Building a global business: Lessons from David Vermeulen, founder of The Inner Circle
18 min read
22 November 2018
From working with glamour models to launching a travel app that rose then floundered, David Vermeulen's journey to launching The Inner Circle, a globally successful dating experience, wasn't always easy. He talks to Real Business about the lessons he learnt en route to success.
David Vermeulen isn’t your typical dating app founder. His business, The Inner Circle, is a dating app that has achieved cult status from London to São Paulo.
With this in mind, I cynically thought I’d be meeting an arrogant sort of entrepreneur who would barely tolerate my earnest questions.
Instead, I met someone who was unafraid to talk about the less glamorous tales of entrepreneurship and was willing to share the dirty underbelly of every failure and misjudged move along the way.
– And did I mention that he was self-deprecating and hilarious all the while?
Let’s hear about his ultimate success story…
- 1 The Inner Circle at a glance
- 2 From a disgruntled dater to a business founder
- 3 The Inner Circle vs the existing competition
- 4 An early wobble
- 5 Entrepreneurial mindset
- 6 Launching the Inner Circle
- 7 The lull after the initial growth
- 8 Learning from early mistakes
- 9 The unique digital/event fusion
- 10 Key USPs
- 11 Impact
- 12 Moving forward
- 13 Advice for other entrepreneurs…
The Inner Circle at a glance
From a disgruntled dater to a business founder
After a stint running the marketing department at FHM, the eponymous, ‘men’s magazine’, Vermeulen applied his experience in event management to a startlingly new idea. He sought to marry the worlds of app-based and physical dating to create an entirely new dating experience, and The Inner Circle was the result.
Like so many great founders, the crux of Vermeulen’s business idea came from personal experience, Vermeulen was looking for love himself.
Living in London in 2012, he was dating at the start of the digital love revolution and was trying all the different apps the internet had to offer. But they were high on user traffic, but low on quality user experience:
“I signed up to a dating app called Lovestruck, they had loads of ads in the tube at the time. They did quite a good job, but there were loads of random people using it,” says Vermeulen.
“I didn’t want to be contacted by someone called butterfly62, when it was actually a woman of 62 contacting me!”
After some less than enjoyable experiences, he challenged himself to try and think of something better.
“The bad dates were a catalyst for me, and the concept I eventually came up with, The Inner Circle, is based on filling the blanks that I encountered in the dating scene, such as being able to meet people you actually want to meet. Simply put, I wanted the focus to be on good quality people meeting on a good quality platform.”
The Inner Circle vs the existing competition
“What’s funny is that the website took traction in Amsterdam first, and then London. But the game changer came a year later when launching the app itself,” says Vermeulen.
“Tinder became a little like McDonald’s. It’s addictive and you want more, but as soon as you consume it, you feel sick.”
In 2012, digital dating was knocking down the doors of internet dating taboos and was taking over popular culture with a vengeance. But Vermeulen is adamant that people were already getting tired of the fast-lane lifestyle of the likes of Tinder. So The Inner Circle was created by riding this wave of digital dating yet upscaling the current experience with user quality:
“There was a big rush of younger users engaging in online dating, before 2012, it was reserved for certain types of people, it had a stigma to it. Then all of a sudden if you weren’t online dating, people asked what the hell was wrong with you!”
An early wobble
Like all great entrepreneurs, Vermeulen had tried and failed with a few ideas before. One of them was Sullivan’s list, a book and travel app.
“When I was creating Sullivan’s list, I went a bit too far with it, I was too enthusiastic.”
Although it did experience some success, (it was commended on the US app store) it wasn’t to last, and Vermeulen’s books gathered dust, “you know, I still get invoices about storage fees, and it makes me miserable every time. But I’m proud of that, it was part of my journey. We were handing those books out Inner Circle events, can you imagine that!?”
Vermeulen is a man of many ideas, but he has a process for sorting out the good from the bad:
“With The Inner Circle idea, I was literally not sleeping, so I thought, go on, let’s do it!”
“If I have an idea that I’m really enthusiastic about, I sleep on it for two nights. Basically, I don’t sleep,” says Vermeulen.
“If I find myself sleep deprived two days later, then I know it’s something I need to get out of my system.”
Launching the Inner Circle
Whilst many business founders on their first day of ‘going it alone’ find themselves staring at a blank page on their laptop, with no clients calling, and feeling like they want to cry, Vermeulen was experiencing jaw-dropping growth, right from the start of site’s launch:
“We achieved a €8,000 turnover during our first month. By our second, it had reached €23,000.”
Vermeulen credits easy access cloud technology as the catalyst for starting The Inner Circle, as all he needed was himself and his computer.
“Starting your own business has never been so easy. All you need is the internet and your own impetus, the worst thing you can do is not pursue an idea at all.”
Whilst all this was making The Inner Circle look like one of the most impressive dating app stories of all time, there was huge pressure for Vermeulen to manage this growth effectively:
“With the Inner Circle, people jumped on it straight away, they were curious. Although this was great, I was also worried, thinking, s*** how are we going to keep up with this?”
The lull after the initial growth
This spike wasn’t to last, with growth stabilising after the initial two months of launching The Inner Circle.
“Were there hard times at the start? Hell, it was ALL the time. This may all sound like one big success story, but it wasn’t”.
“That stage was too fast. With every launch in every city you make a lot of mistakes, and initially, we were launching across many cities at once, so we made a lot of mistakes.”
But Vermeulen learnt from the disciplinary lesson the stabilisation process taught him and thereafter pursued a ‘one city at a time’ process when launching The Inner Circle events in cities around the world.
Learning from early mistakes
“We took a step back and took it city by city. We worked with local PRs working with influencers who were not yet influencers, and that’s how we learnt, and the more we learnt the better we got at putting on these events in so many different locations,” says Vermeulen.
“We just didn’t have the manpower to cope with the great demand so early, and we learnt that it requires different approaches to put on events in different cities with variances in culture and pricing”.
“At our first London event, we had a free bar, big mistake. People went mad. They were ordering up to 8 G&Ts at a time!”
But the hardest lessons can make you grow, and that’s what The Inner Circle did, and these early setbacks resulted in the development of clearer and more unified strategies when it comes to running their events:
“Understanding cultural variances and how people socialise in different locations is something we’ve worked on and improved,” says Vermeulen.
“We now have a playbook that contains 4 different phases and 4 different ways to communicate our strategy when running these events, that include pricing, and the on-boarding of guests .”
The unique digital/event fusion
This is the most unique aspect of The Inner Circle, it fuses the easy usability of app-based technology with the ‘good old fashioned quality time involved in physical meetings.
“We always wanted do both. The idea for The Inner Circle was always going to be a platform for like-minded singles, not just online but in real life, to meet,” says Vermeulen.
“In London, we hold events at the Box, because Londoners are edgier and open-minded, but we wouldn’t do that sort of thing in Istanbul for example.”
“We started in London running events for between 20-25 people and now we host events for 800 people in London,” he continues.
“In our events in LA, everyone starts chatting with each other immediately, but in Stockholm, people need some drinks there, they need to loosen up big time especially the guys!”
So how did he get the vetted attendees excited about the events?
“We started building up momentum ahead of the events, establishing countdown and weather alerts for people within emails, for example suggesting they take the tube as it would be raining that night. These sorts of emails build up momentum as the time gets closer”.
“It’s still a dating event, so it’s scary as hell of course, but we try to make it as comfortable as possible for people.”
As well as their central team who are largely based in London, The Inner Circle also has what they call “ambassadors” who work on the ground throughout the city locations, who make sure the event aligns with each particular ecosystem and their subtle cultural variances.
Making their users proud of their content curation on their Inner Circle profiles is something Vermeulen values deeply…
“We’re more of a community. Not only do we encourage people to make matches, but you can also use the app to find the recommended restaurants, bars and clubs in your city or wherever you’re visiting. The idea is that you can see where other like-minded people on The Inner Circle are hanging out, and make your own discoveries. In this way, it goes beyond a simple dating app,” he continues.
“Bumble and Tinder are doing amazing jobs, but they have their specialities and so do we, for us, its the quality of the dating experience.”
The Inner Circle also welcomes non-paying members too, you can create a profile for free and use the platform, but if you want to see who’s viewed your profile, you’re then invited to buy a subscription, or recommend a friend to get it for free:
“If I live in Amsterdam, and I am going to London, I can use the app to see what pubs and bars people recommend.”
“People are willing to pay for quality, we were inspired by Linkedin, a company that uses that innate curiosity involved in wanting to see who’s viewed your profile to encourage users to buy their service.”
“It’s a little like foursquare, but the places are recommended by cool and like-minded people.”
As we stand, in late 2018, the demand for what The Inner Circle offers daters shows no signs of slowing. There are a staggering 1.2 million people on the waiting list.
But what Vermeulen is most proud of is the wall of baby photos that adorn the team’s London office, and are sent by couples who met on his app:
“That’s the most rewarding aspect about what we do. This is why we have always premised quality as a key aspect of our brand, it’s about the quality of the person, and their genuine desire to meet someone and start a relationship. It’s not about quality in terms of money or status, it’s about the actual person.”
Vermeulen and his team are looking to expand The Inner Circle even more, but they must be ready for the growing pains that are sure to come:
“This and last year we’ve experienced massive growth, and that’s where the challenge lies, namely upscaling the business yet keeping up that quality of user experience at the same time,” says Vermeulen.
“We have a really great team, and that’s what we do well. We have 7 colleagues working from home screening users to ensure that like-minded and quality people use Inner Circle. We’re also big on automation to help speed this process up.”
“At the start, we had 50-80 new users a day, now we have 4,000.”
But the most surprising thing about The Inner Circle is the small size of the team compared to the brand’s vast global outreach:
“We have a really small team, with one colleague in Ukraine, and 8 full-time employees in London, in all we only have 12 full-time employees,” says Vermeulen.
Advice for other entrepreneurs…
When I ask Vermeulen this question as our conversation comes to an end he offers up the words of an author instead:
“Have you ever read The Tipping Point? It’s by Malcolm Gladwell, he describes how some brands suddenly spread like fire, and most of the time it starts with a small group of people that are really enthusiastic. That was the same with us. In London, a small group of people in Shoreditch started using Inner Circle. Today, we see the same in our new city, São Paulo, hopefully, the same thing will happen there”.