When 24-year-old dating site founder Lauren Kay first proposed that single women be imported from New York to San Francisco to solve gender imbalances in both cities, she never expected to be a target for blogosphere derision.
"What's really interesting is all the blatant sexism: People equate a woman on vacation, dating, with prostitution," Kay says, referring to critics who've likened her idea to a mail-order bride service, or a bordello that trades in cross-continental flights.
And yet, a lot of East Coast bachelorettes seemed interested: A day after launching a crowdsourced campaign to set her plan in motion, Kay amassed more than $2,000 from women who'd gladly fly 3,000 miles to be paired with a Silicon Valley tech bro. Men in San Francisco donated a more modest $750 for the chance to be shipped back east.
Kay spun the aptly named "Cross-Country Love" campaign from her online romance service, the Dating Ring, which uses matchmakers to engineer group-dates of half a dozen people. The conceit is to bring luxurious personal service into an interaction that's facilitated by social media — an "Uber" for the romance industry, as Kay put it — that combines something very new with something very old.
"I've done a whole lot of online dating," Kay says, recalling the two grueling years of field research she conducted while running a babysitting agency in Brooklyn, where she lives. "Overall I found it took too much time." She says her clients' desire to leave fate in the hands of a matchmaker could be a reaction to the overabundance of choice that online dating begat.
"It's an understandable backlash," she says. "After scrolling through thousands of profiles, it's easier to just go to an expert and say, 'I want to enjoy life, I want to spend time meeting people.'"
Other romance-market entrepreneurs have, in fact, arrived at the same conclusion. It turns out that matchmaking has enjoyed a surprising Renaissance in the high-tech economy. A 2012 survey by the market research firm Marketdata Enterprises found 1,800 independent relationship brokers operating in the U.S., along with 250 brick-and-mortar offices run by "off-line" dating companies. Many of them charge $10,000 up front to cherry-pick a soul mate — roughly 400 times Kay's matchmaker booking fee.
"It's the new trend in apps," New York-based matchmaker Lisa Clampitt says, adding that most online dating services cut corners to make the service affordable. Namely, they deputize someone in-house — a tech employee, rather than a seasoned Yente — to give the personality quizzes and read the tea leaves.
That's fine if your purported goal is to set up a group-date configuration that works, or connect two dots between New York and San Francisco. But, Clampitt assures, a real matchmaker's burden is to coach, and coddle, and fix dysfunctional relationship patterns.
Granted, that might not matter to a footloose ingénue who just wants to find a new flame.