Meet the Woman Who Started a ‘Paid Dating’ App
We’ve all been on a date so terrible we wish we could be compensated for our time.
But one thing we probably haven’t all considered is willingly signing up for an app to get paid to go on dates — an app like Ohlala. Ohlala started in Germany and came to New York City this year, and it’s designed to match up men who want to pay for dates and women who want to get paid. Whether they get paid for any, shall we say, “extras,” is their choice and not something the app’s founders necessarily condone.
And Ohlala cofounder Pia Poppenreiter says referring to Ohlala as an “escort” or “sugar baby” app is retro and inaccurate. Instead, she prefers the term “paid dating.”
Although she swears Ohlala isn’t for prostitution, Pia’s first startup was called Pepper and only operated in Germany. It was explicitly designed to link sex workers to clients. Ohlala is more vague — it sets men and women up, with the men paying a fee to meet the women. Men on the app don’t get to see the women’s profiles unless the women pre-approve them. And after that, they have 21 minutes to chat through the app and decide whether they’d like to go on a date and how much the man will pay. All of the specifics are ironed out in the app, and the date takes place that night.
This is supposed to make dating easier for both busy men, and women who want a more straightforward experience. If you’ve ever used Tinder, you know how a match can fizzle out just because there’s no real impetus to meet. Bringing money into the equation with Ohlala is supposed to stop that problem. If you’re being paid for the date, the stakes are higher but you know exactly what’s expected of you. Or so says Pia.
Ohlala is not an escort app, though — for legal reasons, Pia and the other founders are in the dark about whether or not the app’s ever been used to facilitate sexual encounters. For the people who run Ohlala, it’s an app that helps money change hands between daters, no further questions asked.
We caught up with Pia while she was in NYC, where Ohlala has facilitated 10,000 dates since its launch nine weeks ago, to talk about the ethics and morality behind paid dating — and whether you can actually find love this way.
I’m sure you get backlash with people saying Ohlala is a tool for escorts. What are some common criticisms and how do you respond?
If you look at Tinder or OkCupid, people put dollar signs on their profiles [to show they’re interested in paid dating]. It’s nothing new. We just wanted to channel it and be honest and open about it. It’s happening. It’s out there. We might as well give it a platform and decrease risk of offline encounters.
I have a degree in ethics so I understand that people have issues with what we’re doing, but when they talk, it’s automatically on a moral level. Morality is the capability of judging a situation with morals. Ethics is on a neutral level. You look at a situation and don’t judge the situation. And when people disagree [with what we’re doing], it’s usually their morals talking. Every person in the world has a different set of morals. There are a lot of positive reactions that say it’s great that there’s a neutral dating platform that increases safety. Others don’t like it. But you can’t ignore the fact that this is taking place [with or without Ohlala].
So instead of taking a radically sex-positive stance, it seems like you’re saying, “Paid dating is already happening so let’s make it easier.”
If I was to be sex-positive I’d confirm sex is taking place. I swear to God, I don’t know. What I believe in is strong women who know what they want. That’s actually something I confirm. Our female users are straightforward and witty and that’s what I’d like to confirm, not victimizing women.
What do you think about the stereotype that women who use a service like this are gold diggers?
When you use terms like “gold digger,” it’s trying to frame it and judge it in a way. We’re very neutral. It’s not a “sugar baby” either. It’s women and men. It’s very neutral. It’s just paid dates – that’s all we want to accomplish and destigmatizing paid dates is actually the end game for us. There are so many badass and strong women around me so I disagree [with the term gold digger] and I always hate if I see that women are being judged.
Would your ideal situation be that all dates are paid?
Just [for] the people who want one. It’s a choice. I’m not saying this is for everyone. But it’s for some. And I’m not saying everyone should do it either. People who choose for themselves that they want this, they should go for it.
What’s the motivation for a paid date? Why would a woman choose this instead of a regular date?
It depends on what the person’s looking for? What’s the intention when you go on the date? It helps people to express what they’re looking for. Women can decide whether or not they’re into this. It’s rather fun for a certain period of time. You could meet the love of your life, but I wouldn’t promote it that way. It’s fun-on-demand, I’d call it.
Have you ever heard of a couple transitioning from paid dating to a serious relationship with Ohlala?
It happens all the time. We’re hiring right now and some people say they’ve tried it out for whatever reason and the first date was a paid date and they just wanted to switch over to a regular date after. It’s fun.
I wonder how that conversation goes?
I haven’t seen it myself but that’s what I’ve heard a couple times. We are super strong in community management and getting feedback and [we’ve] set up our own department for that. It’s actually pretty common. Maybe at the end of the day we will be the app for love. No, I’m kidding. But it happens, actually. It’s fun.
Every relationship is a transaction, from who’s paying to who’s hotter to how much time is being spent together. So why do you think adding money somehow makes it dirty in some people’s eyes?
I think it’s actually straightforward and honest. Money is always ‘a thing’ in regular dating or not. It’s always there – the topic about money. You can’t deny this. I think that, you know, managing expectations or clarifying what’s taking place on the date is pretty straightforward and honest. It’s always like you have that first date – is he paying? Am I paying? It’s a general topic. And it has confused me quite a lot of times, too.
Not even Hillary Clinton knows the answer.
Money is always a thing.
Some people might say your app is anti-feminist because it encourages women to capitalize on their bodies and sex appeal. What do you think about that?
The thing is I’m not a feminist, I’m an equal-ist. I believe in equal rights for everyone. I’m confused about feminism because there are two streams, one says women are powerful and can judge for themselves. The other says women are victims and need to be rescued or whatever. That’s a little confusing for me when it comes to feminism. I would just say women are powerful enough to choose for themselves whether or not they want to go on a paid date. I know quite a lot of people who go on paid dates and all I can say is they’re badbutt women who know what they want.
From an ethical standpoint, what is the conversation surrounding paid dating?
Ethics was quite an interesting field of study. I studied both finance and ethics. Finance is like, you always have a clear outcome. And in ethics, you look at different situations from different perspectives. What I can tell you from studying ethics for two years is you look at a case and discuss it from different perspectives. I’d look at Ohlala as a company, the values of the company, and how we choose to go forward and that’s how you discuss it. It’s more talking than having this final answer that is true or not. Ethics has been with us in the company since day one. So that’s actually what we created. We created a value-free, nonjudgmental environment and we tried to honor the integrity of our users. That’s why I never elaborate on what’s happening on these dates. Our stakeholders accept that this is a private matter because that’s important to users.
So the issue isn’t what goes on, but the users’ right to decide for themselves.
Yes. I’m always trying to understand why people are so strong or negative about this. I’m trying to understand where people are coming from and why they’re so emotional [about paid dating]. It’s different from person to person. But it’s like, if you are not directly involved and you don’t want to go yourself, [then] how can you judge people going on paid dates? After all, it’s their choice. It’s super interesting. Those who are the most negative, they get confused when I ask, “Have you ever talked to someone going on paid dates?” And they’re like, “no.” So how can you have such a strong opinion if you’ve never talked to anyone doing this?
Do you find any difference in attitudes between your native Germany and the U.S.?
Germany is completely different from New York in how we see [and date] people. New Yorkers really appreciate that instant aspect. Germans have a tendency to try to meet the next day [instead of that night]. That’s something that we see. Other than that, it’s … no. It’s still stigmatized, I think, in both worlds. And there’s a long way to go. It’s just so fascinating to see that people care so much about this.
What do you think about the fact that pornography is legal but prostitution is not?
In my opinion, it’s ridiculous. It’s actually safer for everyone involved, the more liberal the law is. The more you criminalize it, the trickier [it becomes] and it’s just not safe for the people who are doing this. And I think it should be safe. But trust me, I had done some political work in Germany three years ago around this topic and it’s so tricky for politicians to address this topic. I even see it when I talk to journalists, the guys feel like they have to be a little bit critical about this, that they don’t publicly [want to endorse Ohlala] or say it’s an interesting thought. Women are just more open-minded.
Is it all rich, old men and hot, young girls?
No, the guys are younger than you expect. It’s busy guys who appreciate the convenience of having an instant date. It’s like they’re… trust me, you ‘d be surprised. It’s not the old guys [who] you find on Ohlala. And if you have a profile as a woman and you see dating requests, you can check out profiles, look at pictures and decide whether or not you want to show your profile to the guy. Even if you don’t find anyone appealing you don’t have to apply for the date or show your profile to the guy.
What do guys get out of this?
The convenience of meeting offline quickly. We set up the concept in a way that as a guy you would send out a dating request and that’s valid within the next four hours. We want people to really get in the moment and meet offline quickly. They [the guys] can set the budget for the date and state the start and duration [of the date] and then dating request goes out and women can check out the profiles. If they like what they see, they can show their [own] profile and then they end up in a chat. Yeah.
You can get a quick date on Tinder though.
I don’t know, but maybe the Tinder experience is different in Germany. Tinder is a cool thing too, but when I used Tinder, it’s like it could be days or weeks in-between [matching and actually meeting]. You finally match and get two people online at the same time and [you’re] writing back and forth. It might work differently in New York but there’s days in-between and it might lose momentum, you’re writing with 15 or 10 or 5 other people, you just get lost in the chat and it never takes place. Thats my experience.
So basically incorporating money adds urgency and makes the stakes a little higher?
Why do you think that is?
Well on a female side it’s – and I’m quoting from some people who use it – they say, “I’ve been on a shitty Tinder date, I might as well get paid.” And some find it interesting. It’s the thrill of it and then a lot of people appreciate the honesty. People really express what they’re looking for and you can say what’s up. It takes away the awkwardness of the date. Also, for guys, so many guys are shy or they can’t say what they want. Suddenly you have money as a mechanism that makes it easier to express what you want and [for] women, they’re judging for themselves whether they want to do this [date] and it takes away the awkwardness. The money involved takes away a little of the awkwardness of having a date where you don’t know what the other person’s looking for. Friendship? Hookup? Whatever it is. You sit across the table and no one expresses this. It’s like, I have had so many weird dates.
Can you give an example of an awkward situation and how it can be resolved by bringing money in?
It’s a phenomenon on dating apps [where] people sometimes don’t know what they want themselves. I have to think of my last dating date. I mean, I was up for dating someone on a regular dating site and Tinder was more a hookup app and you meet this person offline and you’re sitting across the table like, what is he looking for? Is he just getting over his ex girlfriend? Is he all for casual s? You don’t say, “Hey, I’m Pia, what are you looking for?” It’s awkwardness and leaving the date and still not knowing what’s up, whatever. It’s just so weird. I had quite a couple of awkward Tinder dating experiences but where Ohlala would help is before people meet up, they know what they’re getting themselves into and that’s different. The expectations are clear. You meet offline and a lot of weirdness has already been taken out of this encounter.
What is the motivation for a guy?
Actually that’s what… so you wouldn’t expect an old, married guy. You would expect someone young, professional, busy, whatever and what they appreciate is the convenience and the no bullshit, back and forth writing, getting straight to the point and meeting offline quickly.
Some people might say this gives men the upper hand.
It’s not that they… we don’t have any public profiles. It’s not that the guy could say I want to see her, her and her. She’s the one who looks at the profile and decides whether she finds him interesting and at the end of the day she gets money for it and that makes her the one with the upper hand. I very much feel women always have the upper hand, anyway.
What’s the average payment?
Right now we changed [the system] a little bit. We tried different stuff out because we didn’t want to… Back in the day we would set price per hour because guys were setting a high price and then they would renegotiate in the chat. The guys knew the higher the price, the more applications they got so we changed it. We made it a little more abstract. We made a budget tendency where we use items like coins. Now next week we’re doing budget tendency. Up to 150, between 150 and 350, or more.
What we are actually working on and which I’m so happy to do, finally – is match people, they chat and end up offline. If you’re asking me what’s the average price of the budget we will only know once we start processing the payment. That’s something our female users want because it gives more reliability and security to the date. We authorize payment up front, the meet happens offline and then payment is processed. There’s no money physically changing hands.
What other safety measures are there?
We verify the phone numbers and then for us, it’s super important to have a valid user. Users can flag and report each other and give direct feedback [to Ohlala]. Through this we can easily spot people who are not good and take actions depending on what they did. So there’s that and then we [also] try to collect feedback after the date. We ask them what their date [experience] was but we do this in a neutral way. [And we ask them to] express in smileys, not in detail. We do this to build [user’s] reputation which is important to us.
Finally, we close the cycle by processing the payment. I have to say, honestly speaking, when people meet online first and then offline, people are serious about the data [collected] and we do have serious data which I think already decreases risk of [bad] offline encounters. [This] compared to a guy in bar you don’t have a name, phone number, nothing, that holds true for Ohlala but also for any dating app. By discussing online first and meeting offline [after], it decreases the risk. I think just running into a guy, alone, at a bar – it would be scarier.
Because there’s no digital or paper trial?
You don’t even have name or a number.
Have you guys had any incidents?
Minor stuff reported — he or she didn’t show up on time or miscommunication but there was no serious thing that actually happened.
If something did happen would you have access to chat records?
It’s in our terms and conditions – if we have to have a look or take action, depending on what’s happening ,we would have obligations to support where we can. So yeah, definitely.
What made u wanna get into this market specifically?
Because it’s fascinating on so many levels. On a social level, on a political level, on a business level. I’ve been thinking about this for two years now and I haven’t been bored a day. It’s still so fascinating and there’s such a long way to go for us. There’s such room for innovation.
Do you ever get people saying your app is encouraging immoral behavior?
I’m not saying this is for everyone and I don’t think it is for everyone but for people who like to do this, it’s the right choice and that holds true [for them]. I think that people who use Ohlala have done it before on other platforms and we just try to channel them. It’s a choice. I’ve been asked if I would paid date myself and I’ve thought about this for a long time and I haven’t done it yet because its not my cup of tea, for now. I might think about this if I wasn’t in a relationship or had a different opinion, I don’t know. I think it’s a very deliberate choice people make for themselves.
I’m so happy [for] the day we make this successful for everyone. I’m not a sexist. We made this [app] for women and the men pay for the dates with the women. We didn’t open this up for men because on my former app, [where] we made this [payment] available for everyone, what happened is so many guys signed up and wanted to be Pepper escorts. It was fascinating to see [guys like] “wow, I’m having s, I’m getting paid, it’s crazy and awesome,” and then if you flipped it, women were getting victimized. Like, “OMG, those poor little things.”
However, when we started with Ohlala, we wanted to make one case right and add other cases so as not to confused users. I can promise [that once] we get this done, what we’re looking [towards] will be the gay community – and also for women. I have to say, women pay for dates, too but they always have an agenda and they’re trying to figure something out. There’s a lot of email writing and phone calls involved. I don’t know if this product is the right product for women paying for dates. This is something we will find out. Why we didn’t open this up for everyone right away is we launched this version and it’s super hard if one product can’t be for everyone. Grindr focuses on the gay community, Tinder is regular dating. We wanted to do one thing right, first. I’m not a sexist, although I’ve been accused of being one, it was more a product decision than any other aspect.
Grindr doesn’t even work for women because women always have an agenda. That’s the feedback I got from back in the day when I did research. They have something they want to solve or to get over something – it’s a little bit deeper what they’re trying to seek. It could be all kinds of different reasons but usually they’re not so much into the instant meeting offline. Rather, getting to know someone up front. We see the same behaviors on dating apps. Women like to chat more, get a feeling for the person.
Not as quick of a process?
That’s a guess. We look at different dating apps and that’s the feedback we always get.
What would be a change you’d make?
I think we’d need to add features like sending voice messages or calls that you can do through the app to make create a little bit more of a personal touch. I don’t think women are into 21 minutes [of text] and meeting quickly. We’d rather not stress them out about the offline encounter and give it more time. Those are two things that will be super important in to my opinion.
People want to assume men and women function the same but they don’t.
Yeah, I agree. I had this exact discussion with my boyfriend the other day about this. I’m so happy to be a woman and I wouldn’t want to be a man for a day. I like that we’re complex and emotional – I love this.
Any other common misconceptions?
People try to use words like in New York it’s “escorts” but what we’re trying to do is disconnect form words like this. When you hear a word like escort, everyone has a picture in their mind of what that person is and does. We never use those words because if we’re using old language for new concepts, we don’t get far. That’s why we frame it as “paid dating” and disconnect it from “sugar baby” and stuff like that. It’s just “women” and “men.” And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish but it’s super hard to convince people that if you use terms that have an emotional component because people already have an idea of it, we won’t get any further in destigmatization.
That’s why we never use those terms because then you automatically have an opinion or judgement and that’s what we don’t want to do.
The funny thing is we all have surface level considerations when we’re dating, and money’s just one of them.
Even when you see certain couples and you’re like why are you guys dating. I’m not supposed to judge other people but when people claim money is not a thing in a relationship I don’t think it’s true. It’s always is a thing. Yeah, always.