AS A teenager in Glasgow, Bill Dobbie fancied becoming a pilot – a career with a bit of daring, and something a little bit different.
However, it wasn’t to be. After failing the RAF medical examination, he fell back on to more traditional studies and earned a maths degree from St Andrews University before stumbling into the computer industry, landing his first job as a programmer with Burroughs in Edinburgh.
“It wasn’t a plan,” he says now. “I left university with no idea what I wanted to do. Then I hitched a lift with a guy who worked in the industry and he said I should take a look at it.”
Since then, Dobbie has run through a rather lengthy list of jobs and business ventures. His journey has probably taken him as far afield as most fighter pilots, with plenty of twists, turns and travel along the way.
As we speak, he’s in the airport awaiting a flight back from the Ukraine, where Dobbie’s online dating company Cupid employs most of the 115 programmers on its 300-strong payroll.
The company was set up in Edinburgh in 2005 under the original name of EasyDate, before a public spat with EasyGroup founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou resulted in the name being changed in 2010 for “a combination of reasons”.
Cupid now has operations in 15 countries collecting registrations from nearly every part of the world. Its network of sites caters for all tastes – the traditional singles market, “mature dating” and match-making for single parents, to name a few.
The newest additions are Amour.com, SeRencontrer.com and Ulla.com, three websites run out of Paris and acquired last week by Cupid in a €3.7 million (£2.9m) deal.
Combined with Cupid’s existing French operations, chief executive Dobbie believes his company is now within striking distance of taking 15 per cent of that country’s online dating market, which at an estimated £100m-£120m is of a similar size to that in the UK.
“I think in a couple of years we will be the clear number two in France,” he says. “Our goal is to have a 15 per cent share in the markets where we operate. In the UK we are there already, and the one following that is France.”
One of the main keys to achieving these growth ambitions will be the successful integration of dating services with new mobile phone applications and social networks.
Much of this work falls to the programmers in Ukraine, a legacy of Cupid’s origins with co-founder Max Polyakov, a Ukrainian software specialist, who left Cupid earlier this year to pursue other business opportunities in the United States.
Dobbie says Cupid is investing substantial amounts in business models that tap into the mobile revolution, with new innovations expected later this year. The aim is to become more accessible while also drawing upon information from other sites to help identify compatible counterparts.
“It helps users find matches without having to tick as many boxes,” Dobbie explains.
Cupid’s success – including a share price that has more than trebled since its AIM flotation in June 2010 – marks the current culmination of a varied career in which Dobbie has helped set up a number of businesses.
He advanced to the position of marketing manager in Australia with Burroughs, but returned to Scotland in 1990 when brother-in-law Angus MacSween offered Dobbie a role in setting up a new company called Teledata. The business evolved from being a call centre operator to internet service provider before its sale to Scottish Telecom, where Dobbie worked for another couple of years.
He rejoined MacSween in 1998 to set up Iomart, the internet security firm that is still trading today out of its Glasgow head office under MacSween’s leadership. Dobbie left in 2003 to set up on his own, though he retains a healthy interest in Iomart along with his 3.4 per cent stake, which makes him the company’s seventh-largest shareholder.
He then started an online DVD rental service, and it was during this period that he hooked up with Polyakov. The DVD business was sold, after which the pair set about establishing what would finally become Cupid.
“We were left with this internet structure, and we were looking for something we could do with it together,” Dobbie says.
After establishing the online dating business in the UK, the partners saw the need to expand overseas – a move that would require funding that Cupid chose to raise through a stock market listing. They began with English-speaking countries such as the US and Australia, before moving into foreign language territories in Europe and South America.
With an estimated £11m warchest, Cupid is expected to continue its expansion through acquisition. However, Dobbie stresses that the company will focus for the time being upon building up within its existing footprint, which is expected to generate sales of about £74m for the full financial year.
“We can see a way of getting to £150m to £200m in turnover doing what we are doing now,” Dobbie says, “but as you move towards those goals, your horizons change as well.”