Let’s Talk “Married Dating” With Ashley Madison Founder Noel Biderman

With marriage equality currently up for debate in the Supreme Court, it seems like everyone is talking about marriage. Social conservatives believe that they’re in a fight to death to defend “traditional marriage,” but what exactly are they fighting for? With the majority of US marriages ending in divorce, more people delaying the onset of their first marriage, and single parenthood no long uncommon, it seems to me that their version of marriage has already given up the fight and gone home.

Which is not to say I’ve given up on marriage. I definitely believe in finding a partner with whom you can share your life. I’m also a firm believer in open, honest channels of communication between partners, even when it comes to really hard stuff.

Stuff like the fact that most people don’t have the capacity to have sex with just one person for their entire life time.

With that in mind, I was both nervous and excited to talk with Noel Biderman, co-founder and president of Ashley Madison, the world’s most famous website for “married dating.” “Married dating” is a nice euphemism that Noel’s site uses in place of the more incendiary “having an affair.” Basically, Ashley Madison is where you go if you’re looking to cheat on your spouse.

Now, I’m all for open marriages, polyamory, strict monogamy or whatever works for each individual couple. What I’m not for is lies and cheating and stepping out of a relationship without consent, which naturally puts me on the anti-Ashley Madison side of the discussion. My conversation with Noel, however, changed my perspective on the exact role that Ashley Madison is playing in the recreation of the idea of marriage.

Well spoken and extremely knowledgeable, Noel might just be one of the few voices of reason when it comes to the conversation about marriage. Keep reading for his thoughts on that topic, plus some secrets behind Ashley Madison’s phenomenal success.

What exactly is the story behind Ashley Madison?

It was a journalist who wrote this interesting article back in 2001 that was talking about how we shouldn’t cry about the bubble bursting, because we’ve already changed the world. We’ve already changed the way we listen to music. We’ve already changed the way we can watch adult content. We’ve already changed the way we date.

The article went on to highlight some of the flaws of those verticals: music piracy was a big problem, ubiquity of adult content meant that maybe underage kids were going to get access to it. And online dating, she mentioned, is something she wouldn’t even recommend to a friend because there were so many married men they were just going to end up regretting ever using the site.

To us, that jumped off the page. That jumped off the top of the page as a truly addressable market that most people might be overlooking. Either traditional companies because of their conservative nature weren’t prepared to address it or that the size of that market was something that people just didn’t genuinely believe.

America’s a place where the attendance at strip clubs today will be way above the amount of people who go to Broadway shows, right? It’s not even close. So there was this reality, a real reality, that we thought we might be able to jump into that people hadn’t seen.

Now, could we have imagined having 17 million members in 26 countries 10 years later? No, I don’t think even we thought it was that big but that just says more about our biology, maybe, than about us as a business.

Where are you based, Noel?

I’m actually based in Canada. We’re headquartered in Toronto.

Interesting. This is a Canadian company. I didn’t realize that.

It’s a Canadian company and most people don’t realize that, yeah.

Is that something you guys did purposely?

Yeah, it was purposeful on two levels. One was the fact that this is where I’m from. There’s a great engineering community here, we’re able to get funding; all of those kinds of things fell into place.

But also, with the kind of vertical we were interested in exploring, we felt that incubating here would allow for possible adoption exportation of the idea later on.

Let’s say you incubate in San Francisco or LA and that community really rushes to your product. I don’t know if that’s as universal – as least from our vertical’s perspective which is dating and married dating in particular – versus a multicultural, more conservative city like Toronto.

That definitely makes sense. Those major cities tend to have a more… culturally liberal perspective on these things.

Yeah, exactly. You run the risk that you do really well there and then naively believe that people in Omaha, Nebraska, are going to love your product and then you find that they don’t. So you try and find something that has more universality. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Toronto but we really are one of those unique melting pots in terms of a cultural perspective and if you can make something happen here you can really assume that a lot of other places will adopt it.

And do people in Omaha, Nebraska, like your product?

They love it. It turns out that, on some levels, our product is probably more universal than the traditional sister counterpart (dating websites). Dating isn’t necessarily adopted the same way in South Korea as it is in Lima, Peru, and certainly not in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Cheating, it turns out, is kind of universal and people really do pursue it in similar ways globally. That’s one of the reasons why when you stand back and look at Ashley Madison from a global perspective and at how many countries it truly operates in, it really is the most global dating brand on the planet.

Are people using that data for studies?

That’s a great question. There are kind of two approaches to that. We are right now doing studies with the University of California at Irvine, Duke University, Georgetown. We’re always approached by institutions who I think have come to realize that when it comes to the topic of not just sex but in particular monogamy, it’s very hard to use that traditional database of undergrad students. It just doesn’t map very well to twenty-year marriages.

They come to us with the realization that we have much more interesting database to study and, more importantly, it’s much more anonymous. It’s at the genesis of these affairs. It’s tons of communication. When you look at the past history of studies being done, they tend to be very much retrospectives and anyone who’s in the data analysis business or the research business knows that there’s a lot of bias that can creep in.

We’re hitting people at an interesting place in time, we’re hitting an interesting quantity, and clearly it’s the right demographic so, yeah, from a research perspective we’re widely sought after now.

We also do our own little encapsulated studies that maybe a traditional institution isn’t interested in but a journalist might be, like which hotels would cheaters be most likely to frequent in San Francisco. There are people who are interested in that and want to read it, whereas a postdoc may not.

I think it’s great that you guys are working together with those schools because you do have a very unique and important set of data.

Absolutely. We’re the most unique, when it comes to this topic, that the world has seen up to today. We sign up 20,000 people a day. Most affair studies had only looked at a few hundred people at best, so we in one day we can potentially assemble more information than anything they’ve assembled before.

That’s one of the great things about the internet, isn’t it? I’m just thinking about how Kinsey is obviously the sexuality study everyone always talks about and how limited that study was. Important, but limited, and the access we have now is phenomenal.

I think with that study you just have to look at how the paradigm was changing and the revelations and insights into sexuality it gave us that we didn’t have. We clearly can’t look at it from a robust research perspective.

The internet is kind of this whole new high gear that we’re kicking into. Whether it’s through Google or Facebook or whatever, the information that people are searching and passing back and forth is way more robust.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re the current CEO of Ashley Madison but you aren’t an original founder, right?

No, I am an original co-founder.

Oh, you are?

Yeah, I wasn’t very involved in the business in the beginning. I was doing more stuff in the online real estate space; we had a whole bunch of ventures going on. At some point we kind of flipped roles, my partner and I. He took on more of the real estate stuff and I decided to focus my operational efforts on Ashley Madison.

I thought at that point in time – this was around 2006 – that we really had something large. Any overnight sensation will tell you that it really does take a few years to get there and become that overnight sensation. We really spent five years getting those first million members and learning how to facilitate what we were promising. I think at that point it was more worthy of my time.

I’m a different kind of entrepreneur than my partner. He’s much more of what I’d call a fire-starter. He’ll have an idea and three months later he’ll see it brought to light in some way, shape, or form. My entrepreneurial skill is much more in building a better mousetrap. I tend to look at things and see flaws, opportunities, and I can round them into a different direction. That’s why I think we work well together.

Do you know who Dan Savage is?

Yup, I just met with him at a conference two weeks ago and I just finished reading his book.

Are you familiar with his term “monogamishamy,” which I hate saying; it’s an unwieldy word.

No… monogamishamy?

Monogamishamy. This is something clearly you guys have bumped to. Because we’re seeing that the majority of people are cheating at some point or another in a relationship, it’s better to establish an open challenge of communication with your partner and be mostly monogamous but have some wiggle room.

Yeah, I don’t know if that’s that novel a concept. I think couples in open marriages have been doing that for a long time. I think the challenge is, from my research – which started when we started this business and continues to this day – is that if you take a hundred couples in a room and split them off and ask them if they’re willing to discuss with their partner if they’re willing to open up their relationship, 99 out of 100 are gonna say, no way! If I bring that up and he or she thinks I’m crazy, our relationship is over. It’s gonna be like a police state. I don’t want to live like that.

It’s very few and far between who even have the courage to venture down that conversational path because the outcome of not succeeding… Forgot about how complicated your life could be if you do succeed but the issue of not succeeding is that nobody wants to be regarded with that level of distrust anymore. Nobody wants their whereabouts checked on every five minutes.

That existence is not tolerable so people are actually way more willing to cheat than to converse.

What do you think of that?

I don’t know if it’s for me to think of it or not to think of it. I don’t know if there’s a right or a wrong. My view is that the problem isn’t necessarily what Dan is talking about; the problem is putting monogamy as the foundation of a marriage in the first place. Marriage really is a liquid institution. It hasn’t stayed static; it has always evolved. It wasn’t that long ago that we were married by arrangement. It’s only recently that we’re choosing to marry for love.

There have been lots of different types of marriages over history. The notion of a monogamous, love-based marriage might even be in the realm of fiction. I don’t know how long it’s ever existed and clearly we’re not very good at it, right? We get divorced en masse; we’re getting married less and less, later and later.

Marriage – ask anyone who is married – is much more about co-childrearing and co-economics and extended family. The sexual part is just one tenet and it shouldn’t be the central one.

I think that if we actually defined unfaithfulness really broadly – watching pornography without your partner’s consent, going to strip clubs or so-called massage parlors without them knowing – you’re really talking about almost every single one of us who is not faithful.

So it sounds like you and Dan are kind of on the same page in terms of that.

Yeah, I think he’s just coming at it a bit later. He’s kind of assuming that the narrative needs to stay the same. Oh, we should keep these monogamous relationships.

What he is talking about is probably the most accurate in the sense that we are going to take his approach as a bridge to somewhere different. I don’t know what that somewhere different is going to look like, if it’s a polyamorous society or what, but that is going to come when we become less judgmental of people who say to their partner, I love you. I care about you. I want to do XYZ with you, all these different things with you, but you know what? I have sexual interests beyond you.

Once you can have that conversation and people don’t look at you like you’re a leprechaun and they can look at you like, oh, that makes sense because that’s what we all understand, that’s what needs to happen first. It’s hard to have that conversation, so first that understanding has to change. We can’t look at people who want to venture down that path as somehow being outrageous, untrustworthy, not in love with you. That’s what we tie all these notions to right now and that’s unfortunate.

Do you see yourself as an activist in this field?

Well, I see myself as playing two roles. One is an entrepreneur who clearly has a company to run and employs hundreds of people and contributes to society by paying taxes and all of that. But I think that societies are shaped not only by educators and politicians and artists but they’re also shaped by the entrepreneurs amongst us. Sometimes they built products we hadn’t even thought about and we gravitate towards them and they change our lives in that way.

Every entrepreneur should, on some level… Yes, they have to focus on their company and their returns and all of those things but they also have to remember about their societal impact and, to some degree, their societal obligation.

I know you guys had some issues with marketing when you first got started but now you’re basically a household name. Can you talk about those marketing issues and how you worked through them?

I think we probably are in a position now where you could call us “the Kleenex of cheating” kind of thing, where we have established our brand. That was always the goal from day one: to establish a brand and not be transient. To make it so that when people on the street said “Have you heard of Ashley Madison?” The response would be, oh yeah, I know what that is. To have Jay Leno reference it in a joke.

Those were all goals and to do that I think we took a couple approaches. When you’re in the dating space in particular, men and women do see things differently. Our bet was that the internet was going to change female behavior around this more so than male behavior. That male behavior had kind of already existed on a certain level and that women were the ones more impacted by the workplace and the opportunities that it afforded and economic independence, so they were going to play catch up on this.

From the get-go it was about building a female-focused brand with the recognition that if you do it well, the men will follow. This is one of those industries where women lead and men follow so it made a lot of sense to do that.

The challenge was that after all that planning, we didn’t really expect the histrionic reactions we got to our advertising. It got to the point where all it would say was “AshleyMadison.com See For Yourself What It’s All About” and people still wouldn’t want to run it.

We were like, we’re not even saying anything about affairs. We’re not even talking about cheating. We’re not doing anything provocative. What’s the problem here?

Well, the problem was the nature of the service. The best example of that was MSN. MSN won’t let us buy the keyword “affair” because in their mind someone searching for an affair might be trying to avoid it or how to find out if their partner is doing it. Those are all keywords worth buying but for me to buy it, was redefining the word.

To us, that was a ridiculous notion. Not only was that a form of censorship and suppression of commercial and business ideology, it was also a terribly shortsighted way of looking at how the world works.

How did you push around that? How did you get your name out there if the traditional avenues were blocked?

There were a lot of different approaches we took. The foundational approach was – to take this MSN example – to complain about it. To complain not just about the organization but to get them to understand that this is how the world works and you’re really protecting nobody. You’re just going to cause more confusion by not being more genuine and being more honest about it.

At the same we spoke to people like journalists, who do care about first amendment rights and freedom of expression. We spoke with them and that resonated and they started saying, well, this seems pretty shortsighted.

It’s kind of like a one-two punch.

I think the third element was really just being a sophisticated partner and not coming across as some kind of fly-by-night organization. Being really sophisticated, explaining ourselves, seeking an opportunity and showing we can be really serious about that opportunity.

Things like being very selective about the time of day and the types of programs we were willing to advertise on when it came to TV or radio, or even being selective about the type of creative we’d work with. Over time, you find partners who are maybe just more informed and are prepared to treat businesses with a “let’s see” attitude first versus a stop sign mentality.

How many users do you guys have at the moment?

17 million in 26 countries.

Do you have it broken down between men and women?

You know, that’s a very good question. It’s age-sensitive. There are a couple things I would say.

One is that since we’ve started that ratio has condensed, to a closer and closer ratio of male to female. Two is that there are some countries around the world where that’s spiked to something a lot more equitable; Australia and Switzerland spring to mind.

Three is that it’s very age-sensitive. We have tens of thousands of users over the age of 65 and almost all of them are men. We affectionately call them our Viagra Generation. We have no women of that age group.

When you look at our users in their 50s, the ratio is 10:1. In their 40s, it’s 3:1. Once you get down to the 30s, it’s about 1:1. We’re talking about a changing society in which women are less likely to stay in dissatisfactory relationships, about the economic freedoms they have now and the removal stigma and obstacles. All of those things have contributed to what you see.

Do you guys keep track of how long users stay on the site?

Dating sites tend to work like this for a user. They think, I’m gonna try this and I’m gonna give it like six weeks or maybe three months and then if I don’t meet anyone, this dating site is pretty crap. If I find someone, I no longer need the dating site.

So the lifecycle on a dating site can tends to be about three months. I run a bunch of traditional dating sites and that’s what we see playing out on ours too.

An affair is nothing like that. An affair is you wake up on Monday morning and you think, oh my god. I can’t live like this anymore. I’ve got to do something different. And you jump into it. You might find a lover and you might not need the site again but six months later you might feel that need again. Six years later you might feel that need again.

It’s the same way that our service isn’t subscription based, it’s kind of pay to play with credit you buy and use for communication as you go.

The lifecycle of a user is extremely long. We’ve had users on here for eight years, nine years. It’s just a completely different mentality. At any given time we can say, hey, in the last 30 days we had 3.6 million active users. We can do that, but it doesn’t fully complement the true landscape.

Thanks so much Noel! It’s been really, really great talking with you.


Photos by… Ashley Madison


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