Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of business profiles highlighting forward-thinking, Missoula-based start-ups. The Montana High Tech Business Alliance recently feted the firms, all of which meet at least two required criteria: steep revenue growth or work in a high-growth sector; high-potential products or services; valuable intellectual property; major clients or new markets; will expand operations or add a significant number of jobs in the next year; led by experienced entrepreneurs or top experts.

As online dating takes over traditional in-person dating in what is reportedly a $4 billion industry, Charmed dating app co-founder Taylor Margot says the Missoula start-up aims to raise at least $2 million from angel investors by the end of the first fiscal quarter of 2020.

So far, Charmed has raised $50,000 to finance the app that connects friends in real time, as if they’re conversing face-to-face about dating hook-ups, suggestions, referrals, woes and successes. 

After all, dating is universal. But online dating can also be isolating, unfulfilling and frustrating, according to Charmed’s missive. Margot said 86% of online daters do not know what to write in a message and 94% delay or skip replying for lack of words. So Charmed aims to be the bridge between the user and dating with its free app.

“Dating apps are broken if users can’t progress past texting,” Margot said.

“Today, ‘dating’ has become synonymous with online dating,” said Margot, one of three co-founders, all Missoula transplants who escaped the intensity of Silicon Valley and now call the Garden City home.

“We view Missoula as the Berkeley of the Rocky Mountain West – which is to say, the best mountain town in the country,” said Margot, 32, who founded Charmed with David Blanchard, 29, and Jack Peterson, 29 – all former UC-Berkeley students and residents. “From that perspective, it was a no-brainer for three friends who think outside is the best side (vs. inside!).”

About two-thirds of Charmed’s 15 employees live in Missoula. Five employees comprise the “inner staff.” 

Charmed hires two types of employees: media, marketing and branding experts, plus technical engineers and designers. 

“We are looking to hire a Chief Marketing Officer and separately a Head of Growth,” he said. “We will do another hiring push in (fiscal) quarter 2 of 2020.”

What is the purpose of the app?

Charmed reimagines the way people interact while dating online. It integrates with popular dating apps like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble and just like real life, it invites friends to participate in each other’s online dating lives. Charmed users “suggest” replies for each other’s matches and, if accepted, the “suggestion” is sent straight to the match. However, app users do not need to be single or even on a dating app to use Charmed.

It is designed to help people land and go on more – and higher quality – dates. What separates the app from real-life, face-to-face discussions with a friend is “the level of engagement,” added Margot. 

“Compared to text and email, Charmed removes a barrier to communication: Instead of telling a friend you have a new suitor over email or text, you can show them. Instead of asking a friend for advice on how to reply over text or email, you can show them the convo and they can reply for you in your voice. This makes online dating a more collaborative experience. It also creates a higher level of engagement and investment among friends in the success of the single person’s dating journey.”

A well-meaning friend can give or solicit advice about matches in real time and holds friends accountable to one another.

“We've all had a friend who asks for advice, again and again, only to ignore it and complain about the same dating woes next time you see them,” said Margot, a tech attorney originally. “With Charmed, all your friends can be in the same chat, encouraging each other to be more honest, more straightforward, and more themselves. These are elements missing from online dating.”

While working as an associate at a San Francisco tech law firm, Margot said he was known among his friends as somewhat of a “dating guru,” although he struggled with dry spells in the dating scene.

“The honest if not glamorous answer is that the inspiration for Charmed came out of dating desperation,” he said, nothing out of the ordinary for millennials working long hours, he added. He and his friends dated by phone and traded screenshots instead of spending much time on actual dating apps. 

“One Sunday morning, as we were debating messages to send to matches over breakfast, a friend said, ‘I wish you could just write this message for me.’ The rest is kind of history.” 

Today, said Margot, 40% of heterosexual relationships and 60% of same-sex relationships begin online – up from 2% way back in 1995. 

Yet data shows that dating app users complain of self-doubt, anxiety and fear of rejection. So in a way, Charmed is a high-tech support group. 

College students are the primary audience. 

Krister Kroll, Charmed growth advisor and an MBA student at the University of Montana, wants the app to bust through the overwhelming isolation barriers.

“We are amidst a big cultural shift where people are leveraging online connection to create real relationships,” said Kroll. "Charmed is something new and simple. We want people to have better experiences using the online dating platforms they already use. The world of online dating can become an isolating experience, but we don't believe it has to be.” 

While the company works out the bugs and crashing problems, reaction to the app has been positive. Margot said the number of users double nearly every month. 

“We say that tightly knit friend-groups are our target demographic,” added Margot. “These exist in high densities on college campuses. From a test flight perspective, college campuses are excellent proving grounds for Charmed.”

The company inched, then clinched a spot in the industry by winning a regional competition in Missoula to advance to the Early Stage Montana Hyper Accelerator – a major turning point, said Margot. 

On Nov. 7, Charmed will be one of 12 Montana-based growing tech companies to compete in the Early Stage Montana Statewide Showcase at the Wilma Theater for a potential $50,000 cash investment. For more information about funders: http://www.frontierangels.com/about/

Basically, the Charmed founders want to eliminate what they call “the negative epidemic surrounding online dating by inserting” trusted friends and family from the very beginning, in a “collective wooing” sort of way.