Pia is the CEO and founder of Ohlala. One of the most controversial and interesting apps to enter a phone screen this decade (/ever).
I had a hugely insightful interview at Ohlala HQ to see how it’s all run. We chatted about how she started the business, being a woman in tech, increasing your productivity and how to launch, grow and fund your start-up.
Can you explain Ohlala?
Ohlala is fundamentally very simple. It is a web-app that allows users to book paid for dates they know will happen. Men create a date inquiry with a specific time and budget available. Women have a window to introduce themselves and start a chat. They confirm the details are okay and next thing they are already meeting offline face to face.
It saves messaging loads of people to get a response and then having to chat for ages before perhaps you might eventually meet. It’s quick and it’s simple.
It’s about providing companionship that will definitely happen and where the date goes from there is up to the couple on the date.
Where did the idea come from?
The idea for Ohlala didn’t happen all at once and was more a series of logical steps from an initial problem that annoyed me. It started on a crazy night out where I saw sex workers waiting outside in the cold to pick up clients. I thought this seemed so inefficient and from my business economics degree I thought I could make a better solution.
I then launched the app PEPPR where men could pay for sex. I wanted to solve the issues above but the app had issues with low reception from the sex workers, difficult marketing and the logistics of arranging bookings became way more confusing than I envisioned as a seamless user experience.
We found that our users were more interested in finding company than sex and but they wanted it instantly. The dating apps that currently exist require a large time investment before getting a date and matched users can often end up coasting and never get round to meeting. So I decided to quit PEPPR and launch Ohlala that allows uses to pay for a date that actually happens.
Other than the PEPPR failure have you had many issues?
Of course. We are a start up with a completely new idea. We still have issues with the app in Germany with the logistics of matching people and getting them to meet up as we give them a 24 hour window. In the US they have 21 minutes to agree and this is really instant and works much better and is what we will change the German product too.(Update, They have now launched the new product in Germany last week, 9th March 2016)
So has this impacted your life much?
Of course. I don’t stop working and basically live and breathe the business. I am insanely busy but somehow launching in New York has managed to increase that with my trying to work full time in two different time-zones.
I drink a lot of caffeine and skip out on sleep regularly. I actually made an executive decision to quit drinking which has really boosted my productivity.
Its funny that I never wanted to start a business or had any plans in my life agenda to one day run one. But I believe that we’re improving the dating scene and really love what I’m doing.
Wow that’s hardcore. How long do you think you can keep this up, do you have any holidays?
Ha, no holidays. I enjoy working full on and the company is really my life now. It’s quite social and I have a great team around me. I think I could commit at this level for another five years before taking a break and relaxing more. The beautiful thing is, if you love what you are doing – it doesn’t feel like “work”.
Has being a woman helped or hindered you being a tech start up?
I think due to the industry its been useful for Ohlala. There are less women in tech (but I don’t think that’s a good thing). We have a 50:50 split team here and it works really well. Guys are often more into just the tech side of the business wheras women are better at communicating and relating to the users and that has been really key in helping us grow. I have never experienced a downside in being a woman in tech. In fact, there is many short cuts I got.
I don’t see a lot of female tech leaders but the ones I do are really inspiring and work so hard to achieve their goals that there should be more of us.
Could you explain more about how you raised funds?
Yes. We raised EU1.7 mill from angel investors in Europe. This was a lot of effort and isn’t my favourite thing to do but it’s a means to an end to grow my passion. Half of the investors came from contacts of my mentors who have been so useful. Then we had great data behind us and could prove the opportunities any investor would be interested in.
With the success of the New York launch we will be holding another round of funding.
You’re first on the market but are you worried about competition?
It’s nice not having to compete but competitors aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They can enhance the market space by making more people aware of it, we don’t reach everyone. I’[m happy to compete and believe if a competitor to any business can come along and implement your idea better then they deserve to do well.
Ultimately we are just a start up and anything could happen but I hope that we will become synonymous with the idea of instant dating. It’s a growing market and ultimately others will realise this and compete for it. Just because you’re the first doesn’t make you the best but hopefully we will provide the best user experience and remain the leader.
What are your plans going forward?
We started in Berlin and have grown into other cities across Germany and have recently launched in New York as a base for expansion into the US. We are still just a start up but we are first on the market and have bold plans.
We are constantly learning and accept we make mistakes but we’ve fixed a lot of issues and have a much better product now. We are sorting out taking credit card payment and plan to launch into the UK this year as well as the growing in the US and Europe.
What have been the best influences on you? Do you have any book recommendations perhaps?
To be honest, I like books but don’t find business books crazy helpful. I’ve never had a moment where I’m stuck and thought ‘Oh let my grab book x to fix this problem’. My mentors have been so helpful for keeping me on track and without them I’d of had so many problems.
There are some founders I really look up to. Perhaps the best advice I can give to someone starting up is to talk to people at the same stage or one stage ahead of you who can relate exactly to where you’re at and the problems you’re going through. You need someone you can call at 3am and be like hey whatsup? A is getting me down, B is making me happy or C went wrong, what do I do!?