Casting the Net

The rise of online dating in India

01 March, 2012

UP UNTIL NOVEMBER 2010, Aditya Verma had never asked a girl out. The younger of two sons of a landowning family from the district of Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Aditya, now 27, had been living at home until after college. Life in Gorakhpur, he says, was uneventful, with few ways to break the monotony. “Can you believe that I have never been to a cinema hall to watch a movie? It’s considered a reckless thing to do,” he said. Shy and soft-spoken with deep and expressive eyes, Aditya spent most of his time writing poetry, none of which he showed anybody. For him, writing was the only relief from the tedium, the only hope for beauty. “I would also write love letters for friends in college. They looked to me to give words to their feelings,” he said in an earthy Hindi. Although a seasoned Cyrano, Aditya didn’t try his luck with any girl: “I liked girls, but I never spoke to any.” Girls and guys in his town would meet from time to time, and on a few occasions even got into relationships—but he refused to take that risk. “Gorakhpur has a small and close-knit society, and I did not want to jeopardise my family’s reputation.”

In 2008, Aditya found a job in the IT support end of a big real estate company in Noida. He was thrilled about the opportunity, but even more by the move—and the distance it offered from his family’s farm in eastern UP. The time had come, he thought, to meet new people and take in the big city. But it wasn’t long before he realised that it wouldn’t be that easy. Someone as shy as he was needed a helping hand—a friend who would lead him past the barricades. While he waited for his phantom guide, his life fell into a familiar pattern: he would work from 9 to 5, and then walk back to his flat to spend the evening recording in his diary the events and emotions of the day. His routine was interrupted only on weekends, when he went to local malls with friends from his hometown. Aditya was satisfied with the course of this life, so despite continual pressure to return to UP and take care of the farm, he decided never to go back.

But one other unresolved matter stood between him and the family—one that he couldn’t shirk: his marriage. He was already past the “right” age, his family told him, and he shouldn’t delay it any further. “A few couples had love marriages back home,” Aditya said, “but they had to leave the village to save their families’ image.” On this issue, too, he refused to yield. He believed love should lead to marriage, not the other way around. “I have to slowly change their [the family’s] mindset,” he remembers thinking to himself.

But for that to happen, he would have to fall in love. And, even more crucially, find a girl. Of the young women who worked in his office, there was one who he had fallen for. And he knew in his heart, he said, that she liked him too. But Aditya could never tell her of his feelings, and before long she was married off by her family.

He knew he had to start all over and meet new girls. But he didn’t know where to begin.

Aditya was not alone, though he may have felt so. Across the world from Noida, the same problem was gnawing away at other young men—some of whom were taking matters in a more creative direction.

In 2007, Adam Sachs—a recent college grad working at a television channel in New York City—was desperate to find a natural way to meet new girls in the city, but had drawn a blank. Away from college’s reserve of friends and friends of friends, Sachs was beginning to discover just how limited the possibilities were: blind dates felt like job interviews; approaching girls at bars was often awkward; and dating websites—although now a fairly common way to find romance in the US—seemed desperate. Night after night he hung out with the same group of friends, all of whom seemed to have the same problem.

By early 2008, Sachs was fed up. “In real life, we don’t create our own blind dates,” he reasoned—logic that led him and Daniel Osit, a college friend who worked in marketing, to build something that would lift them out of the single life with the help of as many hands as they could hold. The online dating site they dreamt up was one through which groups of friends could connect with other groups to organise dates. Consolidating the power of friends through an online interface seemed, after all, a profitable enterprise in the age of Facebook.

In August 2008, together with their common friend Kevin Owocki, the three launched Ignighter, and soon after went straight to Facebook for help. By November, the Ignighter app was up and running on the social networking behemoth. By the end of the year, the group dating website had 50,000 registered users in the US. But in a market with more than 1,500 dating sites generating a total of $2.1 billion in profits each year, their accomplishment wasn’t quite a revolution.

The founders of Ignighter, Adam Sachs (centre), Daniel Osit (left) and Kevin Owocki, at the company’s headquarters in New York. FRED CONRAD / THE NEW YORK TIMES

One day in April 2009, while checking the site’s latest stats, the founders noticed unexpected web traffic from several countries in Asia. By June, it was obvious that India was outpacing the rest; the website was gaining hundreds of users a day, both male and female, from all over this distant country.

At first, the discovery was bewildering—how did word get out, and why was it catching on so quickly in India? But like with any mystery, explanations were aplenty. “The universal story that we’ve heard is that people in our target demographic, the twentysomethings in India, are growing up in a different India than their parents,” Sachs said in an interview to Inc, a US-based magazine about entrepreneurs.

The India of twentysomethings is a different India indeed. The country’s median age is now 24.6, and more than 500 million Indians are under the age of 25. Alongside these figures, social realities are changing, too—from the widespread deferment of marriage and the breakdown of extended families, to people moving to cities for jobs and a detachment from traditional networks of community, not to mention the influence of Western culture. Together, they have produced a mass of young people whose notions of love and friendship are radically different from earlier generations—and who have no dearth of options in front of them.

But even with renewed aspirations and choices, young singles are short on ways to meet each other. Coinciding with growing Internet access and an exploding craze for social networking, this has created a real niche for new ways to connect young Indians online.

“In January 2010, we decided to move Ignighter operations to India,” said Sachs. The company suspended the development of its American website; by March 2010, Ignighter had opened an office in Mumbai and recruited a few local employees. Within a few months, the website crossed a landmark million registrations. Ignighter’s founders had hoped to meet with this reception back home, but appreciated the Indian windfall nonetheless.

When Sanjeev Bikhchandani, the founder of the leading Indian job site, pointed out to the Ignighter guys that their online dating venture was among the top 10 websites in India as measured by user growth—in the same league as, Facebook and itself—there was no doubt that they had to turn this enviable head start into financial strength. By early 2011, the group had raised $3 million from American and Indian investors—40 percent from the latter, of which one was Google’s Indian-born vice president of sales, Rajan Anandan.

By March 2011, Ignighter was taking in 50,000 Indian users a week. But even with their faith in the Indian market established, Sachs, Osit and Owocki could not claim to “understand” India. Indeed, not one had ever been to the country. How, they worried, could they customise the site to the specific needs of such a foreign clientele? And so they agreed that each of the three would spend a couple of months a year at the India office, and study the Indian social scene.

Ignighter’s Indian experiment had begun. To start on a suitably auspicious note, the homepage showcased a picture of a sherwani-clad groom sweeping into his arms a bride dressed in a lehenga.

AT 10:30 AM ON 21 OCTOBER 2011, Adam Sachs was rushing towards a commercial complex in Noida. Accompanied by Ignighter’s new Indian vice president, he was about to meet with a potential investor. Sachs exuded the restless, nervous energy of a first-time tourist to India. It was, however, his second visit; his first had been over the summer, which he spent making sense of the remarkably different cultural scene: men holding hands, the absence of voicemail, the inscrutability of squat toilets. “Delhi looks nothing at all like the US,” Sachs wrote on his tumblelog within the first 48 hours of his visit. “I know this sounds stupid, but in the past 48 hours I’ve traversed much of the city and it looks absolutely nothing like a city in the US. When you’re in Delhi and you look around, there’s no mistaking where you are. Everything is DIFFERENT.”

Seated at a corner table of a popular family restaurant where they waited for the investor, Sachs was inspecting a pack of paan masala he had bought on the way. “Not being a native, I will never understand [India’s] youth culture as you people do,” he said, running his bright, blue eyes over the chatter at surrounding tables. He said they were a long way from figuring out what the website’s new users expected. In New York, you could just go to a bar and observe how men and women interacted, but in India there were no such short cuts. Ignighter, Sachs said, had recently hired a research and branding firm to assemble focus groups in three target cities—Mumbai (“global metro”), Chennai (“southern city”) and Chandigarh (“north Indian smaller city”)—and analyse how youngsters reached out to new people.

They were interviewing hundreds of men and women between the age of 21 and 27—people who were single, had Internet access and, preferably, were comfortably-off. “We are going to boil down the observations from these three cities to get a uniform sense of the Indian users,” Sachs said.

He was keen to pick up any additional clues, though, and seemed to be recording each impression carefully: “A 24-year-old young person in India wants the same things as a 24-year-old young person in the US, but there are some societal pressures that change things, a cultural history that makes it different. In the US, parents are not involved in what young people are doing. Here you don’t say to your parents that you are going out on a date. These subtle changes are what we’re trying to account for in our product.”

He said the website continued to get feedback from users. “We get a ton of email every day. There is so much excitement. People write in to say that it is a unique platform to connect with so many people.”

Aditya Verma was one of the people glad to have discovered Ignighter. He, like one million other Indians, saw the Ignighter app on Facebook and signed up immediately. A member since November 2010, he spends entire days on the website trying to befriend girls. If a girl agrees to a date, he now knows what he would do:  take her out to a mall for coffee, a movie and dinner, in that order.

Aditya’s needs, and those of people like him, are what Ignighter had set out to meet. But would Ignighter “revolutionise” the dating scene in India? Would Indians adopt an Americanised framework, or could websites like Ignighter help fashion an idiom for dating that’s somehow uniquely Indian?

EVERYONE SEEMED INTERESTED in Ignighter’s big move. Media reports, both foreign and local, used it as an opportunity to speculate energetically about whether it was a sign that young Indians were slowly breaking out of the clutches of marriage. One trade report from the US on dating websites and foreign markets said firmly of India that “dating is not a part of their traditional philosophy”.

Perhaps “dating” as a concept is not traditional in India. But then how and when did the notion enter India’s mainstream cultural consciousness—giving rise to the model that Aditya Verma so eagerly aspires to mimic? There’s no one answer, but any satisfying explanation would have to start with Bollywood. Romance is, after all, the existential core of Hindi movies, the engine of conflict, the cause for song-and-dance. It is Bollywood that makes us believe that, in India, love too is different: an Indian love, which Indians—and only Indians—are culturally wired to experience. We have for generations looked to the movies to define our collective expectation of romance and marriage, and the movies continue to revise the modes and meanings of Indian love as the times change.

Even though Bollywood was given its grand Western makeover in the 2000s, the wave set off by 1998’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, dating did not make it into these new storylines as an acceptable romantic choice. In fact, any “frivolous” relationship, one not begun with marriage as the ultimate goal, was still considered immoral.

One of 2008’s biggest hits, Bachna Ae Haseeno, made this explicit. The movie follows a young man—played by Ranbir Kapoor—as he makes his way through a few casual relationships before seriously falling in love. But when the object of his affection turns him down and he suffers the pangs of rejection, his first thought is of the girls who he had broken up with. It is only after he atones for his past, setting his karma right by performing lengthy, humiliating acts of penance, that the girl he loves agrees to marry him.

Even the 2010 movie Break Ke Baad—sold as a “coming of age” romance in which, we were assured, the lead pair would be shown as “dating”—stuck to the formula. The girl doesn’t want to get married, and the couple breaks up over issues of trust; but finally, the girl, scripted as impossibly selfish, realises she loves the guy—and so she rushes, in a tense climax, to propose to him at the airport.

Dating for dating’s sake is just too risqué—and too risky—for big-budget Bollywood, which insists on upholding “Indian values”. But when its less inhibited cousin, television, discovered the subject, it didn’t let go.

In 2003, the “adventure-reality” show MTV Roadies had given the youth channel a peek into the minds and hearts of its target demographic. MTV India was looking to step up its game. In October 2006, it launched a dating-reality show called Gehre Pyaar pe Laath (GPL). Adapted from the network’s international version, Dismissed, each episode of GPL set up three people—two guys and a girl or vice versa—on a blind date, with a twist: the two wooers spend a day in rival attempts to impress the target over boat rides and continental dinners, and, at the end, one is chosen as the better date. GPL’s success sparked imitators on competing channels; new channels were launched, in fact, to target young Indians and their supposedly complicated romantic lives. “Dating reality show” is now a genre unto itself, one slowly colonising the airwaves. There are currently 10 of them on air—Love Lock-up, Dare to Date, Splitsvilla, Date Trap, Emotional Atyachaar, Love Net, Steal Your Girlfriend, Date my Folks, Dating in the Dark, Stud Farm—and several more are in various stages of development.

MTV and its closest competitors, Channel [V] and UTV Bindass, know that they have an audience whose mores are in great flux, and they are willing to invest significant resources to keep up, sometimes hiring expensive market-research firms which claim to be able to gauge subtle cultural shifts. In 2011, MTV released the latest of several “youth reports”, this one titled ‘The Age of Sinnocence’. The report, complete with its MTVesque titular pun, is meant to be an exhaustive study of how Indians between 18 and 24 feel about virtue, and about vice, and was assembled based upon interviews with 2,400 Indians of that demographic across 13 cities and towns, with questions about relationships, sex and careers. In 2010, Channel [V]’s consultants talked to twice that number of young adults for the ‘FYI Youth Report’, which focused on how those between 16 and 19 in 20 Indian cities felt about similar topics. Bindass, too, is busy studying 5,000 kids in its ongoing competing study. (The channels, not surprisingly, try to squeeze a few extra bucks out of the exercise; the studies are usually sold to marketing professionals: ‘The Age of Sinnocence’ is priced at R10,000 and the ‘FYI Youth Report’ at R45,000.)

“Dating reality show” is now a genre unto itself. The top youth channels—MTV, Channel [V] and UTV Bindass—together have 10 dating shows currently on air.

The reports converge on a few key findings: money matters the most; social media is the life-blood of today’s youth; but, most of all, young Indians, regardless of geography and socioeconomic class, are either dating or want to. According to ‘The Age of Sinnocence’, half the young people surveyed don’t necessarily see their current relationship ending in marriage.

The sweeping awareness of, and interest in, dating may have been pushed along by youth TV, but the idea was certainly taking on a life of its own.

For Ignighter, there couldn’t have been a better time to zero in on India—and so they did, with all their resources at hand. But what they had unwittingly stepped into was a business arena newly invigorated by a number of contenders, all of whom were convinced that there was money to be made out of young India’s transformation.

And the place where this competition was concentrated was, naturally, the web, where more and more young Indians now increasingly spend their waking hours. By September 2011, there were 112 million Internet users in India, making it the third largest Internet market after China and the US. Seventy-five percent of them are either students or of working age—and of the millions who are introduced to the Internet each month, many are from small towns. Young people make up the majority of the more than 60 million Indians on social networking sites. They are also the most active consumers in the Indian online retail market, which is valued at R14 billion and estimated to reach R20 billion in the next two years.

Targeting the emerging needs of this demographic makes perfect sense. In the past two years alone, a variety of Indian websites have sprung up to cater to the interest in dating. There are general dating sites (,,,,, sites that target specific communities or regions (,,, and a few odd niche sites (, a site for office-goers).

Ignighter wasn’t losing any sleep over these domestic rivals, though. “A lot of similar websites have come in, but we have a competitive advantage over the others—because we have the numbers,” said Sachs last October. Ignighter had two million users by mid-2011, and roughly 150,000 people were signing up every month.

Daniel Osit arrived in Mumbai in December 2011 to check in on Ignighter’s operations and take his turn observing the lives and loves of young Indians. You might imagine the office of a dating website would be filled with frenzied energy. Their new office in Santa Cruz, across the road from the Grand Hyatt (where Osit had booked a room for two months), had hardly any furniture, let alone people: aside from Osit, in the office were Kevin Owocki, the third Ignighter partner and website developer, an Indian employee and an office boy.

The calm was perhaps understandable. They were still setting up shop, and half of their operations (tech development, coding and website maintenance) had not been moved to India—the company intended to keep a healthy staff in its New York office for now.

Osit, sitting in a chair with his MacBook in his lap, looked at home here. Dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a striped T-shirt, he seemed younger than 26, and almost mischievous. He was instantly and effortlessly informal, as if we hung out together all the time. He’s the sort of guy you imagine in the middle of a big group, working an easy chemistry with everyone. If Ignighter devised some sort of test to pass in order to sign up, he would make it.

Certainly, Osit’s belief in the idea behind Ignighter is unshakeable. He says it worked well for him personally and for his group of friends, helping them make a few dates back in New York. He is confident the idea will be as useful in India: “A lot of people in India are aligned to the Western kind of dating, through Facebook and MTV. And nobody in India is addressing its youth. Nobody in India is addressing people outside of the marriage context. There is Facebook, but it’s about your own social network and doesn’t allow you to expand your social base.”

Mumbai was all he had seen of India so far, but he had gone out enough in the city, he told me, to confirm his belief that what they were doing had a lot of value. “We go out and ask people in Bombay if they have heard of Ignighter, like sometimes in the malls, and one out of five young people say that they are on Ignighter.”

But even as Ignighter was making a considerable dent, Osit still did not have a clear idea of what Indian dating would look like. He said the company was in the midst of coming up with a fresh strategy. “A lot of our understanding will be reflected in the new product that we are setting up.”

He wouldn’t say what the new product was, only that Ignighter was in “the middle of a rebrand”.

A LONELY SOUL SHOWN THE PROMISE of romance wastes no time, apparently. So every minute spent on Ignighter is laden with fevered activity. Within a few minutes of signing up on 1 October 2011, I was following the action up close: a running column in the centre of my browser refreshed itself constantly as new groups (mostly of two, sometimes of three) joined the site. You were given the option of signing up as “you and your group/bunch/pack/posse”—pack and posse were clearly the favourites: “Anjali’s posse”, “Pratik’s pack”. Another column on the right ran status updates: some cautious (“it’s a beautiful day”), others contemplative (“a memory lasts forever/ never does it die”), and a few occasionally brazen (“mujhe ek pyaari si ladki ki chah hai”). The forum section roiled with topics ranging from “girls of Chennai are very beautiful” to “any girls looking for a date”. A search for either men or women from nearly any city or town produced swift, sizable results (20 groups of girls between the ages of 21 and 25 near Delhi Cantt, 100-plus groups of guys in and around Chennai), taking in a wide stretch—from Agra to Villupuram, from Ariyalur to Yavatmal.

Unlike profiles on Western dating websites—which can often tell you more about a person than you’d gather after years of knowing them—Ignighter profiles were spare. Few people had shared things like their ‘favourite childhood memory’ or their ‘worst date ever’. But a profile slot titled ‘about me’ was a telling glimpse into the personalities of users: girls were usually wordier and more open (“Hey i am a very fun loving person, i dont entertain people with bad temper and who are very egoistic. Wanna make friends who are sensible and who love to live life to the fullest”), while men were often terse, to the point (“Optimistic, Calculative, Social, Humour filled, Wit, Gadget loving, etc”).

Over the following weeks, I visited dozens of profiles: guys and girls, students and professionals, South Indian and North Indian, regular and mildly crazy.

Soon, along with a friend, I upgraded my Ignighter existence to “group”, which allowed me to start sending messages to both individuals and other groups. Many of them replied. All, with one exception, were men in their 20s. I began to chat regularly with some of them: a Delhi University student browsing around on several social networking sites, an advertising guy in Mumbai who spent all his day at work, a top-level IT executive in Gurgaon all of whose friends were married, an engineer in Nellore who lived by himself, a sales professional in Sonepat who had no friends—and, of course, Aditya Verma.

It was hard to figure out if Ignighter was helping Indian youngsters set up group dates—or dates at all—but talking to them made one thing clear: time spent on the site was a break from often crushing loneliness and unsatisfying social lives. For those feeling isolated and cut off, the site was so much better than Orkut or Facebook: anybody and everybody could be approached, regardless of whether or not you knew each other.

The number of young and lonely people on Ignighter was, in fact, overwhelming. Worse, the sexes weren’t balanced. In the course of the five months I was on Ignighter, I continued to receive an endless stream of unsolicited and desperate messages from men (“i m 23 handsome M frm mumbai wana b ur frnd,contact if ur intrestd”).

Hundreds of men were online to chat on Ignighter, at any time of the day or night. Huge numbers from each metro, yes, but their compatriots from smaller towns too—from Faridabad, Sonepat, Agra, Nagpur, Patna, Nashik, Jabalpur, Bijnaur, Solan, Nellur, Eluru, Indore, Ambala, Kudligi, Salem, Kapra, Bhilai.

They waited for girls to appear, any girl, even one. But the girls almost never showed up. They had a reason to stay away: those that turned up would be bombarded with messages, some of them outright sleazy (“play with me dear whole night”).

The men had good reason to be there. The website had promised it would help them meet girls. But could Ignighter tackle this mad rush of men desperate to grab the first thing they found? Ignighter, designed to catalyse fun interactions between young Americans, had run into a typically Indian roadblock. In its current set-up, the website was a glaring reminder of how, when it comes to romance in India, men and women are not on equal footing.

With a nationwide child sex ratio averaging at 927 girls to 1,000 boys (against the world average of 1,045 women to 1,000 men), there are fewer women than men in India. Women, in addition, marry earlier (47 percent of India’s women aged 20–24 were married before the age of 18), leaving a disproportionately large pool of single men in their 20s. The small percentage of women left, the ones delaying their marriages, are often choosier about men. And many young Indian men wouldn’t have much of a chance with them—because, as is all too apparent, a great number of men make all the wrong moves.

“We get a lot of questions on how to open a conversation, or how to keep it going—mostly like ‘I am trying to reach out to this woman, she is not responding, how do I get her to respond?’ Some coaching’s definitely needed in how to approach women,” Daniel Osit told me during his visit to Mumbai. “Right now, we have a person based in New York who answers these queries—but it’s a cultural thing, and it needs a knowledge base.”

Ignighter’s cultural ‘knowledge base’, it turns out, was embodied in a person named Tarun Davda. The company’s vice president and country head, Davda, 33, joined Ignighter in June 2011, and has since been working to create a roadmap for the website in India. He had a head start, the Ignighter founders assumed, in terms of understanding the culture—and he would combine that with his professional speciality: advising online start-ups.

Davda compensated for the Ignighter founders’ tentative approach with his unmistakeable confidence. He chatted as easily about the enclosing intricacies of small-town romance, as he did about the “demographic dividend” of a market like India. Before Ignighter, he had spent two years heading, a start-up that provided web business solutions to a range of companies and individuals. He was now looking for solutions to Ignighter’s current problem. “Online chat messages, there is a lot of that stuff going on. We have got feedback and we are working on it. At this point we are working to make the experience better for women.”

One of the ways in which the problem could be tackled, he said, is to add a paywall to the website. If it was no longer free, the logic went, then there would be fewer bothersome people.

WHILE DAVDA AND HIS TEAM were busy trying to develop a product that was Indian not just in name but in soul—a kind of Ignighter 2.0—new ideas and newer strategies were threatening to sweep the business of online love in India. One in particular was premised on preempting those very India-specific cultural challenges Ignighter was struggling to counter.

In early 2010, Arjun Sawhney, a branding consultant based in Delhi, was talking to a banker couple that had recently returned to India about the cultural shifts they had observed since they arrived and the scope for new businesses. The couple knew more and more people who were working and single; and many others were choosing to divorce, rather than stay in unsatisfying marriages. The idea that hit them then was a dating website for young Indians—but one that put women in control. All three of them had seen the success of dating websites in the West, and sensed that Indians were ready for the concept, too. But unless ways to overcome the unromantic realities burdening Indian romance were built in from the start, they felt the idea would crash and burn.

Arjun Sawhney, a founder of, sits at his desk in his Kotla office. Saywhney, who has helped brands like Louis Vuitton position themselves for the Indian market, is confident that an Indian-run dating website has a clear advantage over foreign ventures. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN FOR THE CARAVAN

The team’s opening statement read: “No other dating website in the world truly commits itself to India, to our unique tastes and preferences. We are not a mere extension of a site that is run out of the US or UK! We believe that this nation is ready for it’s own contemporary and cool website that tries to capture who we are and what we want.”

In mid-2011, after a year of working out the logistics and testing the product, Sawhney and his two friends launched, a dating website for “the emerging youth of India to find friends and love on a platform that was safe, vibrant and quintessentially Indian”. The branding was expectedly clever since Sawhney had 10 years of experience doing just that. Since 2001, he had run a company called TTCGGD (TCC, The Communication Council, a brand communication consultancy, and GGD, Green Goose Design, a graphic studio), which, among other things, worked to help brands like Louis Vuitton position themselves for the Indian market.

Sawhney’s office in Kotla is an imaginative two-storeyed space that is a little like himself: one part hard-nosed business, one part creative passion. The upper level (TTC) resembles a bustling advertising agency: fashionably-dressed girls are everywhere, carrying files and papers as they pass walls plastered with colourful notice boards and posters. Cabin doors open and shut as people pop in and out. The cubicled compactness of the upper storey gives way to the lower level (GGD) which, down a winding wooden staircase with no railing, feels almost atelier-like. Its spare interior boasts plenty of empty space, and in place of screaming posters are vintage photographs. This is where Sawhney, wearing a white shirt and blue-rimmed round glasses, sat in a small room on the morning on 21 November as a handful of girls in their 20s hovered outside.

“You see all these girls around,” he said of his workforce. “Young, smart, from all over India—from Modern School to public schools in Dehradun. They have come to Delhi to work, leaving behind security, family, community. Here they have to create a new network of friendship and support on their own.” Girls like these, he added, are datedosti’s target.

“We called a hundred girls from a Hindi-medium college in Delhi to understand their mindset. And these middle-class Punjabi girls, who probably went to government schools, said 95 percent of them had boyfriends. I am 40 years old. According to my experience, earlier if a girl said she had sex with a guy, oh my god, that was the worst thing on earth. Now, if a girl says she doesn’t have a boyfriend, it is considered strange,” Sawhney said, his tone characteristically solemn.

On, a man can only approach a woman by sending a system-generated message: “I like your profile, would be great to start a conversation”. A woman can either allow the man to further communicate with her or deny him that right. If she deletes the first message, his profile gets red-flagged, and he is blocked from contacting her again. If he is red-flagged twice on the website, his profile is deleted.

Sawhney said the website had rejected 10,000 profiles thus far. “My god, the men in this country, they can put up the worst things online. We are going to balance safety with letting people do what they want. You can’t become the big boss.”

The look of the website reflects Sawhney’s “fun-plus-safety” formula. On the homepage, a girl sitting on a big black couch in a polka-dotted dress and stilettos presses buttons on a remote control as different kinds of Indian men materialise in front of her: big-muscled dude, funky college kid, office executive and, just for the measure, an eager-looking Sardar. Animated girls pop up on the interface, dispensing nuggets of wise advice to men: “Why put up a fake picture of a Bollywood or Hollywood star, honestly, we know it’s not you”; “How many ways can I say I am not interested. No means No.”

Within two months of going operational, had 20,000 members. And if the profile statement of a 21-year-old girl from Chandigarh, who had just joined datedosti, was any indication, ‘fun-plus-safety’ was a good way to start: “Lets talk!!! If u r good looking and decent in behavior, I am ready for a chat.

Sawhney was confident that an Indian company had the easy advantage of customer trust—something a foreign company would take years to build. “A Bata has more chances of succeeding than Christian Loubutin. Do you know the brand called Christian Louboutin? Bata can open 5,000 centres across India against a single CL store in a metro.”

He was thinking of ways to maximise his supposed advantage, “We are now in talks with Airtel to cater to the young population that browses Facebook on their phones. The next thing would be ads on the dating shows on TV. Have you noticed how many have come up on TV? Think of the impact!”

His partner in, Ayesha Chenoy, a 29-year-old LSE-educated trade analyst, thinks a dating website is the perfect middle ground between Facebook, where things are too open-ended, and matrimony websites, where they are too specific.

Although they know they’re reaching for the same consumer base as the well-established Indian matrimony sites, neither Ignighter nor datedosti foresees any immediate competition for users. “People are here for dating and friendship, and when they want to get married, they might move over to the matrimony websites,” said Chenoy.

As the dating websites competed to meet the needs of what they considered an exclusive niche—young people who were putting off marriage—their matrimony counterparts were not just sitting back.

In 2011, the year Ignighter and datedosti were getting cosy in the Indian web market, was recognised as one of the most innovative companies of the year by the business media-branding platform Fast Company. It was the only Indian company on the list. The site has 20 million-plus users, of which 65 percent are men and 35 percent women; it boasts 1.3 million success stories.’s CEO, Anupam Mittal, who founded the company in 1996, says his company has got this far by keeping track of shifts in its consumer base, and adapting its service to stay relevant.

Matrimony websites have a R3 billion market, and half of India’s urban online population visits one or more of them. Having anticipated attempts by dating websites to breach their stronghold, the sector is bracing for the challenge with inventive changes in their strategies.

A family takes its turn on the stage at a swayamvar event organised by COURTESY SIMPLYMARRY.COM

In September 2011, the Times Group’s (India’s only metro-monial site) was relaunched. In a message to its users, it announced that it had redefined itself: from “just an online matrimonial classified site” it had become “an engagement platform where users would spend time discovering each other”. Added to the standard search criteria of age, location, caste and income was an option to assess a potential match’s personality by chatting, connecting on social media, and sharing music, photos and videos.

“We started only in 2007, but things are changing very fast with Indian marriage. Earlier, 80 percent of girl profiles were posted by parents, but now it is 50 percent. Everybody wants to find someone they connect with,” explained Nilanjan Roy, SimplyMarry’s CEO.

Within a month of the relaunch,, which hadn’t found much success up to that point, was ranked number one in terms of “user engagement” (the average minutes spent per visit) by the digital marketing research company Comscore. SimplyMarry scored 10.2, well ahead of, which scored only 8.

The website doesn’t intend to let go of its traditional clientele, but balance the personality matching with monthly swayamvars held at five-star banquet halls where, according to Roy, both families and solo candidates line up in long queues.

SimplyMarry’s mix-and-match business plan points, inadvertently, to a twist at the end of any story about young Indians and the options available to them: there are, really, no fixed rules. Regardless of superficial distinctions, it turns out there aren’t actually two different sets of people interested in dating and marriage services. The circles intersect and blur in a market analyst’s nightmare.

This February, Shilpa Krishnan, a 25-year-old journalist based in Chennai who had been in a long and fruitless series of relationships, gave in to her mother’s demand to consider a few suitable guys from, where her mother had posted her profile. After a round of phone conversations with various suitors, Krishnan picked one. But she had a condition for both him and her mother: She would date the guy she chose for a year, and only at the end of the year would she consider any further commitment.

Krishnan’s is hardly a one-off story. In the muddy waters of Indian romance and its online pursuit, it is typical to find active daters who aren’t averse to the choices on matrimony websites, and those seeking life partners also up for dating.

The only given in this market, with all its wild fluxes, is the core belief all of its participants share: that whichever website—local or foreign, new or old—best allows for the cultural inconsistencies of the hundreds of millions discovering the Internet is the one that will make it big, and make big money.

THIS JANUARY, Ignighter changed its name to StepOut. Its website had both a new design and a new philosophy: going out, meeting new people and having fun. On the homepage, the bride and groom were replaced by a group of trendy youngsters having a good time over golas, a popular street food. StepOut would help Indian youngsters meet new people, all kinds of people—not necessarily in order to find someone to date. Here, its new promos claimed, you could form “real life relationships” with interesting people who live close to you. The relationship could become love. “In fact, we dare say, that you might even find love here, if you are looking for it, that is,” read the statement from the founders.

Following months of research about dating in India, Ignighter relaunched itself as StepOut—and has a new look and a new philosophy. BIPLAB MUZIBAR RAHAMAN FOR THE CARAVAN

Ignighter had come to India knowing that it needed to Indianise itself. But to graft Indian traits onto something as quintessentially American as a dating service is exactly as difficult as it sounds—perhaps more so.

“We have changed our branding perspective, our positioning perspective, we were realising after months of research that people’s mindset here is very different from that in the US. There is still a taboo around the term ‘dating’, and by stressing on the idea of ‘relationships’ instead, which doesn’t mean just love and marriage, we can include people who are looking to just connect with like-minded people,” said Tarun Davda about the reinvention.

There are certain things, Davda said, that were indispensable for a dating website to work in India. “You need to get the girls, and you need to base it on trust and safety. Now it’s not just an online dating site, where anonymous people are whiling away their time. We are encouraging people to go out and meet in reality, which builds credibility of the website. We are introducing safety filters,” said Davda about StepOut, which was still being further developed.

There is no mention of group dating on StepOut. In fact, one doesn’t need to join the site as a group anymore. “We will remain a group dating website, but the term leads to some confusion among the consumers,” explained Davda. “Now, anyone can contact anyone for a date and invite friends across platforms like Facebook, Twitter, email.”

In the weeks following the rebrand, the conversion rates from Google and Facebook to StepOut had multiplied. Some of it might have had to do with its new ‘Indian’ look—a riot of green, blue, pink and red strewn across the site. Some, perhaps, with the softening of its earlier, American vibe: questions like “which Friends character you most resemble” and “what your group likes to do on a Saturday night” were now conspicuously missing from the Q&A section. Instead, to complete Ignighter’s desi-fication, the questionnaire now began with: “What is your religion?”