A former president at musical.ly (now known as TikTok), Alex Hofmann has already done something that seems impossible: He helped build an app that could compete with social giants like Meta, YouTube or Snapchat. After ByteDance acquired musical.ly for around $1 billion in 2018, Hofmann left the company to become an investor, but he soon decided he wanted to make apps again. So, Hofmann founded 9count, the parent company to apps like Everland, Helpline, Juju and the friendship-making app Wink, which has millions of users.
"There's a trend that I observed in China that a lot of tech companies there don't just build one product, but multiple products," Hofmann told TechCrunch. He noted that a company like Meta grows by acquiring apps like Instagram and WhatsApp, while Twitter continues iterating on the same flagship app. "Having one product is super exciting, of course, but we do see the trend that there are more and more different interest groups. Serving them with just one product can work, but there is a higher chance that you can connect with more people with different products."
So far, Wink is 9count's most successful app, which is popular among younger users who want to make new friends online (Hofmann says that the app has a content moderation team of 15 people who work 24/7). But Wink connects people without regard to location, so long as the users speak the same language. This design is intentional -- the company didn't want to face the security issue of people meeting up in real life, since the app is available for users 13 and up.
"But it was interesting that some of the 18-plus-year-old users asked us, 'Oh, it would be great if I could look for people in my city,'" Hofmann said. "So that was one of the reasons why we said, you know, maybe it would make sense to actually create a dating app."
Image Credits: Spark
Unlike many popular dating apps, Spark doesn't ask you to swipe left or right. Instead, you can see people around you all at once in a grid, kind of like on Grindr. But unlike Grindr, you thankfully can only receive messages from people if you've both "sparked" (or liked) each other.
"For us, it was really trying to understand what would replicate the real world in the best possible way," Hofmann said. "So for instance, at a party, you're not going to spend your time mentally thinking 'yes' and 'no' as you look at each person around you."
Similar to an app like Bumble, once you send a like or a message on Spark, the request only lasts 24 hours.
"We really want users to quickly respond, so no one has to play the waiting game as they do in other apps right now," Hofmann said.
Spark has already "soft launched" in hundreds of countries, climbing to No. 1 in the iOS app store in Ireland and the Netherlands within a day. While the app is free to use, there's also a subscription option, which gives users standard paid dating app perks like the ability to see everyone who liked you, extra "sparks," and more. Hofmann noted that the exact pricing and benefits are still subject to change, but that right now, a subscription is $19.99 per month, with slight discounts if you subscribe for three or 12 months at a time.
When it comes to safety, Spark uses Hive, an AI moderation tool, to make sure that users aren't uploading harmful or NSFW content to their profiles. Like Wink, Spark has a 24/7 trust and safety team. Spark also hired a security expert to spot bugs and vulnerabilities on the platform before they can be exploited by bad actors.
Of course, no matter what safety measures are in place on a dating app, users should always exercise caution when meeting strangers in person. Match Group, the parent company to apps like Tinder, OkCupid and Hinge, invested in Noonlight to enable security features like emergency assistance, location tracking and photo verification. That business decision followed an investigative report by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations, which revealed how Match Group allowed known sex offenders to use its free apps.
Founded in 2018, 9count has raised $21.5 million in funding led by Redpoint and GGV Capital. Its newest app Spark is available now on iOS.