Badoo Branches Out

Russian serial entrepreneur Andrey Andreev is the founder of Badoo, one of the hottest and most valuable Internet companies in Europe and one of the fastest growing social networks globally.

Badoo is modeled after Mamba, a popular online dating service that Andreev launched in Moscow more than six years ago, yet another example of Russia’s growing influence on the global Internet (see stories on pages 6,7, 8). Mamba attracted venture investment and quickly grew to one of Russia’s largest dating sites by partnering with major portals such as Mal.Ru, Rambler and KM.ru, among others.

Andreev sold his shares in the domestic dating service for an undisclosed sum after just 18 months, moved to Spain and, using a similar business model, founded Badoo, which first became popular in Southern Europe and South America and then spread like wildfire across the globe. The company, which now runs global operations from London, has surpassed 139 million members worldwide—a 62% growth from this time last year–and is now planning a big push into the U.S. and Asia. Some 125,000 new users sign up every day, helping the company rack up over seven billion monthly page views.

The service, which appeals primarily to people aged 22-34, lets people search online for members of the opposite sex living in close proximity, view their photos and profiles, and, if they choose to do so, arrange to meet up off-line.

Badoo’s impressive growth is partly due to its  ‘freemium’ business model. The majority of the services available to users are free. But many users choose to pay a small amount to increase the visibility of their profile.

The company, which is being courted by some of the biggest names in venture capital, now has over one million users paying for premium services each month. These ‘pay for promotion’ features and other revenue streams such as subscriptions are currently generating more than $100 million in consumer spending per annum, giving the company a rumored valuation of over a billion euros and stoking talk of an initial public offering.

Like clients of Mamba, some of Badoo’s members use the service to hook up with strangers for sex.  But the bigger opportunity is to create a wider service around social, mobile and proximity services. To that end, Andreev has hired Jessica Powell from Google and Bart Swanson, a former Amazon executive, to broaden the focus and reposition the brand.

“I don’t believe you can or should bother trying to fool people that your product is something it’s not,” says Powell, Badoo’s chief marketing officer. “ Do people date or hook up on our site? Sure. But they also do a lot of other things. I think that’s what we need to achieve–show people the bigger picture of what we’re doing and what still could be done–not pretend that we’re LinkedIn or Facebook.”

While Mamba is exclusively about dating, Badoo wants to have a wider focus.  “In the longer run we want Badoo to be the place to meet new people in your local community in a fast and efficient way,” says Swanson, the company’s chief operating officer.

At Le Web, an annual Internet service in Paris organized by Loic and Geraldine Le Meur that attracts some 3000 key industry players, Badoo will be touting a new “icebreaker” service that allows people with the same hobbies and interests–-like chess or listening to Lady Gaga–-to find each other locally (see screenshot).

While dating websites have used shared interests to successfully bring people together, Badoo claims to be the first location-based social network to enable people to meet  for all kinds of reasons.

“What we want is for the site to do a really great job of giving the right environment for people to interact even if they do not know each other,” says Powell.

Andreev was inspired to create Mamba and Badoo while sitting in a St. Petersburg café that placed telephones on every table. Diners were able to scout the room for interesting people and call those at other tables that that they wished to meet, says Powell.

Part of  Badoo’s secret sauce is that it zeros in on that same desire to  connect with someone interesting who is in close proximity.  “There is a fundamental human desire to make social connections with other people,” says Powell, “and that is what Badoo taps into.”  Mobile is key since a local, immediate connection is central to Badoo’s appeal. Badoo is currently available in 35 languages in 180 countries via Badoo.comand various social and mobile platforms like iPhone, Android,  Facebook and Blackberry.

But Badoo has to be localized to mimic the offline world and social mores of the countries it is targeting.  “The way we position the product in Spain may look too sexy for Japan or the U.S.,” says Powell, who says she is adding “an American, female” perspective to the shaping of Badoo’s products. “The next big thing is getting the product right for the U.S.,” she says.

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