As we gear up to celebrate the 50 top innovators in the D.C. metro area, DC Inno is taking some time to sit down with a handful of our 50 on Fire winners to see what exactly makes them “on fire” in our DC Innovators series.
Rebecca Yarbrough stumbled across the idea for her startup, The Offline Society, while at a house party she was hosting in Columbia Heights. She and her housemates noticed that one-by-one each of their guests were connecting with someone new. They were exchanging phone numbers, scheduling dates and spending the entire night next to each other.
Not everyone walked away having found the love of their life, but they did find a meaningful connection. This was before Tinder and during the rise of OkCupid. But Yarborough noticed that people still loved the idea of meeting randomly in person. And not only did they love it, but they craved it.
So, in April 2015, she launched The Offline Society. Members sign up for the service online, create a profile, and much like any other dating app they can like or dislike a profile. The difference? The Offline Society doesn’t let you message people online. To meet them, you have to go to one of the startup’s many events around the District.
Yarbrough’s group has grown to include a variety of different event types, as well as a new technology component. Now, Yarbrough’s efforts have landed her a prominent place in the D.C. tech community, including as the newly appointed co-director of The Vinetta Project’s D.C. chapter.
We recently chatted with Yarbrough about how The Offline Society is doing, what she’s learned about D.C.’s dating scene and her new work with The Vinetta Project.
DC Inno: How did The Offline Society start?
Rebecca: So, it started as personal solution to a personal problem, and then I realized that there was a huge market demand for this.
I used to live in a Columbia Heights rowhouse, and as you do, you have parties. My roommates and I threw this huge party, and all of these couples were hitting it off, and it was extreme — almost to the point of scandalous.
The next day, my roommates and I were sitting around in our pajamas with coffee, laughing about what we saw. My roommate Liz said, “It looked like a dating app just exploded in our house,” and the wheels started turning.
Walk me through how the platform works.
You sign up, you make a profile for free, and then every week we send you five potential matches. If you would be intrigued to talk more, then you add them to your guest list. You can’t talk to them.
Then you’d get an email from us saying “Hey, you added Peter to your guest list, and he’s going to this rosé tasting, you should RSVP, too.”
So then we invite people and then the people on their guest list and then the people on their guest list, and it ripples out. If you’re invited to the event, it’s because there’s someone who wants to meet you going to the event.
How do you strike the balance between being an online platform and placing emphasis on the in-person experience?
I think fundamentally why The Offline Society’s idea has grown so much is just because user recognize that we haven’t yet figured out how to use technology to date. Apps are fun, but they aren’t particularly effective.
We try to, at the event, encourage people to put their phones away, encourage people to be present. We talk a lot in our messaging about making meaningful connections, organic connections and the events themselves are structured to encourage and promote that.
With that, the events vary a lot. Where do you find inspiration for them?
We try to cover lots of different interests and areas of talent. We want to be that friend that’s like “Hey, I heard this thing that’s happening, you should go.”
We’ve done outdoors events, we’ve done a brewery tour, warehouse parties, dance parties — but the constant through all of them is that there’s something unique and unexpected.
Our members have been coming back to events for two years now. They’ll come, date someone for a little bit, and then come back because our users have told us, they’re more interested in making new connections with interesting people rather than finding a romantic partner. I think that’s what makes The Offline Society unique. There’s no pressure.
We haven’t yet figured out how to use technology to date. Apps are fun, but they aren’t particularly effective.
In building this, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Some of our assumptions at the beginning have been confirmed. The assumptions were that people are always willing to go outside of their comfort zone to experience something. We also, at the beginning, assumed that people would want a technology component to this, and that’s been true as well.
It’s been really fun to see friendships made at these events. I’ve become friends with my members. My members have become friends with each other. I think D.C. doesn’t really have a non-ausentatious community place to meet new people. You’re expected to be off of your phone.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the humanity of the members.
What is it like to create a dating community in D.C. of all places?
I’m not a matchmaker, and I don’t pretend to be one. I think what we do is we create an environment for people to make their own matches. To that end, it’s been really funny to see who is actually interested in some of the matches. They walk out of the event together, and I think “Really?”
You have these really successful, powerful players, they come in and they’re just looking for a date. They’re just looking for somebody to understand them. They’re just looking for somebody to watch Netflix with them on weekends. It’s a humbling experience for people, which I think makes it more fun for us because we can be there to help them.
Building a dating company in D.C. is definitely interesting. One of the more interesting components are things that I didn’t expect like how difficult it is for women. We have a lot of women coming to us really tired of D.C. dating, and we have more female members than men. Our events sell out, but they sell out first for women. It’s tough out there, and The Offline Society’s success in the female demographic is a testament to how hard it is for women in D.C.
We have a lot of women coming to us really tired of D.C. dating, and we have more female members than men.
To shift it a bit, I’m curious to hear about your new involvement with The Vinetta Project. How did you get involved?
Somehow I ended up at the very first Vinetta event in spring 2015, and I met Amelia Friedman there and got plugged into the community. I realized that the Vinetta founders were becoming my best friends and my support network, and that community had become a really important institution for me.
There was always somebody I could call in the middle of the day. I wasn’t really involved in that world before. Amelia had planned to step down this summer, and they needed somebody else to step up and help with programming.
It’s definitely been interesting to come in because each year, Amelia and Anna [Mason, Vinetta’s co-director], have built this into something that’s bigger and bigger and more substantial, and 2018 is definitely no exception.
What are you excited to work on through Vinetta?
What I’m excited about for 2018 is taking it over the finish line in terms of getting deals done, getting checks written because right now, our events are really full, so how can we facilitate more one-on-one relationships?
I’m really excited about engaging more angel investors. I think there are a lot of people with high net worths out there, and I want to connect our Vinetta founders to them and vice versa.
What can we look forward to with Vinetta moving forward?
In 2018, we’re going to be working on building more structure to the community that up to this point was facilitated through the personal emails of the volunteers. Scaling out those personal introductions and facilitating more curated cultivated relationships.
Become an expert at doing as much as you can with as little as you can
What is it like for you to be an entrepreneur?
I’ve always been the kind of person that wanted to start things — for better or for worse. I love waking up in the morning and knowing that the world is my oyster, and I can do what I do. I feel very lucky.
I feel very lucky to be an entrepreneur, and I think it’s not as sexy as it sounds. Everyone says that. It is very humbling in many ways — that’s probably the best word for it, humbling. You realize how much you depend on other people — your team, investors, advisors — to make something that’s in your head or their head come true. It’s also humbling to know that at the end of the day if something goes wrong, it’s your fault.
I definitely felt like I’ve lived 10 years in the past two years.
What advice do you have any aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Become an expert at doing as much as you can with as little as you can, and invest in your networks.