in the dating world” ever since the more transactional apps have come into the marketplace – and that this gives DatePlay an advantage.

“If you want a one night stand, yes, DatePlay might not be the app for you – but if you’re looking for something more meaningful, that’s a reason to catch us.”

On having her husband as her co-founder:

Currently employing three members of staff, one in development and two in marketing, you could say that Koutsomitis and her co-founder are a match made in heaven.

Running her start-up alongside her husband, Joris Magenti, Koutsomitis has found that going into business with her significant other has made the process a lot more cohesive.

“When you work with someone you also live with, you really dig deep into understanding what your concept is going to be and how your business is going to work.”

Admitting the pair are workaholics, Koutsomitis says DatePlay remains the height of their priorities – with no time for logging off just yet.

“I think down the line when we’ve built a more stable business we’ll be able to have more off time, but for now we are all into DatePlay. We try to have meaningful, helpful and productive conversations no matter what it is.

“The most important thing about having a tech start-up is your commitment and ability to not switch off. That’s our biggest strength.”

See more: Joseph Valente, How The Apprentice kick-started my start-up

On the importance of timing:

Losing out to Joseph Valente and his boiler installation business ImpraGas in an all or nothing pitching competition, the 2015 winner had already been running his service business for three years before even applying to the competition.

Now a franchise that turns over £2m a year, ImpraGas presented a more immediate opportunity for growth and expansion for Lord Sugar and his judges – in comparison to DatePlay which was still only a concept.

Asked if she was tempted to launch immediately after The Apprentice had aired with a minimal viable product, so as to cash in on the height of her publicity, or wait in the long grass for a fully-fledged app, the runner-up says she was tempted to strike while the iron is hot – but patience is required.

“The focus we had with this app was to have balance for both. It’s a juggle of balancing the day-to-day, moving things quickly and getting things out there and planning for long-term success but obviously, those two things don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.”

Adding that they had time pressure but wanted to make sure they maintained high standards.

“I’m more of an execution get things done person and Joris is more of a planner who really believes in strategy and long-term goals.”

On raising funding, user numbers and key milestones

Initially pitching to Lord Sugar that the app would make £7m of profit after three years, Lord Sugar had expressed doubt over DatePlay’s ambitious financial predictions – pointing out how hard it is to quickly monitise dating apps in general.

However, there was good news for DatePlay’s figures back in September 2016 when it closed a £219,570 crowdfunding round on Seedrs.

Backed by 390 investors in return for a share of 5.58% equity, Koutsomitis says that aside from the added arsenal of cash – the opportunity gave DatePlay a great chance to get back in touch with the general public.

Crowdfunding was a really good experience for us because we were able to engage with such a large number of investors. We have nearly 400 investors and they are our brand champions.”

Still shy on overall DatePlay user numbers, Koutsomitis says the most important thing when setting milestones is that you have a grand vision.

“Our milestones are very nuanced, it’s not just black and white. So it’s not just users or amount of revenue, our milestones are also related to hiring, to product development, to user retention.

“We’re trying to build a product with the way people interact. Its all about the big picture and how we can change the world of online dating and revolutionise how we interact with each other.”

So, is DatePlay planning to dip back into the world of raising finance anytime soon?

“We plan to do private fundraising next time. The crowdfunding experience was good but it was a very arduous process, so we’ll be raising a private round in the next couple of months.”

On The Apprentice process:

Maintaining that appearing on The Apprentice was part of their long-term strategy for the app, Koutsomitis echoed sentiments made by previous Apprentice winner Ricky Martin that there are several different types of candidates that enter the process – all with different motives.

“One of the most important things for Joris and I was that we channeled all of the publicity and all of the energy from the public to DatePlay. That was something beforehand we really we knew we had to do.

“There was never any interviews where I wasn’t focusing on DatePlay. The app is my baby and that was really the whole point of going onto the show.

“So, yes, I definitely saw that there were certain people that had different focuses, and different objectives, but I don’t think that’s right or wrong, I just think it’s based on where they were in their careers and personal journeys.”

Going further than most in the competition, and now with her original business plan turned into a fully launched product, would the networking expert turn back the clock and do it all over again?

“I’m on very good terms with Lord Sugar, and I think he’s a very respectable and intelligent businessman, so because I had such a great experience with him and Claude, I would go back and do it all over again.

“But it was a difficult process, I can’t tell you it was a walk in the park because it wasn’t. It was difficult to feel exposed.

“But my experience was positive, it was really transformative. I learned a lot about myself and I learned a lot about my business. It helped me grow as an individual.”

On her best business tips:

1. Drown out the noise 

“There will be a lot of naysayers and discouraging individuals who will question whether you are able to make it or not. It’s really important to drown that out so take people’s advice with a grain of salt. What I see is that a lot of entrepreneurs get overwhelmed by negativity and they get down very quickly.”

2. Have a vision

“It’s very important for you to understand what your goals are. Figure out what you want, and how you’re going to get it. I’m a big fan of writing things down. Yes, your plans will change, but at least you’ll have something to go back to if you get too distracted.”

3. Choose your team members wisely 

“Make sure you are choosing people who you can rely on and trust. One of the biggest challenges is a cultural fit. I’d highly encourage you to work with people and hire people that you actually get along with – and that have the same level of ambition as you.”

4. Join a community 

“Join a community in whatever you can of like-minded individuals. In my case, Joris and I joined Wayra. They have been critical to our growth. They have given us advice and they have nurtured us.”

Thinking of following in Vana’s footsteps and starting your own dating app? Read our five simple steps to starting an online dating business here.