We spoke to Jonathan Bell of SAFSocial about the social network for alternative lifestyles.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jonathan Bell: We’re doing really well. We’re extremely busy with growing the business. The kids are doing their things, and everyone is healthy. Thanks for asking.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded SAFSocial.
Jonathan Bell: My wife and I started another company in 1999 with $106 in our bank account and grew the company to approximately 400 employees & contract employees. We moved to Florida about 10 years ago to semi-retire, and well, you see how successful that worked. Lol.
One night in 2013, while watching “Sex Clubs Around the World” on Cinemax, my wife said, “I could go to a sex club.” About the time I picked my jaw off the floor, my wife told me that she had always wanted to be with another woman. We had been married 15 years, and Heather never mentioned anything remotely about sex clubs or being with another woman. We decided to spice up our marriage by bringing in a woman. The first experience was incredible, and we were hooked on our new adventure.
A friend in the swinger lifestyle told us about creating a joint lifestyle account on Facebook. Upon joining Facebook, we quickly realized there were over 2 million couples with adult accounts. Everyone was posting on Facebook and having a great time. It was a ton of fun! Then, Facebook began deleting accounts and groups because of content censorship. Our Facebook group friends dropped from over 2 million to 300,000 in a matter of months.
We searched the internet and asked everyone we knew in the lifestyle if there was a social network similar to Facebook for adults. There was nothing! We started doing research, partly by sitting at bars and talking to our new drinking partners about an adult social network. The conversations were a lot of fun, and everyone kept saying that they wished there was a clean, mainstream site like Facebook, but for fun sexual stuff.
We began building and testing the site with a few friends. The friends told their friends, and in less than 2 months, over 1,000 people were joining weekly without any paid advertising. People were joining so fast that the servers crashed. We increased the server size, and it crashed again. We had to remove the app from the app stores to prevent people from joining until the infrastructure got completed.
At this point, we knew that we were onto something big!
How does SAFSocial innovate?
Jonathan Bell: We spent 5 years developing the website and apps before launching SAFSocial. During that time, we asked members and friends to provide feedback and recommendations. We received thousands of them, and we’re still implementing some of the early recommendations to this day.
SAFSocial started off as only a social network fed with built-in advertising. People started telling us that they wanted a dating platform, so we added dating. Event hosts said to us that they wished they could sell tickets for their events on SAFSocial, so we added event ticketing. We had an event host work directly with us to add features to the ticketing that he felt were important. Now, large alternative lifestyle events are approaching us every week, wanting to sell tickets on SAFSocial.
We started contacting potential advertisers, and the advertisers were saying, “Hey, we love your platform. You have our perfect target market, but we need conversion tracking built-in. We need this feature and that feature”. So, we built the features into the advertising product.
I didn’t want to have a huge back-office accounting department to constantly disburse funds to our event owners, store owners, affiliates, content creators, etc. I spent six months trying to find a fintech product that would automate vendor disbursements. Every time we thought a product would work, we’d test it, and there would be issues that weren’t acceptable. We looked at creating our own digital wallet and becoming our own credit card processing company. We’re finally able to take a payment API and customize it for SAFSocial, and it works beautifully.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jonathan Bell: The virus has affected the # of events. Pre-COVID, there were 6,000 weekly alternative lifestyle events worldwide. Now there are probably 1,000 to 1,200 weekly lifestyle events.
Our dating platform has seen a reduction from 6.6% of members purchasing dating pre-COVID to 4% now.
Since we’re a startup and gaining new clients daily, the virus hasn’t affected us as much as it would have if we had been in business for a long time.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jonathan Bell: We had to pivot several times prior to launching. SAFSocial started off not being mainstream enough for banks, credit card processors, merchant accounts, etc. We had to change our name, slogan, marketing materials, social network pages, and completely reposition ourselves. SAFSocial got declined 16 times by credit card & merchant processors.
In retrospect, it was a good thing because by making SAFSocial more mainstream, it broadened our audience substantially. We had our heart set on our prior branding and positioning, but we learned to play the game, and I believe it will pay dividends in the long run.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and SAFSocial in the future?
Jonathan Bell: I enjoy playing golf with my 14-year-old son. My wife and I go out on dates 2 or 3 times a month. My daughter is learning to drive, so that’s always an adventure. I’m really a family guy and enjoy being around the house or out with family.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jonathan Bell: We have partial competitors. One of many things that makes SAFSocial special is that we’re the only complete platform for alternative lifestyles. One competitor called SDC provides dating and event listings but doesn’t provide a social network, event ticketing, marketplace shopping, content creation, built-in advertising, podcasts, or a host travel agency.
Onlyfans provide content creation for alternative lifestyles but don’t provide dating, event listings, social networks, event ticketing, marketplace shopping, built-in advertising, podcasts, or a host travel agency.
Modern Lifestyle provides event ticketing for lifestyle events but doesn’t provide all of SAFSocial’s other products and features.
SAFSocial eliminates the need for close to a billion people worldwide to log in on 8 different websites to get what they need within the industry.
SAFSocial also provides an outlet for alternative businesses to market and sell their products. Where else can a business in the $120 billion alternative lifestyle industry set up an online store, a company page, a group to create engagement, write and post a blog, video, or podcast about their business, create an event & pre-sell tickets to the event, and advertise their business all in one place? Companies can literally post an ad and send people directly to their store within SAFSocial.
Your final thoughts?
Jonathan Bell: Thanks for having me on Startup. I love your magazine.
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