While you were watching the real-life mating rituals of the species on Valentine's Day last week, software developer turned businessman Martin Haynes of Wang Technologies was hooking people up online - millions of them in fact.
Net meeting site www.soulmates. com.au is the first-born of Soulmates Technology's family of dynamic database Web sites which now include ninemsn, F2, Excite, The Lounge and Ozemates. It is the idea which took the company from being little more than a Web-based newspaper personals column to a fully fledged lifestyle application service provider earning annual revenues of $3-4 million.
Haynes never anticipated that running a penpal club in his teens would form the basis of his future business. But from his early dabblings with Internet browsers, he saw the opportunity to bring people together. He began promoting a new Internet penpal club in free ad magazines in 130 countries.
A month later, Haynes was getting sacks of mail delivered to his apartment which he dragged into the garage. There was the laborious task of entering all the data to post on the Web site and scanning the photos on a prehistoric handheld scanner. Once the profiles were on the Web, people wanting to make contact could send a cheque for $US25 to Haynes' personal address. He laughs looking back on the early learning curves. He remembers walking down to the bank to deposit the foreign cheques only to be hit with a $10 clearing fee.
Within three years, Haynes had a database of 10,000 users and decided it was time to move the operation out of the garage. In 1998, he asked technology buff Daniel Haigh to leave his job at Morgan & Banks to become a 50/50 partner in constructing a dynamic database-driven Web site. "The dynamic database meant that people could go to soulmates.com.au, publish their own information and up-load photographs. It took me out of the loop," says Haynes.
The ability to clear credit cards in real-time online quickly accelerated the company's database. It also prompted the businessmen to register the Soulmates site in the UK, NZ, the US, and more recently, Indonesia. "[The sites] all populate the central data-warehouse, or what we call the data profile repository," says Haynes. "At this stage we realised we couldn't call ourselves soulmates.com.au any more because we'd become far more than that. So we changed our name to Soulmates Technology and the software company was formed."
"Once we got the application stable across our own network, we went and knocked on the door of Excite and said Look, you have Fairfax as your personals provider, we're a little company called Soulmates Technology, we'd like to take out Fairfax and put in our own' and they said Are you serious?'," says Haynes.
"Today, we've rolled our model out to every single Australian portal bar none. We've got a huge centralised data warehouse where we take care of everything from customer support and all queries to the manual screening of every profile that is published on the network to maintain integrity."
Having come this far, Soulmates is in the throes of launching its ASP offering globally and is considering an ASX listing. With substantial financial backing from industry heavies such as Solution 6 CEO Neil Gamble and Geoff Morgan and Andrew Banks of Morgan & Banks recruitment firm, Haynes says he is still surprised by the stamp of approval the Soulmates model has received. However, with more than 2500 online dating sites, the company's competition is fierce. To steal the edge, Haynes is driving his message directly to the business development managers of the major portals.
"We're saying take a look at what we're doing in Australia. We can do the same for you. Here's the value proposition, punch in the number of page impressions you're getting and based, on the data that we've got, this is what you can enjoy as a revenue stream," says Haynes.
"As well as all the backend stuff being taken care of, our model pays real revenues because it pays a commission at the time when someone purchases a stamp', as well as paying a commission when one of your profiles, created at your portal, is contacted anywhere within the network."
After signing an ASP agreement with Excite Soulmates ninemsn, "I got on the telephone to the Excite CEO and said Good news, your major competitor has signed as part of the network'," says Haynes. "He was delighted because the more profiles there are in the central database the more people it attracts, therefore the more likely it is for people to purchase stamps' and there is greater opportunity for cross-portal contacts which generate revenue for him."
With 25 years of software development already in use, Soulmates' application keeps the user within the customer environment. But, more importantly for the ninemsn and Excite, it builds up customised database systems with perfect demographics that can be used to target market sectors. The business model and architecture of the software is an object-based application and has been designed to cater to all lifestyle aspects. "Lifestyle is certainly about partnering [in the romantic sense], but it's also about sport, cars, careers or even property and the software has the ability to be deployed into any of these kinds of portals," says Haynes.
Along this strain, Soulmates is launching a new site called sportspals.com which brings together activity partners. "If you're taking a flight to Brisbane and you'd like to have a game of squash while you're there, sports.com can match you up with an appropriate person and a local club," explains Haynes. Soulmates has also taken over the personals for OzEmail, which is due to go live within days and is rolling out services that utilise WAP and mobile phones.
At the end of the day, Haynes is a romantic at heart. He still gets a lump in his throat when he receives a letter and photo of a couple who met through the Soulmates service and went on to get married and have kids. "We stick the photos up in the office," he says. "That feeling alone makes it all worthwhile."