How do you solve a problem like Tinder ... and Bumble ... and OkCupid ... and every other dating app that has flooded the market the past 10 years?
Well, if you're Mark Zuppe, you create another one. His new app, Ona, recently emerged as the new millennium's mindful response to the 1990s phenomenon of database-centered dating sites. Inspiration came after years of watching his older brother get swept up in this decade-long fad. "He was on all these type of sites and has literally, over the past 10 to 12 years, been on every app possible," he said. "It became like a game for him."
In helping his brother, and many other friends, navigate these different apps as an unofficial dating coach, Zuppe realized none of the swiping, algorithms or cheesy pickup lines got to the core of the problem — that the issues may be within the users themselves. So, Zuppe took a different approach by making Ona the first dating app to focus on how to date, not who to date. The app does this by connecting users with dating professionals to help them on a path to self-discovery and growth. That way, when you do choose to enter into any kind of relationship, you're entering into the right one."
"If you don't know what your needs are, where your challenges are …you get frustrated," he explained.
“It's like a learned helplessness … It’s like this vicious cycle.” It’s like a dating app-ocalypse.
How can singles survive the end of the dating world, as our grandparents, parents, and that one aunt who asks those extra invasive questions about your love life, knew it? As anyone who's read Dante's Inferno knows, it helps to have a guide. "So we came to the conclusion, we know the experts are there," Zuppe explained. "There's dating coaches, matchmakers, psychotherapists ... to help support and guide singles, but the average single doesn't know they're available." They also don't know where to find them or, even when they do, if they're any good.
Lucky for Zuppe, his co-founder, Eric Berkowitz had worked with matchmakers and date coaches in the past. The key was figuring out a way to get them all in the same, safe space. They asked themselves, "Why don't we aggregate and have all these types of service providers in one app?" They imagined a one-stop-cyber-shop that offered text, voice, and video chat where singles could get personal one-on-one experience with experts.
Half-telecommunication, half-telemedicine, the concept for Ona can’t be categorized simply as a dating app. It might be more accurate to consider it a self-care app that happens to tout benefits for users’ dating lives.
While the app can only introduce users to matchmakers and other service providers, those matchmakers can then introduce two Ona users, both of whom have been vetted through the app's identity verification and background check process.
Zuppe hopes these extra precautions will eradicate some of the "stranger danger" inherent in meeting a digital suitor in real life. From an internal survey of about 450 participants, Zuppe and his team learned that roughly 70 percent of all men who wanted to use a free website did not want to do a background check. That only reinforced their desire to include one in Ona's sign-up process.
When Ona officially launched in February, after early adopters verified their identity, they could peruse through the profiles of dating coaches, matchmakers, stylists, and the like. Now, users can also see a specific service provider's offerings upon clicking on their profile, making it even easier for individuals to find the expert who can recognize and address their needs.
Because the whole point of Ona is that it's not about meeting the perfect person, but becoming that person yourself.
By "attracting the right kind of singles who are willing to make these self-improvement and self-help type of changes," Zuppe hopes Ona and its service providers will empower people to take control of their dating lives. Because "most people don't know what these services are," Zuppe explained, they may ask themselves, "Why do I need a date coach? Am I that bad?"
"But it's not about that," he explains. "It's the same thing as a personal trainer… It's not because you don't know how to lift weights or use a treadmill, it's just that they push you in a certain type of direction and you get much better results when they work with you."
One of those better results could even include deleting all the other dating apps.
According to Zuppe, most dating coaches and matchmakers "encourage everybody to delete the apps because it sets you up for levels of failure and superficiality that are hard to manage." Instead, Ona's service providers will ask clients what sort of qualities they want in a potential mate, and then steer them in the direction of social events, places, mixers to meet someone who fits their needs and wants.
For the app-happy, however, Zuppe says people can use Ona to augment their experience with another dating app, so long as they stay in control and conscious of their actions. Believing "it's really up to the individual," Zuppe says "the ideal goal" is simply to help Ona users feel empowered in their app dating life and not like "the app has control over them."
While Zuppe acknowledges that Ona isn't for everyone, especially those who are just looking to hook up or even just date casually, he says, "If you've been trying to have a serious relationship and you've been dating for five years, ten years, fifteen years ... and you're kinda still not getting it, it would absolutely benefit you to work with somebody."
"There's a lot that people need to learn and hone in on themselves," Zuppe says, reminded again of his brother. "My brother needs work. He's not a bad person; he's a great person. He'll make a great husband for somebody, but he needed ... to learn how to compromise and be a little less selfish in certain situations."
He sees Ona and other forms of telemedicine as “a good opportunity for self-improvement” because “you never know yourself as well as you think you do, right?”
Having an unbiased outside expert give you feedback on your dating life can be far more valuable than crowdsourcing advice from your best friends. Ona vets all its service providers, checking for emotional intelligence, and empathy, as well as making sure they adhere to their specific code of ethics. "There's something fun and gamified about asking your friends how to respond and so forth," Zuppe acknowledges. "But ... that only gets you through that instance." Your friends can help you get to a second or third date, but he asks, "How do you get through six months of a relationship?"
Ona aims to provide that answer and others to the many single people who have already sought help to survive the dating app-ocalypse through their one-of-a-kind platform.
Of course, only a month out the gate and in the app store, that aim extends far into the future. "Most dating apps ... their main goal is to get as many free users as possible and someday find a way to monetize that ... We're very different," Zuppe said. "It's not about getting a million people — I would love that for business, but that's not really the core. We really want to be invoke a social sort of change." He imagines a world in which someone in a small town in Western Massachusetts or Pennsylvania can — through text, voice, and video messaging — receive advice instantly from an expert in Boston, Philadelphia, or even farther.
With Ona, Zuppe hopes to achieve "not necessarily world domination" but a "a solution to create that social impact and that social change." Hey, if some mirror-selfie-taking dude is worth a swipe, it's definitely worth a shot.
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