From dating to business, Cheekd is planning its second pivot

Many startups pivot based on research, market needs or experience. But Cheekd, an online dating app, learned its lesson a harsher way. In February 2014, three years after Cheekd was created, its founder attended the Shark Tank TV show, only to have her ideas butchered by the “sharks,” triggering a series of pivots.

Cheekd was born because of a lucky pickup. One night in February 2008, Lori Cheek, founder and CEO, had a dinner with her colleague. As they walked out of the restaurant, her colleague scribbled “Want to have dinner?” on the back of his business card and slipped it to a woman he found attractive in the restaurant. He landed a date. Lori landed an idea.

A year after the incident, Cheekd had its launch party in New York City. Users paid $10 a month to keep their profiles active on Cheekd, in addition to a $20 fee for a pile of Cheekd cards. The cards had two sides. One side had a pickup line while the other had an individual Cheekd code connected to their online profile. Users either slipped or handed their cards to strangers to make a connection.

With so many online dating services available for free, Cheekd found it difficult to break into the market. The startup earned 4,500 users in three years after Lori invested $120,000 of her own savings. Struggling to support the company, Lori decided to take it to the Shark Tank, a reality show featuring budding entrepreneurs courting magnates, the “sharks,” to invest in her idea.

The feedback from the sharks was biting: the idea wouldn’t work. One of the sharks, Robert Herjavec, made a fair point — if he had the courage to hand the card to a stranger, wouldn’t he have the guts to go up and say hi? Lori walked off the stage as the rejection was witnessed by the thousands watching the show.

Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of the dating app Cheekd, showcasing her Cheekd profile on a smartphone in New York City, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. (Upstart City/Jane Yi Zhang)

The blow triggered Lori and her partner Roger Chinchilla to reinvent the app in 2014. Cheekd cards now gave way to Bluetooth technology.

Cheekd announced the pivot in August 2015. Free for all, the app grants users the opportunity to retrieve missed connections in real life. “In the subway, for example, everybody sees each other but nobody talks,” Lori said. Equipped with Bluetooth technology, Cheekd can capture any profile within 30 feet and allow users to reconnect later.

A connection is made only when both users are on the app. Without a substantial user base, the app is one-sided. To market the app, Lori thought about running an ad campaign on the L train in New York City, but the price “costs more than most people’s education,” she said.

So far Cheekd only has one investor — Chinchilla, its co-founder. The first round of funding was drained after the app revamped. And the new business model barely works. “It’s not making money,” Lori admitted.

One year after the first pivot, Cheekd is already preparing for its second.

This time, Cheekd plans to expand the app beyond dating. Bluetooth allows strangers to connect on a subway. Why not apply the technology to business conferences?

“The way that people currently network at both small and large events is a disaster,” Chinchilla said. He and Lori had both attended numerous events but barely knew who actually attended. “As a speaker, you have no idea who is in the audience. As an attendee you have no idea who is sitting next to you,” Chinchilla said. “We plan on changing that.”

“Imagine walking into a meet-up or event and immediately knowing who is there and being able to filter them by interest, or by who is hiring or for hire,” Chinchilla said, envisioning another pivot of Cheekd. They expect to release the new product by the end of this year.