The enigmatic founder of Badoo has arguably done “more than anybody to redefine the way an entire generation now navigates sex, dating and relationships”, says The Times. Yet more than a decade after it was founded, Badoo remains the world’s largest social network you’ve probably never heard of, even though its global operations are run out of London. Visitors to its Soho offices are greeted by a screen showing the current number of registered users globally (more than 361 million). Its closest rival, Tinder, has just 50 million.
“Swipes, by the way, were invented by us,” says Andrey Andreev, 43. (The apps require you to “swipe” left or right depending on whether the potential date appeals.) He also lays claim to pioneering the use of GPS technology to help would-be lovers connect. Andreev, as a rule, does not give interviews, which may be why so many rumours have grown up around him.
Yet despite being described by Russian Forbes as “the most mysterious businessman in the West”, Andreev, worth £700m, insists he’s just an ordinary guy with no desire for “a big public profile”. He loves London – “Crazy town, I feel at home here,” he told Wired in 2011 – partly because it’s a great place to explore his other passion: good food. Andreev gets the best caviar shipped in fresh from Russia, and occasionally slips into chef’s whites at his favourite London restaurants.
There is “a twitchy restlessness” about Andreev. “I just drive. Drive, drive, drive. Nonstop.” It was ever thus, says Wired. Born Andrey Ogandzhanyants in Moscow in 1974 (he later changed his name to one easier to pronounce), Andreev grew up surrounded by electronic paraphernalia and built his own radio aged ten. His mother was a teacher, his father a mathematics professor, and they “encouraged me to learn”.
A few years later he put an antenna on the roof and began communicating internationally – a big step for a 14-year-old living in the Soviet Union, even if it was disintegrating at the time. It felt like “an adventure” and planted the seed for all that followed.
Andreev studied management at Moscow university, but dropped out to join his parents who had relocated to Spain. He launched several Russian-based web businesses, says Business Insider, including online advertising firms SpyLog in 1999 and Begun in 2002. He began “playing” with dating because “it just felt there was money” there, launching Mamba in 2004. Arguably the world’s first modern dating service, the site is still the most popular in Russia.
Two years later, he launched Badoo in Spain, originally planning to create a mainstream social-media site. “We were in competition with Facebook for two years before we realised there’s this big American monster coming to Europe” and decided “it’s better not to fight”, he told The Times. “So we changed direction.” The launch of the iPhone in 2007 proved pivotal to Andreev’s idea of creating an app-based version of a telephone dating café he’d stumbled upon in St Petersburg.
By 2012, Andreev was boasting he’d founded “the most profitable tech start-up in western Europe”, says The Daily Telegraph. Badoo “had become a phenomenon” globally, though it “barely registered” in the UK or US. Back then, Andreev vowed to crack those markets too – he still hasn’t succeeded, nor yet launched the firm’s oft-rumoured initial public offering.
Given growing anxiety about the Kremlin’s influence over Western social media, and a “draconian” crackdown on providers in Russia, Badoo now faces new headwinds, says the Financial Times. It “recently agreed to hand over all users’ data to Russian security services on request” – hardly the greatest marketing message. Still, if anyone can overcome these challenges, it is probably the irrepressible Andrey Andreev.