I first tried online dating my freshman year of college, which was in 2001, in case you can't see my wrinkle. Now, as you may have noticed, I'm six-feet tall, and when I arrived at my chosen university and realized our men's Division III basketball team averaged five-foot-eight, I abandoned the on-campus scene and went online. Now, back then, online dating was pretty close to the plot of "You've Got Mail." You'd write long emails back and forth for weeks, before you finally met up in real life. Except, in my case, you'd realize you have no chemistry and so now, you're back to square one.
So, while online dating has changed a lot in the last 17 years, many of the frustrations remain the same. Because here's what it does well. It broadens your pool of potential dates beyond your existing social and professional circles. And here's what it doesn't do well: Literally everything else.
A few things you should know about me: I'm an action-oriented overachieving math and theater nerd, who ended up with an MBA. So, when things aren't working out, I tend to take a step back, apply my business toolkit to figure out why, and to fix it. My love life was no exception.
The summer before I turned 30, I took myself on a relationship off-site. Which means I went camping solo in Maine for a week, to do a retro on my track record of mediocre relationships. Because the thing was, I knew what I wanted in a partner. Kindness, curiosity, empathy, a sense of purpose. And yet, here's what I chose for online: Ivy League degree, six feet or taller, lives within 12 subway stops of me. It's not that I intentionally prioritized those things, it's just the easiest to vet for online. It kind of is like a résumé review, which is why these guys looked great on paper and never quite fit me.
So when I went back online in the spring of 2016, I decided to reengineer the process through some classic business tools. First, I went to OkCupid, because I wanted to avoid the gamification of swipe-based apps. And also, because I wanted a writing sample.
Next, I set up a sales funnel, throwing out any sense of my type, and instead defining the criteria that would qualify a lead.
An inbound message had to do three things: had to be written in complete sentences and with good grammar; it had to reference something in my profile, so I know it's not a copy-and-paste situation; and it had to avoid all sexual content. I figured this was a pretty low bar, but it turns out, of my 210 inbound messages, only 14 percent cleared that hurdle.
Next, I wanted to meet in real life as quickly as possible, because the things I cared about, I couldn't see online. But the research, and my experience, shows you only need about 30 seconds with someone to tell if you click.
So I invented the zero date. The zero date is one drink, one hour. With the goal of answering one question: Would I like to have dinner with this person? Not "are they the one"? Literally, "Would I like to spend three hours across the table from this person?" You tell them you have a hard stop -- drinks with girlfriends, a conference call with China -- it doesn't matter, they don't know you. The point is one hour. If it's awesome, you schedule a first date. And if it's not awesome, you downshift into entertainer mode and you workshop a few new stories for your next networking event.
Plus, because it's just an hour, you can squeeze up to three in one evening and then you only have to do your hair and pick out one great outfit a week.
The zero date also gave me a chance to see how they responded to me asking them out. I figured not everyone would dig my moxie, and I was right. Of my 29 qualified leads, only 15 replied to my message, and of those, six scheduled a zero date.
My first zero date was with a set designer. And we were both into yoga and preferred our bagels with peanut butter, so it looked pretty promising. But two minutes in, I could tell it wasn't going to be a thing and I was relieved not to be spending dinner with him. After that, I was a little nervous about going to my next zero date. But we had agreed to meet on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with a flask of whiskey to watch the sunset, and honestly, it was two blocks from my apartment. Plus, this guy had a podcast, I have a podcast, worst case scenario, we can talk about our podcasts.
Then, Chas set down next to me. And this kind and empathetic man told great jokes and asked even better questions. He was a lawyer and a writer, and his eyes twinkled when he laughed and they squeezed tight when I kissed him and at some point in the evening, our zero date became a first date. And two years later, we have a washer, dryer and two house plants together.
Now, I can't promise you're going to end up with house plants. But the point of this story is that online dating doesn't have to suck. Don't treat it like a game, and don't treat it like a resume review. Instead, use it to source and qualify leads and then get offline as quickly as possible with the zero date. Because the point of this isn't swiping. It's finding your person.
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