CHICAGO: More than 4,500 dating service companies exist today, but for Chicago resident Geoff Anderson, it wasn't enough.
After seeing his brother Steve, a 33-year-old living with cognitive disabilities, try a handful of dating apps – to no avail – Anderson knew there was a problem to solve.
"Steve is just like any other single guy living in a big city – he wants to have a girlfriend and a good group of friends, but unfortunately it's just more difficult for him and other people with disabilities to find those things," Anderson said.
"If there are dating apps that make it easier for two people of the same faith to meet each other, I started wondering why there wasn't something out there to help people with disabilities do the same thing."
So Anderson and his mother, Christine, launched Glimmer, a social app designed to be inclusive of users with physical and cognitive disabilities, which can include traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome and autism.
"It doesn't exclude anyone else; it's just built and designed to take into account that people with disabilities often have trouble disclosing these details on social and dating apps," said Anderson, who has an MBA in marketing and communication from DePaul University.
"We did our own research on the matter, speaking to hundreds of young men and women with disabilities, as well as their parents, at dozens of conferences and events over the years to see if there was desire for a product like this," Anderson said, noting that it includes the non-disabled and is available on mobile.
It's an idea that could have staying power, according to John Madigan, an industry research analyst with IBISWorld.
"If you look at the behaviour of the major players in this industry and what's going on in the market, it's really geared towards niche dating groups – people want to find a group they feel that they're a part of," Madigan said.
"That's what's great about this app – it's speaking to an existing community that seems to want a service that the current market hasn't been able to provide for them."
And that community is strong in numbers: According to the US Census Bureau, there are an estimated 38.6 million people with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 35, a prime range for online dating.
Glimmer users are asked whether or not they have a disability and can choose to show or hide that information on their profile. From there, things start looking familiar: Users can specify whether they're seeking a friendship or romantic relationship, with men or women, and they can search via a handful of discovery settings, including age and disability type.
"If someone is deaf and wants to connect with others who are also deaf, we made that possible," Anderson said.
So far, 35% of Glimmer users have said on the site that they do not have a disability, while 65% declare that they do.
As for why someone without disabilities might give this app a shot, Anderson credits empathy – and first-hand experience.
"A lot of research suggests personal interaction in their personal lives is a large determinant in this decision – for example, maybe their father was hearing-impaired or a good friend has cerebral palsy," he said.
The app displays banner ads and is free to use, and anyone with a Facebook account can download it through the Apple App Store or Google Play store. In just more than a month, Glimmer has signed on about 5,000 active users worldwide, and that number is growing by a couple hundred downloads each day, Anderson said.
Still, he notes that when it comes to an app that promotes meeting up face-to-face, success is dependent on the number of users in each market location rather than users scattered around the globe.
The first build of the app cost about US$25,000 (RM111,225), 20% of which came directly from Anderson's pocket and the rest from a loan. As Glimmer continues to grow, Anderson is looking at strategic partnerships that can help propel the app and its mission.
"Now that we are getting such a positive response, we have started speaking with investors, as well as accelerators and incubators," he said.
While they're interviewing interns to assist with social media, marketing, and design, the two founders are the only full-time employees. They teamed with California-based Cubix.co to develop the app and will continue their partnership as they roll out Glimmer 2.0 – a version with trivia games, a group date function and sponsored events that they're hoping to launch in the next six months.
Anderson aims to move the business from his West Town apartment into some office space and growing the Chicago user base to at least 5,000. He plans to use a mix of targeted Facebook ads, outreach to organizations for people with disabilities, and attendance at conferences and events (think the Abilities Expo and Disability Pride Parade).
"By end of year, it'd be great to see the good results of our efforts here in Chicago, along with the responses we've gotten across the country," he said. "If we do well in one place, I know we can do well elsewhere." — Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service