Meet the entrepreneur playing Cupid - but only for high-flyers

David Vermeulen's The Inner Circle wants to make online dating more selective.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 13 May 2016

Despite the financial success of the likes of Tinder in the $2bn (£1.4bn) online dating industry, there’s one persistent criticism. Users often bemoan having to sift through all manner of unappealing potential matches before stumbling upon someone they might want to strike up conversation with. Which could be why The Inner Circle has taken off so speedily – it’s a dating site and app that seeks to be a little more selective.

As the name might suggest, it's an ‘exclusive’, invitation only dating platform, aiming only for successful and ambitious members to join its ranks. Three of The Inner Circle’s seven employees pore over the waiting lists to determine whether you’ll make the cut. Essentially like a bouncer giving you a discerning onceover at the door to a trendy new nightclub. And the queue isn’t just around the block – the London waiting list is currently at 40,000.

Co-founders David Vermeulen, Michael Krayenhoff and Serge Samusya initially rolled out the platform in Amsterdam in 2012, and The Inner Circle now has networks in London, Milan, Paris and Stockholm. ‘We realised that the only way to grow but at the same time keep the high quality was to launch in more European cities,’ Vermeulen says. When the user growth slowed in Amsterdam – there’s currently around 40,000 approved members there – Vermeulen and his co-founders looked further afield. New York will be next on the agenda, taking the platform outside of Europe for the first time.

While the app is billed as elite and selective, Vermeulen decided to set it up because of a common problem. A long-term relationship came to an end and he did what many 21st century people do – ‘I registered for a dating site’.

‘What I found was that the site was more about getting as many people on it as possible and it was actually really difficult to find somebody on there,’ he says. Vermeulen decided the way to address this was to create a site with ‘more screening and more like-minded people’ who were interested in finding relationships. Staff doing the screening consider different aspects – the age of the wannabe member (the majority of those accepted are between 25 and 45), what people’s occupations are, their education and where they are based.

The Inner Circle is well-known for the events it holds for its members

The numbers to date suggest it’s a draw – currently the platform has 90,000 members across Europe, and since launching in London in 2013 the numbers have risen from 2,500 to 35,000. It’s subscription-based, free to sign up initially but you pay £5 a week if you want extra features. Vermeulen bootstrapped the firm himself and says it was profitable in three months. Turnover for its first year was £215,000. Two years later turnover reached £1m with a profit of £172,000. What makes the site controversial and divisive is also in many ways its main selling point. Nothing quite gets people’s backs up like a product or service marketed at being for a certain ‘calibre’ of clientele, but equally, people instantly want to be a part of such a choosey community. It’s a twisted form of validation, but it works.

Vermeulen notes that in London there have been more women registering than men at a 60/40 split. Apparently this is quite a common occurrence, though it was most significant in the capital. Female membership even had to be banned for a month late last year to even out the numbers. In fact, Milan’s the only city to date where more men are registered – whether it’s ‘a cultural thing’ or as straightforward as there being ‘more men living in Milan than women’, Vermeuelen’s not sure. That in itself though is a distinguishing factor. Some other dating platforms, have struggled to attract enough female users. Vermeulen thinks women ‘feel much more safe than with other apps’. tTe screening process adds a layer of security, however superficial, while there's also a Facebook-like feature of showing mutual friends with potential links.

A criticism which has been been directed at The Inner Circle as well as many other dating apps, is the inflexibility when it comes to sexuality – assuming heterosexuality and not allowing you to express a preference. Vermeulen acknowledges this and says he has two other similar concepts in the works, which provide the option for people to select different preferences.

Co-founders David Vermeulen and Michael Krayenhoff 

He’s also at pains to emphasise the plentiful press attention The Inner Circle has drawn to date isn’t just because of controversy. ‘It wasn’t only about the screening process, but also because it was a platform that really worked,’ he claims. The initial difficulty was ensuring enough people were on the platform to get it going. So whenever The Inner Circle launches in a new city, the team look for ‘well-connected people with a good network and we host drinks’, which often turns into dinners. When enough buzz has been created, they plan a big launch.  

Despite the plethora of events The Inner Circle puts on, aiming for new and exclusive venues to draw in its high-flying members, Vermeulen’s personal highlight is something much less flashy. ‘What I really like is that we receive baby cards, that’s really cool,’ he says, describing the numerous successful matches, and indeed marriages, he’s heard about as a result of the site. ‘When people leave The Inner Circle we ask what the reason is and a lot of times they say they met somebody,’ he adds. ‘A girl in London was chatting with a guy in Amsterdam and she had to go work there and now she lives with him.’

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