“Dehumanizing. Exhausting. Painful.”
These are just a few words that I have heard when my peers describe the current online dating scene. The words I wish I heard more?
“Exciting, Romantic, Promising.”
Online dating has become increasingly normalized, with a nearly 20% increase in year over year usage, but a survey from data analytics company Singles Reports concluded that approximately 80% of respondents experienced emotional burnout with online dating. A recent New York Times article highlighted the influence of dating apps on an individual’s mental health.
As a therapist, I am very concerned when someone asks me, “using apps almost always makes me feel worse about myself, but what other options do I have?”
Although the concept of matchmaking has been around for centuries, the idea of a matchmaker is often associated with an archaic method of setting people up for marriage, tailoring to an elite group of people, and charging enormous amounts of money, sometimes in the thousands of dollars, for a single match. My mission behind creating Pairfect is to make dating more personal, so that anyone seeking a meaningful relationship can find one. In other words, our goal is to make matchmaking, a deeply personalized service, more accessible and more affordable.
At the intersection of social work and business
Before coming to Wharton, I studied Psychology and Economics at Yale and worked in management consulting. While I first embarked in graduate school here at Penn with the intention of combining my interests in mental health and management, I did not arrive with any intention of formally pursuing entrepreneurship.
Once at Penn, I became fascinated with the current state of online dating. I was convinced there had to be a better and more personally rewarding solution. At first, I invited peers whom I knew to fill out a quick form so I could create matches among them myself. I pulled in my friends to then ask their friends, and we would make matches among our combined pools. The process was slow and manual, but I realized how much people appreciated the personalized efforts to support them in their dating journeys.
Word began to spread, and I started receiving requests from strangers to meet with me and share their dating preferences in hopes that I could match them. I relied heavily on the skills I gained through being a peer counselor and social worker: active listening, asking open questions, and building trust. Now, Pairfect’s team has grown to 11 matchmakers who have backgrounds in social work, clinical psychology, or marriage and family therapy, and who actively devote their time to individually meeting with new Pairfect users.
An ancient tradition turned new again
Since Penn’s founding, there have only been a handful of dual-degree MSW/MBA students, and I am the first student in over a decade. The dual-degree curriculum is structured so that the first year is devoted solely to the social work program. I spent my second year in the business school, and my third year in a blend of both. I am often met with surprise when I share that I study business and social work. Many wonder what I plan to do with that combination, believing that the two areas could not be further apart. Throughout my first year, I similarly questioned what this intersection would mean for my future career.
Now, I’m here, and establishing Pairfect as a business would not have been possible without the support of Wharton and Penn’s Venture Lab. I am especially thankful to David Hsu and Mark Zod, who are two professors who shaped how I approached Pairfect’s strategy and improved my ability to define our mission and deliver an effective pitch. Additionally, as a participant in the Venture Lab’s accelerator program over the summer, I consistently met with Jeff Babin and John Ondik as advisors who connected me with leaders in the industry, such as Elie Siedman, the former CEO of Tinder.
I was honored to be chosen as a finalist in the 2023 Venture Lab Start-up Challenge, which opened the door to being a finalist in another pitch competition hosted by Contrary Capital and Maveron. My experiences as a Wharton student have demonstrated how Penn’s reach extends far beyond University City.
Pairfect and the perfect match
One of the most exciting realizations since creating Pairfect is that we are able to support people’s first steps in entering into long-term relationships. Since launching, we have had over 1,500 graduate students sign up and have facilitated in-person dates at 12x the average rates of what dating apps are currently observing. Being a proud Philadelphian myself, I am thrilled that Pairfect has several local partnerships with restaurants and bakeries to provide first date suggestions and discounts for our users.
Pairfect has changed the paradigm, moving past the negativity associated with using dating apps. A 29-year-old man using Pairfect’s services expressed the following about the type of experience we have created:
“With dating apps, I’m not always sure that the people I talk to have the intention of actually wanting to meet me. With Pairfect, I felt more certain that I would actually be introduced to someone genuinely interested in meeting me.”
Moving forward, we will continue scaling Pairfect across Philadelphia to include more graduate universities and move beyond the graduate student population. Our goal is to become Philadelphia’s go-to matchmaking service and ease the burden on users who pursue online dating.
Creating Pairfect has been the most meaningful experience I have had since coming to Wharton, and it was only through the people in this community that I was able to build this service. Thanks to Wharton and the School of Social Policy and Practice, I am able to realize my dream of creating something in this often misunderstood intersection of social work and business.
– Annie Xu
Posted: February 8, 2024