Filter Off: Changing The Way We Date Online During The Pandemic And Beyond With Zach Schleien
Online dating has been in existence ever since the early days of the internet. It has relatively low barriers to entry, which means it is a very competitive space where it can be hard to stand out. Filter Off did just that right in the middle of the pandemic when every single person was forced to do much of their dating from home. Breaking away from the tiresome swiping and profile-centeredness of most dating apps, the new platform helps its users find their matches through an innovative speed dating model. The company is still pre-revenue, but its future looks bright. Listen in as its co-founder, Zach Schleien joins Mitch Russo to give us a closer look at how he and his partner bootstrapped the platform to phenomenal growth in a relatively short time. As someone who is passionate about bringing people together, Zach is extremely proud of this product that might change the way people date forever. For singles listening out there, you know what to do after this.
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Filter Off: Changing The Way We Date Online During The Pandemic And Beyond With Zach Schleien
Welcome to this moment in time when you get the chill–out, tune–in and extract wisdom that you can use to grow your business with your first thousand clients. If you are reading and have a business that’s in need of some love, some revenue and profits, then I want you to grab my latest new product that’s called Profit Stacking Secrets. It started out years ago as a new client assessment that I used all these years to assess where my clients are before I even start working with them. It basically became more and more detailed with more and more ideas and instruction on how to create incredible marketing programs. There are 28 strategies inside the Profit Stacking Secrets book and I’m going to give you the first three for free. All you’ve got to do is go to ProfitStackingSecrets.com and fill in your name and email address and it’s going to be on its way to you.
Now on to my guest and his incredible story. If you are an entrepreneur who has started and restarted businesses in the past and had challenges getting them to grow, then you want to stay tuned because my guest spent nine years trying to start a successful company and failed every time, but the last time, things were different. Learning from his past mistakes, he tried something completely different this time. He started with his passion first, then found the perfect business for him to build, and he decided and it worked. Finally, it had helped him get to where he’s been after almost a decade, a successful thriving startup in a space he believed in. He’s here to tell us the story of how Filter Off came into existence and the lessons learned the hard way as we sometimes must do. Fair warning, you’ve got to be single to play his game. Welcome, Zach Schleien, to the show.
Thank you so much, Mitch, for having me.Filter Off gets rid of the endless swiping of most dating apps and brings you face-to-face interaction right from the start. Click To Tweet
It’s my pleasure, Zach. I’m very intrigued by what you’re doing and I even went online to check it out. I did sign up for Filter Off and we’ll see how many dates come rolling into my account in the next few minutes while we’re on the show. Zach, let’s take a step back here and tell us the story of how this all started for you.
I became entrepreneurial in college. I originally wanted to go to law school and fell into a tech startup pitching at one of my college classes. I found my business partner and that startup was called BeginU. It’s a website that connected college students to internships and other projects while they’re in school to build real-world experience. We found the developer in school as and we became very close. Long story short, one of the founders had a very perfectionist mentality of never wanting to release, and that tore the three of us apart. It was hard. It was like being in your first relationship and thinking you’re going to marry the guy or girl. Running that first startup was my identity. I thought that was going to be the thing that I was going to make millions of dollars off of. I would have financial freedom and independence and it would help so many students around the world. Unfortunately, it failed and it was tough.
They say that perfection is the price of bankruptcy. I’ve been there, I’ve built three software companies over the years. The first one was basically an amateur hour. I didn’t know what I was doing. I started with zero, but we did end up finding our way. Like you, we were able to keep expenses low. At one point, we were making $200 or $300 a week and we could survive on that. Before it was cool, we were basically working out of our houses, and in this case from my garage. Here’s the interesting thing. I was the perfectionist in the group. My programming partner was an 80% to 90% guy.
Once it was 80% to 90% done, he would say, “Let’s get it out there. Let’s get some help as to figure out what’s going on.” I said, “No, this thing isn’t right yet. It still doesn’t do this.” That was around when we had our first little bit of disputes going on, but we both compromised. He did get the few things I wanted to be done. We did get it out but ultimately, he was right because as soon as we got it out, we started getting great comments from our power users. That’s what kept the whole thing moving forward, which was fantastic. I can definitely identify that with that. When you finally came to the idea of Filter Off, and you and your partner got started doing it, how long did it take before you were able to release something that was even workable?
The first version took probably about five months and we released it to friends and any people in my phone book or on Facebook. I reached out to everyone. In the early days, so this was in our beta, for our events, I would text people, “Can you join tonight?” It was because I wanted to get twenty people to attend.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what the app does and how people would use it?
Filter Off, it’s a video speed dating app. You sign up, you can select if you’re a part of any organization or community in that. If you’re not, that’s okay too and you can scroll and see different events, whether they’re in your city or if they’re through your community or organization. When you RSVP to an event, it’ll be added to your calendar. About an hour beforehand, Filter Off will send you a reminder to confirm for that night. Once you confirm your attendance Filter Off will start scheduling your dates based on your age preference and gender interest, and they are video speed dates.
When the date begins, let’s say the event begins at 8:00, your first date is at 8:00, you press Start Date and you go into a face-to-face video chat. There’s no swiping in this event and after three minutes, it’ll ask you whether you like each other or not, and then you move on to your next date. You may have seven speed dates that night. At the conclusion of the event, you’ll see if you have any mutual matches. If you are matched with someone, you could then message them or video call them again on Filter Off.
The whole premise here is that we’re going to have an event and the event is a speed dating event. You are selected based on age range. Are you also selected based on geographics?
Yes. If you are, for example, in New York City, you’ll see the New York City Date Night, you’ll see New York–based events that are through communities. Some of those community events would be private, so you have to be part of the community to join. We also have some themed events as well like a vegan singles event, runner’s events. Some are very localized and we also do run some national and global events as well.
How big has been the largest event that you’ve had on the site?
Close to 780 people attended, and that was super special. In the very beginning, and it’s important to share, we had an organization that joined that brought a number of users. In the very beginning, it would crash our app. He wanted us to pressure test the app. After the third time, my cofounder redid a lot some of the backend infrastructure and API calls. I don’t want to get too technical, but he made it super efficient and now, it’s humming. It was getting something out there. Luckily, we had an organizer that was very cool with trying and it helped us grow to where we are now.
The average person in a city like New York or where I live here in South Florida, if I put Florida in as my location, I might end up having to drive 24 hours to meet the person I dated. Even if they’re in Florida, I’m at one side, they’re at the other. Is there any way to get it more localized than that?
We’ll have like a Miami Date Night and Orlando Date Night. We do have city-based events. If you aren’t able to attend an event, we’ve run many events. If you’d prefer to date on your own time, we also do have a matchmaking service that pipes in all your preferences and we have an algorithm that’s built out. It’s also based off of the radius that you prefer as well. We send you three curated dates every day. If you’re a fit, you could then go on a video chat with them as well.
Zach, I mentioned to you and I don’t even know if the readers know this about me, even my longtime readers. I started a dating app in 2005. We took something like you did. You took a real–life live thing into the virtual environment. We did the same thing. We brought a contest online where a single female, or it could be a male, but in this case, a single female would basically ask a series of preset questions, which she would design to a group of seven men in the room. She gets to rate their answers from 0 to 10 in real–time. The ones with the highest answers were filtered to the top, and she would get to choose whether she wants to receive their email address or not.
The name of that business was called GottaFlirt.com. At one point, we had almost 300,000 users, registered people to the site. Eventually, after investing almost $500,000 of our own money, we decided to basically shut it down because we couldn’t get it funded. I believe we were a little too early because, within a year, the Facebook gaming environment took off. If that were around, if we were still around when that happened, this would have been a huge hit on Facebook games, but that’s how life goes. We all moved on and all had other successful careers as well. Zach, let’s talk a little bit about your business because it would be instructive. I know if I’m reading this right now, I want to know what your business model is. We chatted a little bit about that but why don’t you tell us what your thoughts are on how this company will make money?
Right now, if you want to opt into the matchmaking service or participate in events, they are free. Some organizer events are paid. If you want more than let’s say three dates a day, we will have a premium model for our matchmaking service. The goal is, “Let’s continue to build the best product. Let’s keep learning. Let’s grow this thing,” and we’ll turn on that pro model fairly soon.
Will it be a different price for a different level? There are lots of options here. It’s a freemium model, just like many others have shown to work well. Build the base, get one million people on board and then 2% to 3% will pay, and that will start the real money flowing in. The other thing, of course, is all of the services that you could offer that go with this particular service as well. There are lots of opportunities for upsells here. You could do coaching for men and women to help them find better dates. There are many things.Coming off as a subject matter expert is always a good approach before building a thriving company Click To Tweet
What I want to do now is I want you to talk a little bit about what it takes for someone to take a business from 0 to 50,000 to 100,000 users in a relatively short period of time. What does it take to do that? I know one of the tricks you’re going to talk about, which is very important to me, is generating PR. You did some pretty amazing stuff with this in the early days. You were able to generate newsworthy pitches that ended up on national news. Go back and tell us the story about some of that.
We got out of beta a few weeks before the pandemic. In April 2020, the pandemic was raging, especially in New York where I’m from. I started pitching national news publications about, “We run this virtual speed dating up where singles can date safely and be socially distant.” Every journalist wanted and was looking to cover something around the pandemic. The New York Times ended up picking us up and it grew our user base. It was very amazing, a special moment. Soon after, we also got covered by the BBC, so that allowed us to grow in the UK. It’s been special. I continuously shift the pitches based on current events. With the election, we ran a Republican and Democrat date night.
We were having different themed events. I was like, “This is great. Democrats can meet other Democrats, Republicans can meet other Republicans. I pitched the national news,” and that was one of the worst campaigns I’ve ever run in terms of open rate. About a week later, I get an email and they say, “I was forwarded your email. I’m running a piece about Republicans dating, whether they talk about their political leanings with their potential partner. Can I interview some of your users and cover your app?” I look at the email, it’s The New York Times. We got covered again by The New York Times. I believe in the power of PR, and it also builds your confidence and you continue to leverage it. As I continue to pitch other publications, I say, “You may have seen us in The New York Times,” and that does help as well.
Talk a little bit about your experience when it came to building relationships with individual writers. Did you need to do that? When I was involved doing stuff like this, it was the key to my success. How about you?
No, these were cold. My background is not in PR. I just taught myself but I basically get journalists that cover that beat. For example, like in my case, the topic would be anything around tech, lifestyle and dating. Whoever’s reading right now, whatever company you’re working on or service you’re offering, identify what the beat is. What types of journalists are interested in covering? You could do a quick Google search maybe on your competitor and see the types of people. I get a long list of journalists, then I reach out and I write a punchy subject line and A/B test those and a pretty concise pitch. Sometimes it works really well.
Let’s contrast that to one of the things that I teach in my Profit Stacking Secrets Program. One of the things that I teach is to do a little bit of research beforehand. It may be similar to what you said, but my idea is to generally target journalists who are already covering a topic that we want them to talk about our stuff, whatever that may be about. Is that part of what you described? Are you looking for journalists who cover the particular area that you’re talking about?
Exactly. They cover that specific beat. For example, I won’t reach out to someone who does oil and gas.
Unless you want to have an oil and gas group and see who shows up. The other thing I was going to ask here is that one of the other things that I have found to be useful in my work with PR is before I send the pitch, I like to get familiar with what the person had already written. I will read through 2 or 3 pieces. If I find a consistency of any thread, I would mention it in the cover letter. Is that something that you do too or is it just spray and pray?
I do pull in the parameters like their company name. I have done campaigns where they’ve written about dating apps in the past and I’ll pull in the article title. It is important to curate it. Instead of saying, “Hi there,” use their first name and use it a company name. The more custom you can be, obviously the better. You don’t want to come off as spammy in any way or generic. I do believe it is a numbers game.
One of the other strategies that start to work well once you are known for a particular thing is that you become an expert or a spokesman on that topic. In my business when we were in the software business, in particular, we were in the legal software business, so anything regarding legal technology, I became an expert in and I was able to help people who had stories. If I couldn’t be the source of a story, I would happily refer other people and sometimes even competitors to them and help them out. I know if I helped them out, that would come back later. Is that something that you don’t need anymore? That’s what I used to do. I don’t know in your case.
I’m honestly coming off as a subject matter expert, especially before you build a company that’s thriving, it’s a good approach. Getting some quotes. Also, there are resources like HARO, Help A Reporter Out, and reporters are looking for specific subject matter experts as well.
I’m glad we had a chance to discuss that because it is very important. The other thing is that you did something that was unique. You wrapped your business around the current times, so you didn’t say, “We got a new dating app. Come over and check it out.” You said, “How to date during the pandemic.” You automatically positioned yourself as an expert in an area that was relevant to right now. Now that the pandemic is old news, how are you doing that now?
Still coming off as a subject matter expert. For example, there are many dating apps that are now adding a video feature. I do give a quote of why that still is the old paradigm of online dating in some of these pitches. What I say to these journalists is, “I could cover the following,” and I give about three different bullets: How online dating has changed during the pandemic, and the video dating feature and how that still doesn’t promote connection and trust, so things of that nature. Also focusing on the event side of things. As I mentioned, we ran that Republican and Democrat Date Night. We have other events coming up as well that are exciting. Reaching out to publications and journalists that cover that beat that may be interested.
When you say that it’s the old paradigm and you’re the new paradigm, what proof do you have that you are and that it works?
As someone who’s been an avid online dater, and I’ll give you some data too, but I was so sick of swiping. You’re familiar with marketing, it’s a long funnel. You have to swipe, then you match and then there may be a drop-off there. You message and you exchange phone numbers, and then you text and then you finally meet them. They’re long funnels. Filter Off basically cuts out all that by 90%. We bring you face–to–face. That’s our core tenet is face-to-face interaction. Pre–Filter Off, I was inspired to reach out to people over Facetime, MyDates, and that’s what inspired me to build Filter Off. It promoted connection. You’ve got to see if you had chemistry and a vibe with someone. To give you some stats, since we launched our beta, we’ve created four marriages, we’ve created over 200,000 dates. It’s been successful in that sense as we continue to grow. People are finding love constantly on Filter Off.
Four marriages, that’s pretty cool. How long has the app been up and running?
Since the pandemic, in terms of the beta. These marriages, they’re a little bit more religious as well. We gave them an opportunity to find someone of their own religiosity. I do have a story that I would like to share. One of our users is wheelchair–bound and he would use dating apps and unfortunately, people saw him for his wheelchair. With a traditional swipe app and how I mentioned the old paradigm, you’re basing it off of their photos and maybe a little bit of their bio. They would look at him for his wheelchair. He tried Filter Off and it was the first time where they no longer looked at him for his chair but for himself. He was able to get matches because he was able to video chat face-to-face and they both liked each other and he’s had success. There are many things I didn’t even think about when I built Filter Off. It’s such a nice story and great things that came out of it that I wasn’t expecting.
I guess you’re getting karma points. If you’re not making money, at least that. Here you are now, you started this approximately a while ago. You already have tens of thousands of users. You’re pre-revenue, as they say. Let’s talk a little bit about expenses. What does it cost to start a company from zero and grow it in terms of outlay? How much outlay do you need to do that? If I’m reading the show for the first time and don’t know much about what we do here, this is exactly what we do. We interview CEOs like Zach. In fact, I want to make this clear. We’re talking to Zach Schleien. He is the Founder of an incredible new company and it’s all about how to find another person. It’s called Filter Off. Zach has some very special stuff he’s going to be talking about later. We have a link to a very nice gift, which Zach will be telling us about later. Zach, what does it take financially to have an idea, launch it, test it and see it grow?
Whether it’s a technical product or maybe you’re offering a service or maybe you’re offering a food product, it’s on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to Filter Off, it is a very technical application being that it’s video. Fortunately, I have an amazing cofounder who is extremely talented. It’s been successful in that sense but again, it’s a case-by-case basis of what you’re building.
When I was doing quite a bit of venture investing myself, one of the things that I would look for before making an investment is, I was looking for companies where the founders have bootstrapped completely and are not looking for investor money to pay them a salary. That sometimes was difficult conversations–wise. They say, “We’ve got a great company and it’s growing quickly. If we don’t get some money in here, we both got to go take jobs.” In my belief, and I could be callous after having made over 25 different investments in companies, here’s what I’ve come to see. Those who say, “We need to raise some money. We need to grow the company. We’ll take care of ourselves during the pre-revenue phase but as we start generating revenue, we’ll probably start with a small salary then.” That to me is far more attractive. What do you see now? Is that something that people can do or do you think it’s important that people try to get funding and take a salary at the same time?
For us, we both have day jobs, so we don’t have to be reliant. We’ve been bootstrapping Filter Off since we started. We brought in a small amount of revenue from some organizations as well, so that helps with some of the costs. Costs are very minimal. As we continue to build and we’ve had some interests from VCs but when we do successfully raise, we would go full–time and we would take a salary. It’s on a case-by-case basis for us.
What advice would you give to anybody who would like to get a company going and like you, do it after hours? You work your full-time job and then you have your new gig and the company that you’re building. What advice would you give them in preparing to begin this process?If you’re always in your head, you’re never going to be on the court. Click To Tweet
It’s not easy. What’s most important is to try. If you’re always in your head, you’re never going to be on the court. You just got to try. Oftentimes, what you see is you have an idea and then a month later, it flames out and that’s okay. Just try it. It’s important to be strategic and smart, versus let’s say you’re making a nice salary and you’re feeling secure and you say, “I have this amazing idea,” and maybe you don’t have a big network. You decide to quit your job and go full-time, it likely adds a ton of stress. Obviously, everyone’s financial situation maybe is different, but it may add a ton of stress as you’re not bringing in money, you have a lot of pressure on yourself. Try on the weekends, in the evenings and see where it goes and go from there.
Zach, I’ve got to ask you, have you gotten a date yet? Have you met the woman of your dreams?
Not yet, but my cofounder did say if I meet the woman of my dreams, I get married on Filter Off, he’ll pay for the wedding, so I have that covered.
You can have the wedding challenge as a contest. It would be interesting to see, that would be cool. Zach, at this point, we do move on to the next phase of the show, which talks a little bit more about you from a different perspective. This is what I mean. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. Please answer them spontaneously and as honestly as you can. This will help us all get to see what you’re like inside. Is that okay?
Here’s the first question. Who, in all of space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quiet lunch or an intense conversation with?
I think his brain is fascinating. I read the Walter Isaacson book. He may not be the kindest person but he’s so intelligent, and how he thinks is so abstract. I think it would be an incredibly fascinating conversation.
I’m going to set that up for you but before I do, you’re going to need to get your questions in place. What would it be some of the questions you would ask Mr. Jobs?
I would be curious how he sees the future of a number of different companies, aside from Apple or Tesla, from a very macro perspective and how he sees the world. I think to get inside his brain would be fascinating.
He would tell you how he sees the world and you have now 49 minutes left to your lunch, what’s the big question that Steve Jobs might answer for you and change your world?
Knowing what I know of him, it would probably be around how he sees things. A new way of looking at things, like a different paradigm. Seeing where technology is and now there are very immersive video apps and audio apps. Social networks are not like Facebook where they are very passive and you’re not talking to someone face-to-face. Where you’re seeing technology is it’s becoming much more connected and you’re being more vulnerable and you’re learning. It would be interesting. Hearing him, who knows, maybe you would have a different way of looking at things that I haven’t even seen and the beauty is like the paradigm shift of technology.
I’d love to hang around with you guys when you’re chatting too. I’d love to hear that conversation. Here’s the grand finale, and this is the change the world question and it’s very simple. What is it that you’re doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
When it comes to dating and romance, the goal is to have people feel connected and for them to trust one another. That’s what’s been lacking in this world, whether it’s from apps or meeting spontaneously. To be able to build a platform, and that’s what we’re doing, and I believe we’re changing the way people online date. Bringing people together that are like-minded, that are part of different communities that are excited about the organizations or the communities they are a part of. To meet other like-minded singles that they would have never met before in an authentic and deep manner. Video is truly the best mechanism to do so. Maybe five years from now, that will be VR, but to bring people together and facilitate deep, romantic connection, that’s the goal. That’s why I’m doing it.
Zach, if you achieve that, you will have changed the world because the bottom line is that if any way we can improve our human relationships, any way we can meet the right people faster, more efficiently, then by all means, that’s a world changer for sure. Zach, I understand that you have something very special you’d like to offer my readers. What would that be?
If anyone is part of a community or part of an organization, whether it’s even a Facebook group or you’re part of a church or part of a vegan organization, you can run a free virtual speed dating event on Filter Off. We’ll let you know how many matches or dates you created and things like that. Our goal is to empower you to run these events, and you can even sell tickets and bring in revenue and we don’t even take a cut. I’m happy to offer that to your readers.
Zach, how can people get ahold of you if they decide to take you up on that?
Our website is GetFilterOff.com. On the header, if they click Run An Event, they can do so through that page.When it comes to dating, the goal is to have people feel connected and for them to trust one another. Click To Tweet
Zach, before I let you go, one of the last questions I have for you is a very simple question. How do you know when it’s time to sell the company? Do you have an end game in sight other than, “I want to make a lot of money?” If I offer you $10 billion right now, you’d say yes, but if I offered you $150 right now, you’d say no. Is it only money that you think about when you look to sell? Where is the next big reason here for you?
You see this on tech acquisitions. Until it happens to me, I don’t know, I’m just theorizing. I would imagine if a company who had an amazing infrastructure that was able to say, “If we were able to give you X, we could bring you so much further than you could do it alone.” That’s a dream. The goal is to bring people and make people feel connected on a human romantic, deep level. If there’s a partner out there that can bring us that much closer, yes.
Zach, you have been awesome. Thank you so much for your time. Readers, go over to Filter Off on your phone and sign up and start dating. Thank you, Zach.
Thanks so much.
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