How This App is Helping People in Asia Find Love, One Swipe At A Time

Ng Jing Shen, the co-founder of Paktor, talks about the business of dating and more

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By Pooja Singh

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Five years ago, online dating wasn't really a "thing". The design was not appealing enough, some considered it creepy, and was rarely used. By 2015, it started becoming a trend. Several apps emerged, and even social media networks became dating hotspots.

In Asia, however, things worked a bit differently. Considering the relatively conservative culture in the region, dating platforms gained momentum slowly. But one thing was clear: the rising young, busy-looking-at-phone population was looking for love. Paktor was launched keeping this in mind, in June 2013. Since then, Paktor, best-known as a Tinder rival in Asia, has launched in 12 countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. It secured funding from investors like Yahoo Japan-affiliate YJ Capital and Singapore's Vertex Ventures.

Love games

The founders of Paktor are primary school classmates —Joseph Phua and Ng Jing Shen. After completing his MBA from University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and dumped by his girlfriend of eight years, Joseph returned to Asia to start Paktor. The app, however, couldn't handle the high volume of users and crashed. He then reached out to Jing Shen, a University of Michigan graduate, for help, who at that time was working with Amazon as a software engineer and was a part of the team that re-architected one of the world's first cloud computing services, S3.

"I took a look at what he had and told him that we would have to rebuild the entire app from scratch because whatever was there was not going to work," says Jing Shen, who is the chief executive officer of Paktor Group. Today, Paktor boasts of 15 million users, most in the 26-40 age group, with the bulk of them in Taiwan (4.8 million), Singapore (700,000), Korea (five million) and Malaysia (1.5 million).

Culture first

Presence in several markets comes with its share of challenges, fitting culturally being one of the biggest ones. Jing Shen agrees that dating is "extremely culturally sensitive". In Asia, he explains, "we have a mix of so many different cultures that differ in sometimes dramatic and sometimes subtle ways. Growing up and living in Asia, we understand instinctively that not all Asian countries are the same. It helps us respect the similarities and differences between the countries."

The local context and history of dating in each of the countries drive the way the founders have been developing apps for each market. "Paktor", for instance, is a Cantonese term for "dating" that will perhaps resonate most with users in Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia, but in Korea, since they don't speak the dialect, it entered as Swipe.

Despite the local flavour, it's difficult to overlook the stark similarities between Paktor and Tinder, starting from the swipe (swipe right to like and swipe left to pass). Jing Shen, however, argues that Paktor has its very own DNA—to foster personal and meaningful connections through a single-minded mission of connecting people in Asia through technology-enabled platforms. "We ensure high levels of localization in user experience to ensure that culture-specific dating nuances are captured."

What's more, to tackle the problem of fake accounts, the app uses a combination of crowdsourcing, machine learning and manual review. "We allow users to report others users who are fake or spammy. Those accounts which receive multiple complaints are automatically banned. In addition, we've developed and continue to develop algorithms-based on past spammer behaviour to automatically detect and ban bad actors," says the 34-year-old techie.

Going offline

Paktor's aim to find love for people in Asia goes beyond the app. In 2014, the founders launched its offline dating counterpart, GaiGai ("going out" in Cantonese), which specializes in matchmaking via its in-house matching system and personalization. "While dating can start online, it will always end up offline and synergizing the online to offline experience of dating leads to a superior experience," insists Jing Shen.

But do these matches lead to long-term relationships? Online dating presents the user a world of options and optimizes the process of meeting new people. Ultimately, it depends on individual app, where some are known for facilitating hookups, and some are seen as restrictive, Jing Shen says. "From what we see, a majority of Paktor users seek long-term relationships. We give them an extra push to start their connections on a meaningful note, such as getting users to start chatting within 48 hours before a match fades away or asking interesting questions to know the person better."

About the growth of online dating apps, he says, "Users are no longer limited to their own social circle and will get to know much more people than what they would normally be exposed to. Users are also better protected as they get to know the other party better in a secure environment before a physical meet-up." He adds that online dating caters to shy and reticent users, minimizing the stress of finding a date and increasing the fun factor.

Outside dating

Last April, Paktor merged with Taiwan-based 17 Media livestreaming service 17 Media, to form M17, a company focused on social entertainment. (Joseph Phua became the Group CEO of M17 after the merger.)

Entertainment and dating go hand in hand, says Jing Shen. "Having a good band attracts more people to the bar and the good music makes people want to spend more time in the bar. Coming to the bar more often naturally increases your chances of meeting new people. You never know where and when you find love."

Pooja Singh

Former Features Editor, Entrepreneur Asia Pacific


A stickler for details, Pooja Singh likes telling people stories. She has previously worked with Mint-Hindustan Times, Down To Earth and Asian News International-Reuters. 

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