Entrepreneurial alumnus gains thousands of users for innovative video dating app since its launch last year
You're never too young to start a business. That's the motto of 23 year old serial entrepreneur and Nottingham University Business School alumnus Sacha Nasan (Finance, Accounting and Management 2017), who co-founded the new video dating app Blindlee with his 21-year-old cousin, Glenn Keller. And it's something he's put into practice since his teen years.
Sacha was already an app veteran before launching Blindlee, having created his first app at age 15 after learning the fundamentals of iOS development by watching YouTube videos and reading books his dad bought him.
In February 2012, his first product, Currency Converter Pro, reached the No. 1 spot for free apps in Apple's App Store in Belgium (where Sacha is from) and France and within the top five in many other EU countries, leading to 63,000 downloads in one day.
After several years of testing out a variety of app ideas, Sacha launched his latest effort, which he described as "Tinder meets Zoom" - a dating app that connects strangers over a three minute blurred video call before initiating a match. Sacha and Glenn invested about $9,000 of personal funds and developed the app themselves before going live in the iOS App Store in October 2019 and releasing an Android app a couple of months later. The app has since grown from 6,000 users before the start of the pandemic to over 23,000 as of mid-May.
The idea for Blindlee was "to make the process more transparent and safer while bringing a refreshing element to the world of dating apps" said Sacha.
Blindlee works by pairing individuals based on select criteria - location, age range, and sexual preferences. A user is able to call another user that matches their criteria, and from there, the recipient receives a notification and the option to answer the call. In female to male calls, women control the blur level, and in same-sex calls, the person who initiates the call controls the blur.
To avoid awkward conversations, Blindlee prompts app users with icebreakers, such as "Would you rather have true love or win the lottery?" and "What are two truths and one lie about you?" At the end of the three minutes, if both individuals enjoy the call, they match and are able to directly chat with each other - unblurred - within the app.
Getting started in app flipping and development
After testing the waters with his first currency converting app, Sacha delved into 'app flipping' - which he likened to house flipping - where he bought source codes for existing apps as a framework upon which he could build and then resell his own apps in the App Store, while also being able to resell the source code.
Just as home buyers can take existing houses and renovate them in a way that requires less work than building from scratch: "This allowed me to build more complicated apps, as I wasn't advanced enough to build some things from scratch" Sacha explained.
At 17, he released another app, Talenty, which garnered national news coverage in Belgium. "It was kind of 'The Voice' in the form of an app where the concept was to create a network for talent managers to scout talents. This was too complicated for me to develop - social networks aren't that easy to create - so at 16 I crowdfunded the project and hired four developers to develop it."
From the publicity garnered by Talenty, Sacha was approached by individuals and companies in need of app consulting, which he took on on the side for a few years until he graduated from the London School of Economics in 2018.
Separately, his cousin started studying iOS development and began creating his own apps. In 2019, while Glenn finished school, Sacha approached him with the idea of working on a dating app. Within five months, the two had built Blindlee.
Bootstrapping through beta tests to fix bugs and prioritise key features
Because Sacha and Glenn developed and designed the app themselves, they had almost no costs going into creating the app. "However, there were, and are, ongoing server costs since video uses high bandwidth" commented Sacha. Some of their personally invested funds have gone toward these server costs and the legal expenses of creating a company and a company bank account.
While the app isn't currently being monetised, the team has longer term plans to develop a freemium model, where a paid version may be available (for about the cost of a coffee) with certain additional features. Outside of running Blindlee, Sacha also works full time as Head of Business Development for a tech startup and his cousin works full time as a software engineer.
They launched their private beta in August of 2019, running it for two months with 72 users who the co-founders found through various online communities for beta users. During the testing period, they ran experiments to find out the best length for a video call and received bug reports.
Since launching publicly, the team now turns to the "insightful feedback" they receive from users offering up suggestions. The two look at their major constraint i.e. their own time, and prioritise based on how often a feature is suggested.
"For example, in our first version we didn't have the ability to leave a videomail or to see missed calls, but these came up so often that we prioritised them as features," Sacha said, adding that the feature has helped with engagement. "Before the videomail feature was in place, most people would initiate a call and that was the end of it if the other person didn't pick up."
In the few months since they rolled out this feature, the company now sees about one video voicemail being sent out of every three unanswered calls.
Generating interest through PR and influencer marketing
For an app that's less than a year old, Blindlee has received extensive coverage in publications such as Vox, Maire Claire, and the Wall Street Journal. And that's not just by luck - it's been part of the team's strategy to pitch journalists directly.
Because the two have bootstrapped Blindlee, their marketing budget is basically non-existent. "As a result, we decided to try to get press coverage for Blindlee, which we thought would be possible given the concept." explained Sacha.
It's an approach he took before the start of the pandemic, and one he stepped up once he realised there would be a paradigm shift with dating app users switching to video dating because they wouldn't be able to meet physically anymore.
"As a result of some articles, we have been approached by a few incubators and investors," Sacha said, adding, "though we also have contacted a few investors ourselves."
Blindlee's strategy for standing out through their outreach emails involved some manual legwork. The co-founders research people to reach out to on LinkedIn and Twitter, then save each individual's public profile picture and blur it to demonstrate how the "blur" feature of Blindlee works. They then send the blurred picture as an attachment to a pitch email.
"Imagine receiving a cold email in which you recognise yourself in a blurry way, that is going to increase your chances of reading it," said Sacha. They've seen a higher reply rate using this method than their standard cold outreach.
Another approach to increasing brand awareness the team is currently working on is developing partnerships with YouTube influencers. They're exploring the possibility of teaming up with a singer with several million followers who's interested in setting up a promotional campaign for his album where he could go on three minute Blindlee dates with fans and the public.
According to Sacha, while many artists the co-founders reached out to were interested in being compensated, this singer "sees it as a promotional opportunity for him as well, so he isn't requesting monetary compensation."
A version of this article first appeared in Business Insider magazine in June
Posted on Monday 22nd June 2020