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It's not an uncommon scenario for start-up companies to radically shift their business models. In fact, more of them probably should change their focus but don't; they're so intent on following their original plans that they forget to listen closely and respond to messages from the marketplace. Happily, that's not the case for Ignighter, a Manhattan-based online group dating website that I wrote about in Upstarts! I recently checked in with founders Kevin Owocki, Dan Osit, Adam Sachs (pictured, from left to right), and discovered that the company has changed course dramatically. Here's how it happened:
The 20-something founders, graduates of the mentorship/funding program TechStars, started their business because they knew their generation found the whole concept of online dating and blind dates a little creepy. Their solution: a website where friends would register as a group, and then arrange to meet other groups that looked interesting. It was a way to meet new people and check out potential romantic connections in a safe, social, and unpressured atmosphere. "We were doing a lot of guerrilla marketing to get it going," says co-founder Adam Sachs. The founders approached local universities like Columbia and NYU to promote the site, and sponsored Meet-Ups to spark interest. With a good bit of effort, the site hit 75,000 registered users by the middle of 2009, a year after Ignighter was founded. And then a funny thing happened.

"With no effort at all, we were getting a significant number of sign-ups from India, Malaysia, and Singapore," says Sachs. "We thought it was interesting, but it wasn't our focus." That mentality didn't last long, however. As those registrations continued to increase, it became clear that the company was missing out on a huge opportunity. So the team decided to created a customized landing page for the Asian markets; they also tested some Facebook ads for the same demographic. "The response was amazing," says Sachs.

So what was going on here? As it turns out, the group dating model was a perfect fit in countries where conservative parents frequently lock horns with their more Westernized children on the subject of dating. "Group dating was a bridge between the generations because the dates were chaperoned by peers," says Sachs. "Every day, we get between 6-8000 registrations worldwide and 5-6,000 are from India." Sachs says an executive from InfoEdge looked at Ignighter's registration numbers and declared that only ten other companies in India have more registrations than Ignighter. They include Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, and Naukri.com, the largest job site in India

Sachs, Owocki and Osit certainly didn't set out to start an online group dating website with a focus on Asia, but that's exactly what Ignighter has become. The company now has 1.3 million users, a growing number of premium subscriptions, and is in the process of raising angel and venture money to fund expansion to markets like Japan, which requires a translated site.

For now, the U.S. part of the company is on autopilot. "With such a small team and limited bandwidth, we have to pick a horse and that horse is Asia," says Sachs. So maybe it does make sense to change horses in the middle of the race.

What do you think? Did the co-founders of Ignighter make the right decision? Have you ever made a dramatic shift in your market focus? Tell us about it.

Photograph courtesy of Ignighter.

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