by Robert Brenner (J07)
People often ask Jim Safka (KSM94) if he’s single. Posed at business conferences and speaking engagements, the question would take many executives by surprise. In Safka’s case, though, it’s relevant.
“They want to know if I use my own services,” says the married 40-year-old CEO of Match.com, an online dating service with more than 15 million members in 31 countries. For someone whose dating days are behind him, however, Safka knows how to bring people together.
One of his first moves after being appointed CEO in 2004 was to implement a seemingly counterintuitive strategy: He made Baby Boomers the target market of the online service. As of February, 50 percent of members were ages 30–49, and 16 percent were 50-plus. He also hired psychologist Phil McGraw, better known as Dr. Phil, and stylist Jay Manuel of America’s Next Top Model to design instructive content for the site.
Another of Safka’s innovations has been introducing the notion that “the product is the people.” By featuring individual Match.com members in advertisements, blogs and documentary-style online videos, he says, Match.com is “turning everyday people into celebrities.”
From early 2004 to the end of 2006, the dating site’s number of paying members increased from just under 1 million to more than 1.3 million. “I’m of the belief that you need to expand your possibilities beyond your daily routine in order to find that special person you can spend your life with,” says Safka. “Forget stigma. I think there should be a stigma for people who are not on Match.com.”
Safka’s knack for marketing goes back to his education at the Kellogg School of Management. He studied film and business at the University of Southern California, interned and then worked at Paramount Pictures before going to Warner Bros. Studios as a development assistant. Both positions brought him into contact with many business school graduates. “The Kellogg people were smart, down-to-earth and self-motivated, had a sense of humor about themselves and didn’t have the arrogance,” he says.
Safka applied and was accepted at Kellogg, where he enjoyed the challenge presented by his peers. “My class was this perfect storm of people who are very career driven, very smart, very motivated,” he says.
After Kellogg, Safka worked briefly at Alberto-Culver then took a job with the software company Intuit where he began his career in technology. He also worked at E*TRADE and AT&T Wireless before landing at Match.com. Safka often travels internationally to manage Match.com’s operations around the world.
“The one thing that’s universal is people’s interest in meeting someone for a relationship,” he says. “What’s different is their definition of what a good relationship is. In the United States marriage is like the dream. But in France marriage is not something most people even think about. They’ll tell you they’re just looking for someone to share a piece of the road with. In Japan it’s very different. It’s your duty to get married to the proper person and build on that lineage.”
While romantic values may vary by country, Safka places a universal emphasis on people. “Jim certainly understands the Internet, and he has always impressed me as having a very customer-centric view of problem solving,” says Jerry Gramaglia, former president of E*TRADE. “Match.com begins with an understanding of the customer and trying to address their needs.”
Safka spends most of his free time with his family. He met his wife while interning at Warner Bros. At the time she was dating his roommate from college, who wanted to work on movie sets. “I had the connections to get him a job on a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so I shipped him to Selma, Ala., for four months and moved in from there,” he says. Safka has often said that, were it up to Match.com, he would not have met his wife, because she is out of his league.
Although their daughter and son, at ages 8 and 5, respectively, are not yet interested in dating, Safka contemplates the issue. “I think there’s a bizarre efficiency to the arranged marriages you see in Eastern cultures. It might even be a way to reduce the divorce rate in this country.”