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Ian Burrell: The little-known online dating success story with 140 million users

Badoo is one of Britain's biggest online success stories and has amassed 140 million users a month and yet many people here have never heard of it. The site promises the excitement and potential for romance of a nightclub – but one you can access from your phone or laptop without the need to dress up.

Run from offices in the heart of London's Soho, Badoo is essentially a dating site that also allows users to pretend they're only looking to make new friends. And the formula seems to be working.

So impressed was Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, that he nominated Badoo's Russian founder Andrey Andreev as the internet entrepreneur to watch this year. "I'm intrigued by Badoo's growth to over 120 million users in an under-the-radar way," Mr Wales told Wired magazine at the start of the year. "I've tested Badoo which, as a dating site, isn't something I'm in the market for myself, but I'm impressed with how it works, and fascinated by the game-like business model."

Sign up to Badoo and your screen will be filled with pictures of singles in your geographical area. Jessica Powell , Badoo's chief marketing officer, gives a demonstration on an iPhone. Some of the men she finds are extremely close. "Asif, 32, is 200 metres away".

Women who are newly registered to the service are often hit on (or "pinged") in minutes.

"Women get approached a lot more but once a conversation has been initiated women are just as chatty as the guys," says Ms Powell. "Women tend to browse more and look at more photos, while the guys are a lot less picky." But, she stresses again, the site is not only about meeting partners – it's an ideal tool for finding friends in a new city.

"The idea was: 'How do we duplicate online the experience of going into a club or a bar?' It's not specifically about dating in the way that match.com or eharmony are, it allows more flexibility."

Most people use the site just to chat, with 20 per cent going on to date. An average user will speak to between six and 10 people a month and meet between two and four of them. Jessica Powell acknowledges that the site has a difficult "balance" to strike between not invading user privacy while being able to "be as helpful as possible" to police if users are the subject of an investigation.

The idea has proved more popular in Latin countries than in Britain or the United States – only 1 million or so of the monthly users are based in the UK (60 per cent are male and one third are over 35). Jessica Powell says this growth pattern is partly due to timing – Andrey Andreev founded Badoo in 2006 while living in Spain and the site initially spread through the southern Mediterranean and Latin America. In some Latin countries more than a tenth of the online population is registered to Badoo. She also says cultural issues are at play. "If you are in Madrid having gone out for a drink, it's easier to strike up a conversation with the person next to you, forget whether it's romantic – it's just much easier."

To overcome reticence from Brits and North Americans, the site has introduced "interests" features, giving users more reasons to talk. "It gives less potential for rejection," she says. "We need to think a bit differently about how we do the UK and US [but it's] starting to grow."

Unlike many web ventures, Badoo is making money – it claims it takes around £100m a year in revenues. Users pay around £1.50 for a "Spotlight" feature that temporarily lifts their picture to the top of the screen, and £5 for a subscription that gives a premium service which includes being able to view other people's profiles anonymously.

When Andrey Andreev first set up Badoo he planned something closer to a regular social media site. But he changed his mind when he realised that he couldn't compete with the phenomenal rise of Facebook. "He saw the writing on the wall," says Ms Powell. "He sat the team down and said, 'We are no longer about sharing information with your friends, we are about connecting you with people you don't know.' That changed everything."

There were advantages to relocating to London. "The UK was a pretty attractive place versus other locations in Europe, it has a very international workforce," says Ms Powell, who as an American is among the minority of native English speakers at the Soho offices. "There's a lot of energy around tech right now in London that perhaps five years ago wasn't the case."

But being in the UK also brings problems – aside from the obvious one of a harsher climate than Silicon Valley. Badoo's huge growth has not translated into industry recognition. Smaller US operations, such as the location-based social networking site Four Square, which is based in New York, enjoy higher profiles.

"There's still an assumption that you aren't really big if you are not in the US," says Jessica Powell. "It's striking that there are sites that Badoo is 10 times larger than that still get more attention." Whether you're dating or not, perhaps it's time to wake up to Badoo.