Queen of hearts: Setting up an online dating business in Provence
When Katie May launched a dating and social network website for expats after her husband died, she had no idea how quickly it would take off, as Stephanie Sheldrake finds out
Life for Katie May has never been so busy; the online dating and social network site that the 54-year-old founded less than a year ago is fast becoming a success, but her story is bittersweet, having tragically lost her husband to lung cancer in 2010.
Katie and her husband David fell under the spell of Provence many years ago. David had lived there previously when he worked for a defence company and the family took regular holidays in the region. They had always dreamed of moving there permanently, so ten years ago, when David retired and their children had grown up, they decided to make their dream a reality and move from their home in Lancashire to the sunny south of France.
The couple enjoyed renovating houses and initially bought a rural farmhouse with three acres of land in Provence’s Bouches-du-Rhône department. “It was a fabulous place and we were very happy. My eldest son, Jonathan, came with us and helped us to do the work. It justified us having such a large house,” explains Katie.
“We were very happy enjoying rural life. We made friends, settled down and made ourselves a new home – it was the dream we had hoped for,” says Katie. “Jonathan met a lovely Canadian girl and they settled in Canada soon after, so we decided to downsize and move into a smaller house in the local village, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.”
Again, the couple chose a property in need of renovation. “A professional team in Saint-Rémy did a lot of the conversion work for us,” says Katie, “but my husband liked to do a lot of the work himself if he could. He was an engineer and he loved the design and technical side of things. I loved it as well, especially working with wood.”
Katie and David enjoyed the social aspects that came with village life. “My husband enjoyed meeting friends at the café round the corner, getting his newspaper and taking the dog for a walk,” Katie says. “It was real French life and we were very happy. It’s a much more social life; we had friends of all different nationalities because it’s quite a cosmopolitan area here.”
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The couple had managed to complete most of the renovation work on their home when David was diagnosed with lung cancer. The disease developed very quickly, and sadly he passed away in 2010.
“It was a terrible shock and that awful feeling of horror never left me from the initial diagnosis to the end. It was so quick, I felt as though I was reeling. The feeling didn’t leave me for a very long time. I am not sure it has yet done so and finding myself alone and trying to deal with it affected me badly,” she says.
It took Katie a few years to find her feet and confront the future. She decided to stay in France but she knew she would need an income.
“It was friends who suggested the dating site,” says Katie. “We were having a relaxing evening, with lots of wine and laughter, and they were teasing me about finding someone new. Their daughter had just met a lovely young man on a dating site, and they said I should join one for expats. I remarked that such a thing did not exist in France and they suggested starting one. It was a joke at first but slowly the idea took hold.”
Katie decided to join some international dating sites, and she admits that she wasn’t there just for research; she was also interested in meeting someone. “I did meet some great French guys, but I really missed the jokes and the silly shared humour. The British culture I grew up with is far more deeply engrained than I’d realised,” says Katie. “I love France but cannot deny my roots; they go too deep. I wanted to meet someone who could share that too, and there are a lot of people in France who are in the same boat.”
At this point Katie started thinking seriously about launching a website for people who wanted to meet others from shared backgrounds or with similar interests, and she decided to take the plunge and put the idea into action. Initially, she started the business on her own, using what was left of her savings and selling her car when the money ran out. “Setting up any business is hard work, but despite my financial background as an accountant, I still underestimated the costs and the sheer amount of work involved,” admits Katie.
Despite being interested in computers, Katie says she was naïve about how the internet worked. “I didn’t realise it was as complicated as it is,” she says. “I was aware that internet security is a massive issue, as dating sites can be targeted by hackers, so I knew we needed an incredibly secure site.”
Katie chose a Manchester-based company to design and manage the website for her. “I am very lucky with the technical team that I’ve got. They did the internet security for a defence company, so I knew they were very good.” The company has protected her website with 30 firewall systems. “When we started, because we were a new dating site, we were immediately targeted by hackers and scammers. I am so fortunate to have a team that has the professional expertise to deal with this, but then again that’s why I chose them,” says Katie. “If I didn’t have them, I just don’t think I could’ve succeeded. That side of things is so complex, and you have to be at such a professional level to do it properly.”
Katie explains that she didn’t want to buy an off-the-shelf dating website or an affiliation, where the members’ details are bought in and can be replicated on other sites. “I wanted an honest site that was tailor-made for the people who live here. I have to be commercial, but right from the beginning I decided to build a reputable and trustworthy site with no gimmicks and no hard-sell.”
When it came to the design of the website, Katie decided to leave it to the experts. “I had an idea of what I wanted, but because the team is very creative, I asked them to design it. I’m an accountant, and I don’t always see the creativity that is needed; I am quite aware of what my talents are,” she laughs.
Despite having only been online since August 2013, the website is growing fast, with more than 1,000 members signed up plus hundreds more subscribers. “It’s growing at a tremendous rate, and there are a lot more things we’d like to do, but it takes time to build up a population. France is a big country, and we’ve got a long way to go,” says Katie.
“There’s a need for this service here; many people find themselves alone through being widowed or divorced. Many don’t speak French very well; others can’t sell their houses because of the economic downturn or are tied by French inheritance laws.”
One of the interesting things that Katie has found since starting the website is that there is just as great a demand for a social connection as there is for a romantic one, and this is how she sees the site progressing. “Everybody talks to each other and that’s a really nice aspect of it. A lot of people join up for social reasons,” she says. “Our members have arranged social meet-ups in Provence and Cannes; they’re forming themselves into groups, and it’s happening naturally as I hoped it would,” she says. “We’re happy if people can just meet people that they enjoy being with.”
Then she adds: “Trying to find friends and romance in France can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We are trying to add that personal touch, the opportunity to communicate via video phone so that people can get to know others initially online and then in person. It is another level of social networking; to connect people from similar backgrounds so that they can get together virtually and eventually in reality.”
The website has enabled Katie to find friends all over the country. “I know I can go pretty much anywhere in France and arrange to meet friends I’ve made through the site for fun, friendship and swapping shared experiences. People can make friends with people from all over France – that’s a really nice thing.”
“We were always a community here and now that we’re internet-connected, we are able to reach out. And being English-speaking, we have expats from many different nations, so we’re international too.” Katie explains that for many people, the website gives them an opportunity to reach out and make contacts. “People can become very isolated, particularly if they live in rural areas and, of course, it’s worse for those who can’t speak French, so this is a real opportunity for them to reach out to others. And again, this is another reason why we want to extend it beyond just dating.”
One of the biggest challenges for Katie has been managing the finances and cash-flow. “If you’re running a proper website that’s heavily secured and continually managed then it’s very expensive. The problem is we can only go as fast as our finances allow.”
Fortunately, Katie has had financial support from backers, one of which is her good friend who initially suggested the site. “The other is the website company. They were so impressed with it that they wanted to be involved, so they are partners as well. That’s given me all the technical ability I need; otherwise this would have cost me an absolute fortune. I am so lucky to have that.”
When it comes to the day-to-day running of the company, Katie is now assisted by friends in France who run the accounts and administration. “At the moment we don’t make enough profit to take money out of the company, and I think that will carry on for quite a long time. But because they believe in it, as I do, we’re all prepared to put the work into it to get it going,” she reveals. “We don’t have fancy offices because we’re not there yet. Everything we get out of the business goes straight back into it. If we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be able to go forward at all. We’re prepared to slog it out and just keep growing it.”
Despite the success of her website in such a short period, Katie admits that one of her greatest challenges is keeping herself positive. “The biggest issue is keeping the momentum going. I know eventually I will get the site to where I want it to be.”
She adds: “I haven’t worked full-time for a long time. I’ve worked doing houses up but it’s not the same. When you work for yourself, you never leave the job. The first thing I do in the mornings and last thing I do at night is check my emails. There is constant work.”
Despite the hard work, the success stories that Katie hears from her members make it all worthwhile. “One of our members wrote to me recently saying that he has met his soul mate though the site and feels like a love-struck teenager for the first time in decades. I’m thrilled when I hear stories like that!”
And as for Katie, she admits that she’s not looking for love. “I’ve put it off because I’m so busy with the business and I’m still not really ready for it,” she says. “I love what I do. It makes me so happy when I get people together or help them make friends; that’s wonderful.”
As her business grows, Katie contemplates her plans for the future. Her aim is to expand the website into other parts of Europe and beyond. “We would like people to be able to easily find friends or partners in other parts of the world as they are travelling – to meet for a friendly lunch in Milan or dinner in Singapore, or more should things work out!” And if she keeps up the momentum, it’s clear there’s no stopping this hard-working entrepreneur. LF
Tips for online dating in France
• Be active. Send messages. It’s natural to be nervous but it’s surprising how much you’ll have in common with your fellow expats, so breaking the ice shouldn’t be too difficult.
• Make sure you upload a photo as this is the first thing that people notice, and take the time to write an honest profile about yourself.
• France is a big country so consider extending your search area. In an ideal world, your perfect match would live in the next village, but life isn’t always perfect and your ideal partner may live further away than you would have initially hoped.
• Apply common sense at all times. There are scoundrels and scammers on and off the net. Never give money to strangers, no matter how genuine their claim seems.
• Don’t meet in dark, lonely locations, and make sure someone knows where you are. Never give out your address or go to someone’s house.
• Lastly, enjoy yourself! Remember, there’s nothing to lose by giving it a go, and an awful lot to gain.