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Ohlala CEO Pia Poppenreiter on what 'paid dating' really means

It's not selling sex or love. It's about efficiency. Apparently.

James Trew , @itstrew
03.15.16 in Sex
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Ohlala, an app that facilitates "paid dates," caused a ripple of raised eyebrows when it launched in New York last month. Despite Ohlala's insistence that it is not about paying for sex, people had a hard time figuring out what it really was for. The company maintains that line, but a few mixed signals are making it hard for the message to stick. Go to the website and you'll be greeted with an image of a man and a women just about to kiss, before an explanation of how the service works. Further down, a small note exclaims, "Ohlala is not an escort service. Escorts are not welcome." I sat down with co-founder and CEO Pia Poppenreiter at SXSW to figure out what Ohlala is, and whether it deserves its salacious reputation.

Before we can fully understand Ohlala, we need to learn a little more about how it came to be. Poppenreiter started out in finance, originally working as an investment banker. She hated it and took a year off as a bartender. Later, she decided to go to Berlin and study business ethics while also working as a research assistant at her university. "I never wanted to found [a startup]. I'm from an entrepreneurial family, and I grew up with the family mood being dictated by the performance of the company. So I wanted more of a safe [professional] environment."

The resolve for a safe career didn't last too long. Despite never wanting to launch a startup, she's already on her second one. The first was Peppr, an app that is very definitely a service for those seeking sexual encounters. The idea for Peppr came to her after she saw sex workers on the streets in Germany (where prostitution is legal) and she thought there must be a better way to connect clients with providers, one that allowed people to avoid working the streets. Peppr is still running, but Poppenreiter is no longer involved.

"Although we have a common understanding of something that is a vagina, the viewing interpretation to everyone was different."

With one sexual-encounter app on your résumé, it's understandable that when people see "paid dating" in a state where prostitution is illegal, they might read a little something between the lines. Poppenreiter is aware of the struggle she faces in trying to distance Ohlala's business model from its predecessor's. "I understand why people are emotional [about it], and what I am not trying to do is tell them we are right or they are wrong. I am just asking them to reconsider how they view those things." Poppenreiter's way of doing this at SXSW involves a deliberately provocative move. The invites for the launch party in Austin boasted that "21 vaginas will be the center of attention."

The follow-up to the invitation read: "You are all going to come. Let us tell you when." Poppenreiter acknowledges that she did this assuming that most people would have the wrong idea about what was going to happen. As it happens, the 21 vaginas were sketches, part of an art project in which people were asked to draw vaginas. Most people were familiar with drawing a penis," she says. "What was so fascinating to find out, although we have a common understanding of something that is a vagina, the viewing interpretation to everyone was different. That's what's holding true for personal encounters." This is the analogy Poppenreiter is hoping will explain Ohlala, and the personal encounters it is hoping to sell: Each will be unique. The other point being that initial assumptions can be wrong.

While Ohlala just came to New York, it's been running in Germany since last year. The German version is effectively the same except for one key detail: The requests for dates stay active for 24 hours. In the New York version, once a user requests a date, potential companions only have 21 minutes to respond to it. This time limit, Poppenreiter argues, makes the experience "more efficient." Why 21 minutes? Well, the same reason Ohlala featured 21 vaginas at its launch party: Twenty-one is Poppenreiter's lucky number.

People are taking the idea of Ohlala seriously, though. The startup just raised $1.7 million in seed funding, most of which was to cover the launch in the US. Among others, backers include the launch team behind Movie Pilot, a social network for movie fans.

So how is that US launch working out, now that we're four weeks in? It's going well, Poppenreiter says. Nearly 10,000 dates have taken place so far, or so she estimates: Ohlala hasn't yet implemented a payment system, so there's no way to confirm that a rendezvous took place. Of course, it's also possible that the going is good while things are free, and that guys looking for short-term connections might be less willing once cold, hard cash and personal banking details are involved. This is important, too, since, unlike other dating services that charge users to even use the platform -- say, with a subscription fee -- Ohlala will charge per date. No dates, no profit.

Another reason Ohlala keeps having to dismiss any suggestion that it's offering a way for men to meet women for paid sexual encounters is that we live in a world with so many free dating apps. Then there's the seductive Ohlala name -- oh, and that Poppenreiter already started an app very much for providing sexual services probably doesn't help. There's also the fact that prostitution is not legal in New York, and it wouldn't be the first time the words "You're only paying for my time; anything else that happens is between adults" were uttered. You only have to spend five minutes on Craigslist personal ads or Backpage to see this sort of code in action.

I asked Poppenreiter if Ohlala is simply an app-based approach to the same verbal code: offer a platform for "paid dating" and let users figure out the rest. Her response was the same one she's maintained throughout the interview (and any other interview you'll read). "How could I ever confirm if I don't know what's happening on a date?"

But, to some degree, Poppenreiter does know. At least when it comes to what has been discussed between dater and datee in the app, where Ohlala users state what they're after and set expectations. To make sure Ohlala stays in good standing with the law, and to make sure there's no other abuse (toward date providers, for example), Poppenreiter herself is monitoring those conversations -- or at least when there's cause for concern or when an issue is raised. No major issues have been flagged so far, though, she says.

The suggestion that people might use the app as a modern-day equivalent of personal ads seems to give Poppenreiter a moment of pause. Her next answer hints that she's eager to dismiss it with a related example, but it's one that surprises me. "I don't know if you've ever spoken to Travis [Kalanick, co-founder of Uber]. I don't know if he all the time gets the question 'So what is it that is happening in this Uber? Is the customer charging his phone? Is he drinking water?'" The suggestion being that Uber and Ohlala are both just platforms where the user is buying time with a service provider, and what happens after that is a private matter. The possible flaw in that logic being that no one (we hope) ever booked a taxi hoping for a blowjob.

If not sex, then what? Or perhaps a better question: who? It takes Poppenreiter a few seconds to think; her answer remains ambiguous. "We don't have this typical user ... anyone could go on a paid date. We see that people know what they want, and that they have money and a mechanism to express what they're looking for." She adds: "I trust our users to be morally capable of judging for themselves if they want to do this. It's happening, so it might as well be safer." The it in this sentence -- what, by implication, is sometimes unsafe -- Poppenreiter doesn't clarify.

The bigger mystery might actually be the women who want to offer their time. Poppenreiter admits that they're finding the marketing of this aspect difficult. Perhaps the lingering doubt over what's required is making some women apprehensive. Especially since the current lack of a payment mechanism brings with it an element of anonymity for the user (and, presumably, no income for the provider, unless they're being paid in cash). A credit card number provides some level of authentication. Right now, that's not present. "It could be a student looking for extra money. It could be anyone," she offers.

There is a verification process in place, though, using phone numbers, a feedback system and, optionally, authenticating photos. Poppenreiter also makes the argument that this already is somewhat more secure than just meeting someone in a bar, where you might not even have someone's last name (or, let's be honest, their first name). So, once financial transactions are in place, she's confident users and providers alike should enjoy the same level of security they'd have in any other online interaction.

But knowing who you're meeting is only half of the security question; keeping your use of the app private is also a consideration. I asked Poppenreiter about this, referencing last year's Ashley Madison fiasco. It turns out that this happened when Ohlala was in its early stages of development, so it's a topic Poppenreiter and her co-founder, Torsten Stüber, took seriously from day one. What measures Ohlala has in place right now are unclear, but Poppenreiter makes the case that this is the same concern for any app that holds user data.

If you're still not convinced that Ohlala is innocent in nature, it may surprise you to learn that no nudity is allowed in profile pictures. In fact, the service is almost as prudish as Instagram, with a no-nipple policy in place. (We're unsure about the stance on eggplant emojis, though.)

The last question I ask is the simplest one: Could people use Ohlala for love? The instant answer is "No." Then Poppenreiter elaborates: "We're not -- and never will say -- we are the place where you should find the love of your life. But we're saying you could have fun for a certain amount of time." Then, right at the last minute, Poppenreiter gives a clue about what Ohlala is really about: stone-cold efficiency. "[The] money makes it reliable; there's a commitment. I hated it back when I was on dating apps -- I hated the inefficiency, and it's not reliable. People would bail all the time. With us, you can be pretty sure that this date takes place.

How much does a reliable platonic date cost? Users determine their own budget, but obviously cheaper dates get fewer responses. Poppenreiter tells me that in Germany, the going rate is about €250 ($275) per hour. A lot of money for a date you can't be sure will end happily.

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