Meet the French entrepreneur bringing romance back to online dating

Didier Rappaport's location-based app Happn focuses on chance encounters. Ooh la la.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 30 May 2017

So how did you two meet? That never used to be a difficult question, before the age of the dating app. Of course it’s perfectly acceptable now to say you met on or on Tinder, but swiping right isn’t exactly the height of romance, is it?

Yet the role of Cupid in the modern world hasn’t entirely fallen to the heartless matching algorithm. Happn is a location-based dating app that connects you to people whose paths you’ve recently crossed. The idea is that instead of replacing those serendipitous meetings so beloved of Hollywood (our eyes met longingly across the crowded room, etc etc), it just makes them easier, helping you find people you wished you'd spoken to, but couldn't quite muster the courage to do so.

‘The dating space was too virtual, you were seeing a kind of catalogue of profiles. What we wanted to do was reintroduce real life. These are the people around you, the people you just crossed paths with, right now,’ says Didier Rapapport, the serial entrepreneur behind Happn. It is, he says, all about reconciling the digital world with the real world.

Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs behind smartphone apps, Rappaport had a life and a career before the digital world. He started in his family textile business in France, before striking out on his own (‘I wanted to replace my dad, so I left after two years and started my own’).

His life changed in the early 90s, with the birth pangs of the internet. ‘I was fascinated when it started. From day one I decided to move in that direction, because I had the feeling that it would one day be the future. I told my business partner at the time that we should move to the internet, he said no, so I asked how much do you want for my share and left.’

His first digital venture was an online textile market, and he later became involved with the world’s number two video platform, Dailymotion, among other projects. Happn came about much later, in 2013, not because Rappaport was personally frustrated by the inadequacies of online dating (he’s married, he points out) but because he keeps his entrepreneurial eyes out for ‘painful issues’, which few with experience of online dating would deny it has.

Rappaport’s not one of those entrepreneurs who needs a crystal clear vision for the business when he starts, though he says you need to be aware of what your business model will be. With Dailymotion, for instance he and founder Benjamin Bejbaum thought the platform would be used by people as a way to express themselves, to be ‘actors of their own lives’. Instead, the users just uploaded TV shows and films.

‘When you create a business, you will have an idea, but that idea will probably not be the one you realise. The vision comes only through the work,’ he says.

Happn makes its money (revenues are not made public) by a mix of in-app purchases and advertising, and currently has 30 million users in forty cities around the world, including 1.7 million in the UK. Its biggest market is Brazil, but Rappaport puts high hopes on its recent launch through in India, with plans to go to China in 2018.

‘There are 150 million smart phones in India. The middle class is a few hundred million people, it’s the size of the US and European markets together. Not going there would be a big mistake,’ he says.

He certainly has no shortage of ambition, given the impressive list of western tech companies that have failed to crack these markets, which is why he’s going in through a joint venture.

Indeed, ambition is one of the things he says European start ups tend to lack, compared to the likes of Google or Facebook. ‘We need to create a strong European digital ecosystem to compete with these monsters, by helping companies not to be acquired but to grow and become worldwide. When a French company is sold to a US company, everyone’s saying "wow, we are very strong", but for me it’s bad, it’s a failure. We should have the financing to become huge.’

Rather than cashing out himself, Rappaport wants to keep growing Happn, at least while he feels he still has value to add. ‘You have people who like to create and people who like to industrialise. They are often very different people. I know exactly my limit, and when I reach that time I move, but I still have a lot to achieve at Happn first.’

Rappaport’s 3 top tips for wannabe entrepreneurs

1. On failure:  ‘Never be afraid to make mistakes, it’s probably the best way to progress. The most important thing is do not repeat the mistakes you’ve already made.’

2. On starting: ‘When I create a company I know I have to express clearly in a few words what I’m doing, it means I have to have a clear vision of what I want to put to market. And think from day one about the business model – it has to be sustainable and make you a profit.’

3. On expanding: ‘At Dailymotion we opened a lot of offices around Europe, then closed all of them. At the beginning, having the people in the same headquarters means they share the culture of your company, they really belong to it.’

Next: Meet the entrepreneurs taking pork scratchings upmarket


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