Feature: Jiayuan Founder Haiyan Gong: It’s Not For A NASDAQ Listing, It’s For The One.

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TechNode presents our guest column by Tracey Xiang, a senior editor at QQ.com, Tencent’s online news portal.  From this week on, Tracey contributes a weekly column Chinese In Tech on interesting characters in the China tech industry.

You must have heard stories about founders starting projects to scratch their own itch and then turning them into well-known businesses; such as, del.icio.us.  But how about setting up a dating site for yourself to meet Mr. Right?

In 2003, Gong Haiyan, 27, single, built a website, love21cn.com (later changed into jiayuan.com), to look for the one for life. One year later, she got married to a man met through her own dating site; eight years later, she made this online dating business a public company, the first one in China.

On May 11, 2011, Jiayuan.com International Ltd. got listed on the NASDAQ under the ticker DATE. As founder & CEO, holding 20.27% of the company in stake, Gong possesses about $70 million of wealth.

A business you may never think of starting with

Aged 27, Gong was a graduate student majoring in Media Business Management in Fudan University. She was searching for the one “to settle the lifetime issue”. Dating websites were emerging in China. Gong had signed up to several and paid for some. However, information from those sites wasn’t valuable to her.

“I said something provocative. I said I could do a website better than those.” Gong said in an interview. But back then, she didn’t even know that a website needs a domain name and servers.

She designed a frontpage after 20 self-taught days, grabbed someone at school to do programming, registered a domain name for RMB1,000 and set up one profile of a girl, who was also a Fudan student and Gong was acquainted with. love21cn.com and launched on October 8th, 2003  – In 2007, its domain name was changed into jiayuan.com which means good matches in Chinese.

In 2005, Gong was graduating from Fudan University and hunting for a job. Some interviewers said she needed to close the site if she wanted a job from them, while some persuaded her to run the site on her own. Gong took the apparent route.

Word of mouth brought over the first one thousand users, most of who were of “high quality” as they were from Fudan University and other famous Chinese Universities. And more and more were joining in.

Getting to know the first investor

What Gong also didn’t know in the early days was that running a website is such a “money-burning” business. She spent all her money, RMB17,600, on servers then.

One day in 2005, a mail from the United States reached Gong, offering 5 million RMB to buy her site. Gong took that offer as a temptation and turned it down.

After the offer drama, Gong got to know Qian Yongqiang, co-founder of New Oriental School. “We had a talk for one and a half hours”, Gong recalled in an interview.  Not long after that, Gong received RMB2 million from Qian with not a single agreement signed. Qian became President of the company, holding 23.13% of it in stake after its IPO.

Qian introduced another two key players from New Oriental School. The three input a total of 40 million RMB into Jiayuan.com. Later, Qiming Venture Partners, a professional investment agent, brought in new funding.  By the first quarter of 2011, Jiayuan.com has over 882,000 paid accounts, 40.2 million registered accounts, 4.7 million active accounts and about 300 employees.

Meeting Mr. Right through Jiayuan

Gong’s husband was one of the first members of her site.

Gong was busy dealing with floods of e-mails seeking for help from the site founder. There was this mail, in which a user recommended another male user to Gong.

After reading this man’s self-introduction, she felt something familiar. She realized this introduction was revised according to her suggestions after this man sent her an e-mail asking for advice.

On April 8, 2004, one and a half months after they met, Gong and her husband registered their marriage. Gong’s husband, a researcher at the China Academy of Sciences, resigned from his job and became a stay-home dad/husband.

“If you can meet 200 girls there, out of which 10 or something must be right for you.”

“We studied models of online dating sites in the US, who charge membership fees, tens of dollars per month. You cannot use any service if you don’t pay, so you have to leave. I didn’t think a site can work too well if only 10 out of 100 users pay while the other 90 leave. I wanted to design a model that everyone would stay”, Gong said, “So we designed the model.”

At jiayuan.com, you can send out as many in-site mails as you like, for free; but you have to pay 2 RMB for every reply, which in Gong’s opinion is not expensive at all. Of course in-site inbox is not the only place a user may come across charges.

Jiayuan held the first offline dating event, with 260 users showing up, in February, 2004. In 2010, they held 864 offline events and planned to hold 1000 in 2011. Everyone attending an event needs to pay RMB100 or so. Gong’s idea about it is, “you can meet 200 girls there, out of which10 or something must be right for you.” Revenue from offline events is a big chunk for Jiayuan.

In 2010, Gong decided to pull down all advertisements on the site and to make money only from users.

The company broke even in 2009 with RMB5.7 million in net profit that year and earned RMB170 million in revenue in 2010.

Serious dating website: Seeking marriage, not just dates

Jiayuan’s slogan is, “A serious dating website”, in which serious means, to a large extent, marriage. And that’s where Chinese would be happy to pay.

When asked what are the most important factors to a dating website, Gong’s answer was, authentic user profiles, considerable user data and users being seriously motivated. It’s for sure an answer for China market. It cannot be too far to say that a large number of Chinese who visit those websites seek  marriage.

Gong once indicated they would not consider changing the site into a social network or introducing social games.

What is telling is, in 2010, Gong invested RMB20 million into a new site, xique.com, which is targeted at marrying couples.

Every life has reasons to be a story

In March 1976, Gong Haiyan was born into a village in Hunan Province in central China . To help the poor family, she started peddling ice pops in junior middle school. 7 days after she received the letter of acceptance from the best local high school, a car accident happened and brought her comminuted fracture.

One year later she quit high school and opened a store, for she couldn’t bear to see her family struggling with the treatment expenses. Later she went to Zhuhai, a southern city on the sea, to work for an electric welding assembly line.

In 1998, she went back to high school classroom and enrolled in department of Chinese of Peking University, one of the top Universities in China. In 2002, Gong was accepted by Graduate School of Journalism of Fudan University.