When online matchmaker et3arraf closed its second round of funding this week, CEO Cedric Maalouf was ecstatic. The Arab “marriage-oriented” dating website attracted attention from angel investors and venture capital firms, and received term sheets from investors who weren’t even pitched.
Calling it a “good problem,” Maalouf is waiting for his lawyers to weigh in, but thinks he’d prefer angel to VC financing: “We still decide everything about the site and I am not sure if I want to share it with someone yet.”
Et3arraf lays claim to being the first Middle Eastern dating platform, “for Arabs, by Arabs, in Arabic.”
“We think we are successful in countries where cultural constraints make it difficult for singles from opposite gender to meet,” say Maalouf and his co-founder Rakan Nimer.
The idea for et3arraf was borne from a heartbreak Maalouf suffered in France. “I came back to Lebanon and I had the idea that it is really important to find someone that is close to your values, your principles and what you stand for,” he explains. “I realized that there was nothing like this for Lebanon or the region. “
He and Nimer met at a tech mixer, and agreed that marriage websites were an untapped market in the Arab world.
“There is a cultural constraint between genders [in the region],” Maalouf says. “They cannot easily meet and interact. And at the same time, there is a lot of social pressure for young people to get married at a certain age: You are 30? You are not married? You should find a wife.”
Conceived as something similar to OkCupid or eHarmony, the cofounders say et3arraf uniquely preserves “the cultural constraint” for conservative Arabs, while giving users the chance to interact and meet more like-minded matches. It’s a recipe they say results in more successful marriages.
Promoting successful marriages might sound lofty, but in conservative countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, young singles are challenged to find a mate. “There is no concept of dating in the Arab world,” says CTO Nimer. ” In conservative Arab countries, one of the main ways to meet someone is through your family—maybe your mom introduces you to someone. There is limited interaction between a man and a woman.”
Some et3arraf features that preserve this “cultural constraint” include anonymous profiles and withheld contact information, restricting users to messaging only their matches, and “progressive intimacy sharing,” in which a user’s photo is blurred until they choose to share it. The founders say the site’s success is based on the “fact that we respect the privacy in the beginning.”
Active for nine months, et3arraf has already spawned a few marriages. With a small marketing budget, the site soft-launched on Valentines Day 2013 with a goal to win 15,000 registered users. It netted 40,000 within three weeks. Without any advertising since April, et3arraf’s user-base has grown to 56,000. It is most popular in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, followed by Jordan and Morocco. Eighty-four percent of users say they have met at least one person through the platform.
Based on an “affinity matchmaking quiz,” et3arraf recommends up to 40 matches, 10 of whom are active on the site at the same time and 30 of whom are considered to be the most compatible. Inspired by eHarmony and Match.com, but frustrated by the questions those sites ask users, Maalouf and Nimer worked with a Lebanese psychologist to create a personality quiz tailored to Arab cultural concerns. “[Non-Arab sites] ask you questions like, ‘What do you prefer on a woman’s body: her eyes or her boobs or her ass?’ This is the kind of question you cannot ask of an Arabic audience,” insists Maalouf. Instead his site deals with, “the real problems that they are having-—liberalism, conservatism, religion, responsibility in the couple, kids.”
The quiz uses psychology to determine suitable matches based on questions about social attributes, individual attributes, couple attributes, and personal attributes, as opposed to the kind of person users might think they want. “We use the psychology behind your answers to figure out what the best match for you really is,” says Maalouf.
Religious preference is the only exception. “Unfortunately in the region, religion is very important. We know couples in Lebanon that were in love and weren’t able to get married because of religious differences. So, imagine more conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. It is too important of a factor to ignore,” he says. “Most people want to meet someone not only of the same religion, but of the same denomination of their religion.”
Et3arraf was developed during Lebanese accelerator Seeqnce’s first and only acceleration program. “The first couple of months at Seeqnce was just pure 16-hour work days minimum, coding, coding, coding, just churning out code,” recalls Nimer. “It was a very, very stressful environment, but it was good. We needed that.” Today the founders and their team are developing new features such as a recommendation system. Similar “logic that builds Amazon’s algorithm will be used to suggest other users,” explains Nimer. Working with Zahi Karam, an MIT-trained electrical engineer, they expect that the new function will be finalized by mid 2014.
Nimer needs more data to prove it, but says interactions between men and women on the site often seem to mimic real life in the Middle East. “Men will take the initiative of sending messages for many women, while a woman will be waiting for messages to answer,” says Maalouf. As for the site’s impact on the cofounders’ status? Still single but, they joke, that’s “So that we can understand our users. We have a lot of options.”