No Hanky Panky: SEAsia Apps Woo Investors with Local Expertise

By Aradhana Aravindan 17 July 2015

SINGAPORE — Manila office worker Catherine Anunciacion, 28, wanted new friends so she joined Peekawoo, a dating app made for women that emphasizes fun and companionship—and nothing more.

Peekawoo is one of several dating apps set up by Southeast Asian start-ups to cater to the millions of tech-savvy, time-poor millenials living in largely conservative societies where dating too often is frowned upon and casual sex is taboo.

Investors are also attracted to the apps’ potential in a region where consultancy KPMG says 60 percent of the population is aged below 35, and where incomes are rising.

Funding details are scarce, but Vertex Venture, a unit of Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings, participated in two funding rounds worth a total US$12.5 million for app Paktor, while Peekawoo has raised $100,000 from investors including Kickstart Ventures, a unit of Philippines’ Globe Telecom.

“Dating websites, like real estate and job portals, touch on a fundamental need,” said Justin Hall, principal at Golden Gate Ventures, which invested an undisclosed amount in Thai dating app Noonswoon.

“In Southeast Asia, there is massive potential.”

Homegrown apps hope their understanding of local cultural norms will give them a leg up over global rivals such as US-based Tinder, which has millions more users but which is seen as a conduit for finding sexual partners, as well as friends.

To allay female members’ concerns about unwanted advances at face-to-face meetings, Peekawoo initially offered chaperones on request and Singapore-based LunchClick makes checks to ensure its local users are really single.

“Our members have to know that this is no hook-up app and there is no hanky-panky,” said Zuraimie Ismail, the founder of Mat & Minah, an app for Muslims seeking to find a potential spouse on their own, and not through family matchmakers. The apps’ moderators remove photos that are considered inappropriate, such as women in bikinis.

But, like most apps, making money out of a service that is initially offered for free is a challenge.

Many apps are linked to user Facebook profiles, which makes it possible to roll out targeted advertising.

Some, like Paktor, the region’s most popular app with some 5 million registered users, offer in-app purchases: Members can buy virtual gifts to potential sweethearts, as well as tickets to singles’ events organized by the start-up behind the app.

Mat & Minah users pay to see who liked their profile while LunchClick offers a “love assistant” who, for a fee, will hand-pick potential dates. It is also looking into striking deals with restaurant booking apps.

“The dating business has never had an issue with making money,” said Singapore entrepreneur Joseph Phua, who set up Paktor more than two years ago to cope with his own heartbreak.

For many users, like Manila resident Catherine Anunciacion, the main appeal of these apps is their relative wholesomeness.

“Peekawoo doesn’t have the kind of vibe that attracts individuals who are looking for a hook-up,” said Anunciacion, who works for an international freight firm. “Interactions have been comfortable so far: no creep encounters!”