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Swipeless in Seattle? 'The microbrewery of dating apps' aims to fix your love life

Ben Mussi and Marina Resto at Pike Place Market on July 16. Mussi has been on-and-off single for nearly 15 years while Resto has been single in Seattle for the past three years.  (Photo by Agueda Pacheco Flores/Crosscut)

The tall 35-year-old IT manager shows up at Fremont Brewing nearly on time. I glance around not sure who I’m looking for and message him. I type, “I’m wearing tie-dye,” and press Send. Quickly, he pops up next to me: “Agueda?”

I shake Ben Mussi’s hand and introduce myself, since we only briefly exchanged details of our meetup on Instagram. We find a spot to sit down, I grab my pen, and turn on my recorder. He offers to buy me a beer, but I decline. We both get our own drinks because this is not a date.

I’m here to talk to Mussi about his dating life and why he decided to create The Seattle Dating App (due to launch in September). He is quick to disclose that in the 15 years he’s lived in Seattle he’s spent as much time single as he has in relationships.

Wanting to start his own business, as any aerospace engineer would, he grabbed a white board last winter and laid out all his activities to identify his passion. A little embarrassed, Mussi realized he spent a lot of time swiping on dating apps. His project was born.

A lot has been said of dating apps and Seattle’s dating scene over the years. Generally, what locals blame on the Seattle Freeze is more or less what society blames on dating apps: a scene that offers so many options that people increasingly don’t know how to commit. Why settle, right?

More and more couples are meeting by app. Nearly half of all singles in the U.S. have created a dating profile, according to a 2019 study conducted by dating app conglomerate Match Group, which surveyed 5,001 singles across the country. Analysts project the online dating market to reach $12 billion by 2020. Unlike the unlimited variety of potential dates on dating apps, however, the market ownership remains fairly limited. Nearly a quarter of the market is owned by Match Group, which has 45 dating entities, including Tinder, Plenty of Fish and Hinge. That common ownership, Mussi says, explains why the apps offer a lot of the same features.

“These are the Anheuser-Busch of dating apps,” Mussi says. “I want The Seattle Dating App to be seen as the microbrewery of dating apps — it’s tailored to the taste and needs of Seattle.”

My whole encounter with Mussi felt a lot like a date, and in many ways dating apps have distilled romantic interactions into something that resembles an interview. App dating works best when done with a reporter’s efficiency. It is a form of speed dating where you swipe on potential dates and attempt to casually, quickly get the information you need, either by trading messages or meeting in person, to figure out whether “this is the one” — whatever that means — or just another flop.

A glimpse of Mussi’s phone reveals tiles of different dating apps — Tinder, Bumble, Badoo, Plenty of Fish, Happn — all of which he uses to inform his own app. A notification banner from OkCupid flashes across the screen.

“I don’t really like that app,” he admits, brushing aside the alert.

“Running a dating app, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m learning from all the mistakes others make,” he adds.

So far, Mussi’s app is designed to let people swipe within their neighborhood, so users don’t have to drive across the city to gamble with Cupid. Mussi’s app includes 65 neighborhoods, from Tacoma to Marysville. Users can reduce their chances of being ghosted ⁠— when someone abruptly cuts off all communication ⁠— thanks to a feature that allows them to share their weekly availability.

Like most dating apps, Mussi's app still includes matching by swiping, but unlike the never-ending matches that lead nowhere, The Seattle Dating App forces users to send a message before asking someone out.

“You have to make a conscious decision whether you are willing to get out of swipe mode [and decide] whether this person is actually interesting enough” to message, Mussi says. “You have the option of not affecting their life.”

The feature was inspired by Bumble’s decision to only allow women to send the first message to potential dates. The restriction cut down the number of unwelcome advances women received on the app, but Mussi said he’s been told that women sometimes missed the “random factor” of having someone message them first.

According to Technology Review, 100 out of every 1,000 swipes women make result in a match, whereas for men the ratio was only six out of 1,000. The discrepancy can lead to a ghastly experience for women bombarded by men who aren’t always polite.

Mussi says he hopes his app’s message function “achieves what Bumble did to clean up the nasty experience of women and add some fun into it.”

Financially, Mussi hopes The Seattle Dating App will sustain itself with ads from local businesses such as breweries and restaurants that are served to users as date ideas and discounts. Mussi’s team includes five developers and one intern. He’s invested between $50,000 and $100,000 in the project.

Mussi isn’t the only person taking the dating app experience hyperlocal.

Seattle is considered the country’s top dog-friendly city, according to an analysis by Seattle-based pet-care company Rover.com. There are reportedly more dogs than children in the city.

I spoke with Michi Suzuki, who has developed an app set to debut later this year aimed at Seattle’s dog lovers looking for a human partner.

On Wowzer, instead of swiping just on people, users also swipe on that person's dog. A match means the potential for a cute dog-walking date, Suzuki says while sipping wine at the Birch Road Cellar on Capitol Hill (which coincidentally would make a great date spot).

woman with dog.
Wowzer cofounder Michi Suzuki with one of her English Sheepdogs, Romy. (Photo courtesy of Michi Suzuki)

“I met my now wife in San Francisco 20 years ago and I had a dog at the time,” Suzuki says. “She had two Dalmatians and really what sealed the deal was … she had this magnet on her fridge that said, ‘Love me, love my dog.’ ”

“Dogs cultivate meaningful connections,” she adds.

Being a dog owner isn’t a requirement to use the app, but Suzuki believes there will be nothing that gets users going like cute dogs.

Like The Seattle Dating App, Wowzer is self-funded by Suzuki and her business partner. And like Mussi, Suzuki reveals only that she’s invested between $50,000 and $100,000.

I know what you’re thinking: “I hate dating apps. How is another dating app supposed to help people in Seattle connect?”

After using dating apps on and off for nearly five years, I had the same thought when I heard about Wowzer and Seattle Dating App, but I’m allowing myself to be optimistic.

“These two apps are going to bring people together that already have something in common,” says Marina Resto, the 27-year-old behind the Dating in Seattle Instagram blog.

She posts the anonymous conversations submitted by Seattleites using dating apps, gives advice to anyone who asks for it, has made suggestions to Mussi for his upcoming dating app and will be a panelist when The Great Love Debate podcast returns to the Pacific Northwest later this month.

“People who love dogs can start a conversation with that, or you’re both in Fremont or Wallingford; you have a basis to start off with instead of something being so open ended [which is] intimidating,” says Resto.

Opening with a personal and specific icebreaker is some of the main dating advice Resto gives. She thinks people in Seattle should learn to cultivate a good conversation and change their passive attitudes.

“I’m a firm believer [that] the energy you put out, you attract back,” she says.

Still, Resto thinks community-based apps can give people the comfort to be confident.

“Making something community based makes it a little easier to digest instead of this huge pool, an endless sea of different dating prospects,” she says. “Having more of a community-based outreach can be a little more comforting.”

Whether The Seattle Dating App or Wowzer will succeed is up in the air. Other Seattle-based dating apps struggled to flourish, like Siren, a feminist dating app which shuttered in 2017. For now, dating apps will probably continue to be the leading method for meeting singles.

“Nobody gets on a dating app because they want to be on a dating app,” Mussi says. “They want to get off the dating app, so they have to see it as something that's useful and something they own and have a say in.”

Like Resto, Mussi says the best way to approach dating on apps is to be willing to put yourself out there and expect the unexpected.

“For as bland as everyone seems,” he says, “everyone is unique and looking for something different.”

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Swipeless in Seattle? 'The microbrewery of dating apps' aims to fix your love life

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