[The article previously put Ng Jing Shen’s designation as Paktor’s CTO. In the time that has passed between the interview and the time of publishing, Ng has actually been promoted to Paktor’s CEO. e27 has edited the article to reflect that]
The term “swiping left/right” has entered the lexicon to mean that someone finds another person attractive or unattractive. This can be attributed to the rise of ubiquitous dating apps, such as Tinder and Paktor.
These apps present a pool of potential romantic matches to users, who then swipe left on a person’s profile if they find them undesirable or right if they catch their fancy.
But while these mechanisms are undoubtedly intuitive, allowing singles to scout for potential romantic partners without having to dress up and hit the clubs or pubs (just one popular example), there is one question that needs to be raised: will these matches lead to healthy, long-term relationships?
Paktor’s CEO Ng Jing Shen seems to think so. In fact, he believes that online dating is far superior to the traditional way of finding potential partners, that is, via a workplace or school.
“The ‘class-size’ of the online dating pool is bigger,” says Ng says. And he has statistics to back his claims. On the Paktor platform, there are over 880,000 monthly active users, with 180,000 coming from Singapore alone.
The company currently has over US$52 million in its war chest, with notable investors such as Vertex Ventures and K2 Global as backers. Founded in 2013, Paktor now has a presence in 7 markets across APAC. Over the years, it has made several acquisitions, and even a merger, to bolster its business — essentially transforming it into a broader social entertainment enterprise.
Ng speaks to e27 on Paktor’s philosophy, technology subsidiary businesses, as well as its future plans.
Here is the edited excerpt:
First, tell me about your background. What did you do before joining Paktor?
I grew up in Singapore, then studied Computer Science in the US. Upon graduation, I worked for Amazon in Seattle.
After that, I came back to Singapore in 2012 and built my own startup. It was called ‘Restless Singapore”. It was a website where you could buy and sell activities — sort of like Groupon, but with no discounts.
Anyway, that one didn’t work out too well. So I knew Joseph Phua (Founder of Paktor) since we were 10. He was thinking of doing the Paktor (which is a colloquial Hokkien term for dating) idea and he came to me, so we decided to do it together.
What attracted you to the idea of Paktor? I know for Joseph it was to help him find dates, but what about you?
To me, I’m an engineer by nature. I thought it was an interesting problem space. Because the way I see it is before dating apps, how people meet their other halves is more or less by chance.
So if two of you meet in school or meet at work, you get thrown into your class or faculty or your job. Socially, it’s relatively random and I think technology can do a better job of matching people.
To illustrate, let’s say right you meet a friend through school, maybe the only thing you have in common is your PSLE score or your O’ level score, right? And maybe roughly where you live.
In the online world, we know much more about you. And the ‘class-size’ of people is also bigger. So I think on that basis, online can serve as a better matchmaker than the Ministry of Education or the workplace.
Tell me about Paktor’s AI or machine learning algorithm. How does it ensure quality matches for the user?
First, we use machine learning to check whether an image that is uploaded is of a real person, or is there is nudity, for example.
Another way we use machine learning is to figure out what kind of people you like. This is similar to Amazon or Netflix’s recommendation algorithm.
For example, let’s say you liked person A, B, C, D and E and a new user comes and likes person A, B and C. Because you liked the same three people as well, we will recommend person D and E to that user — we judge that you two have similar tastes. It is based on users’ reaction to each profile.
Another example is if you match with person A, B and C, but only talk to C, we will try to find profiles similar to C for you — this is based on their profile info, such as age.
Dating apps give people more control over their dating choices. But do you think that would make them pickier or more likely to just date casually without committing?
Not from what we see. The survey that the Singapore government did in 2016 actually showed that compared to 2012, more people dating seriously now. In 2012, it was 38 per cent and then in 2016, it was 41 per cent, so actually, there is a significant increase.
That is a good sign on our part. I think there have been articles that suggest otherwise. But from what we see in our survey data, and what we see in our own data, having increased choice leads to more matches not fewer matches.
From what we see, people who find matches on Paktor generally stay off Paktor after that. To us, that is a sign that is quite serious and long-term. And also for our offline dating service Gai Gai, quite a few are resulting in matches and marriages already.
I do understand the initial reaction: it’s just an app, so it’s casual. But I don’t think this impression or reaction is justified by the data. All the data that we have seen, have shown otherwise.
But how do you ensure users on Paktor actually engage in long-term relationships?
There are a few ways to do it. If you look at our marketing message, we never promote or try to encourage hook-ups. We actively try to discourage it because we think it’s still not socially accepted.
We try very hard to incentivise to meet-ups offline. For example, We encourage users to go to our offline events, we encourage them to go on dates and also send them recommendations on places to hold their dates. We also have a feature called ‘fading matches’, this means you have to talk to matches within 48 hours or else it disappears.
But it’s an uphill battle, because people are quite shy. So we introduced gifts, allowing users to send images to each other, which helps break the ice.
How do you localise Paktor to different cultures?
Our perspective on localisation — or rather culturalization — we think dating as a very culturally sensitive activity. I think each country has their own challenges and needs. When we go to each country, we will try to figure out the similarities and differences between the countries we are in and the countries we are going in to.
So, our feature sets for different countries are actually different. For example, in Korea, we had a feature that ranked the hottest people. This feature turned out to be more popular in Korea than in Singapore.
More people in Korea ended up using the app because of it because they wanted to see who was more popular. That feature was not popular in Singapore so we didn’t end up rolling out [officially] in Singapore.
Our marketing messages and content are also heavily localised to local festivals and seasons. Like Korea, we run summer events; we don’t run that in Singapore because it is pointless.
And the difference is not just across countries but across platforms. For example Android users, they react more readily to discounts, and guys and girls react differently. So it’s about customising to the platform and genders as well.
Tell me about the offline dating platform Gai Gai and how it complements Paktor.
Dating starts online but it ends offline. When we started GaiGai in 2013, people weren’t that accepting of online dating yet. Many who are looking for matches and dates still go to offline services. That was the genesis of the offline arm.
We don’t see ourselves as a purely online or offline company. Lessons we learn from the online platform actually feeds into the offline platform and vice versa in the way we conduct the business.
The largest Gai Gai event was in the USS aquarium where we had 300 singles. On a regular basis, we hold 4 to 5 events every month. There are several pricing models, such as à la carte and other dates package deals.
With Paktor making acquisitions in the social entertainment space, will it move away from just dating and diversify into other entertainment services?
For the near future, Paktor will stay focused on matching singles that is our core competence and our core product. We will add in elements of entertainment as a means to help people match up and not as an end.
We still want people to come to Paktor to meet new people. We don’t want to come to Paktor for entertainment. No, that’s not our goal. However, we do want to make Paktor entertaining enough to make it easier to meet other people.
Think about it like this: Some people meet new friends in bars and clubs but they don’t go there just to meet people; it’s because the drinks are good, the music is good, the ambience is good, etc. We are thinking of it from that angle.
So as we continue to develop Paktor’s user experience, we will curate more interesting, entertaining things — online equivalent of “drinks”.
A basic one would be playing games online. We know online games are a big category of entertainment, so we can engage our users in games online and through games meet each other. That is what we are trying to do with some of our gamification features.
Do you plan to release a slew of other independent apps, like mobile games, to help people meet?
Not in the near future. While we do think that any online interaction, games as an example, can lead to romance. We believe a more targeted and purposefully designed tool like a dating app has a higher success rate than if you leave it to chance, like a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG).
So Paktor as a company, we have a dating line and a live streaming line. The live streaming line is laser-focused on live streaming. We are taking lessons from both sides on how people get to know each other, and what people want to know about each other and apply these lessons to both business lines.
There will be more synergies in the future. It is possible to have live streaming features on Paktor. The way we see content is that text is the least engaging form of content, followed by pictures, video, then livestreaming.
So we think live streaming is probably the most engaging form of content out there right now. Whether we integrate live streaming tech as a tool to help our dating platform is a question for the future.
is Paktor planning to make any more acquisitions?
Not at the moment. The near future is about geographical expansion, building more services and improving current products. Korea is the furthest country we have expanded to. We have some presence in Japan, but because it is quite expensive, we need some bank first before we can comfortably enter Japan.
Any plans to raise further funding?
We can’t disclose. If we do it it will be more expansion.
What about going public?
We also can’t disclose — we can neither confirm nor deny any plans for that.
Image Credit: Paktor