Ross Williams: How dating turned up the ideal business model

Ross Williams started designing websites while still at university. When that proved unprofitable, he started his own online dating site, which became the model for thousands of others.

At 18, Ross Williams was delighted to be accepted onto an RAF fighter pilot training scheme. But "when they started to describe the planes as mobile weapons platforms I started to have doubts". Nine months in, he realised he would have to pull out of the scheme. "They were not happy." The RAF withdrew the bursary and Williams found himself studying a degree in French and psychology, and short of cash. His solution? "At the time (1999) it seemed obvious. Everyone was getting caught up in the dotcom bubble."

He began to design and build websites for small firms based around Plymouth University. His firm, Rawnet, grew fast and he took on his first employee while still at university. "I found I was better at the sales side of things than the technical work, so I employed someone to help me with the programming." By the time he finished his studies, "there was lots of demand and in a couple of years I had 20 staff". The only problem with the business was that "it wasn't profitable". Rawnet had annual sales of £2m, but was "living from project to project". So in 2003, he decided to set up a dating website.

"Online dating was becoming more popular with loads of sites springing up I looked at them and thought I could do better." He had to finance the new site,, with credit cards. "At the time I didn't think about the risk, I just wanted to see if I could make it work." With "new dating sites setting up all the time", Williams realised he would have to do something different.

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He decided to make the software program that used available to competitors for a price. The service,, was "a platform for brands and individuals to power their own dating sites". It proved a shrewd move new entrants to the market saw Williams' site as a quick way to get up and running.

"The beauty of the business model was that anyone using our platform became our partners. They would market their brand while we would handle the site, the customer service and, most importantly, the subscriptions." The revenue sharing agreement saw Williams take 30% of each partner's sales.

At the time Williams even found himself using his own product. "I had split up with my girlfriend and thought I would go online to find someone. It definitely helped me improve the business." Based on his own experience, Williams made the database more detailed, "making it easier for people to find their perfect match". He also beefed up his customer service team.

The changes worked and Global Personals the holding company for his dating services was soon making more than Rawnet. Williams sold his controlling stake in Rawnet to a senior employee and decided to concentrate on dating. In the last three years more than 5,000 online dating sites around the world have partnered with Global Personals. "Online dating has really taken off. It is a lot more mainstream and acceptable than it was a few years ago." Global Personals now employs 80 staff and generates annual sales of £20m. Williams is already looking ahead, "The new trend is for niche sites, such as" a dating site catering specifically for anyone seeking a ginger-haired partner.