I’m stood clutching a glass of champagne on the sidelines of a polo pitch in Richmond wearing a blazer and a wristband that reads The Inner Circle Summer Polo Cup 2015. It’s fair to say this isn’t my average Saturday afternoon.
The Inner Circle is a dating platform used by 13,000 people in the UK that describes itself as an “exclusive network” for “only the most successful and attractive singletons around the world”. It's one of a clutch of new elite dating apps being downloaded onto people's smartphones worldwide as people start to question whether swiping and scrolling through apps like Tinder and Happn, home to millions of users from all backgrounds, is the best use of their time.
The Innr Circle allows you to "like" other people's profiles and browse through their photos, as well as offering various other ways to interact (such as "winking") and chat.
There's a lot happening on there. In contrast to Tinder and Happn where it's all about speed and getting through profiles, The Inner Circle allows people to share considerably more information about themselves, including where they're going and where they'd like to go. People arrange meetups at high-end venues and they let other members know if they're planning to visit a particular city in the near future.
Those that are keen to sign up to the dating platform (a direct rival to The League) have to pass a relatively strict vetting process, which involves an Inner Circle employee looking at your education, career, photos and age, possibly via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and anywhere else on the internet where you've left a mark.
For every person that’s accepted onto (or into) The Inner Circle, another is turned away.
“It’s basically a network for single young professionals,” explains Dutch cofounder and COO Michael Krayenhoff, adding that everybody is like-minded and between the ages of 25 and 40. They all have a “good story to tell” and they're "fun and sociable" people, he says.
“If someone uploads a profile picture of themselves as a half-naked gym buff then that’s not what we’re looking for and they would not get on the website,” adds Krayenhoff. “We focus on a specific group of people.”
I then ask David Vermeulen, CEO of The Inner Circle, what he would say to someone that claims the app is unfair or elitist.
“There are obviously the members clubs in London," he replies. "It’s a bit of the same. There are so many dating sites and what we do is in some people’s opinions unfair but if you were to allow everybody [to join] then it wouldn’t work."
In addition to being exclusive, The Inner Circle is aiming to differentiate itself from its competitors by hosting events for its members, helping them to feel like they're part of a larger community.
“Events work well,” says Vermeulen. “If you go on the site everybody has a nice picture but if you meet someone in real life it’s always a bit different.”
The latest event, attended by up to 350 Inner Circle members, took place on Saturday at Ham Polo Club in Richmond, Surrey, with an after party at Chelsea nightclub Mahiki to boot.
I attended as a member of the press (along with journalists from the BBC and Time Out) and was given permission to bring three friends – a management consultant, a Berlin-based tech PR over in London for the weekend, and her friend that works at Google. The latter was lucky enough to run into a handful of fellow Googlers shortly after we arrived.
One of the first observations we make is there are more females than males. Women’s tickets, priced at £25 a pop, sold out long before the men’s, according to promo emails from The Inner Circle that flooded my inbox in the lead up to the event.
“We have way more women on the site,” says Vermeulen, who tells me that many of the polo players competing on the day have registered as members of The Inner Circle.
During the polo, the atmosphere is fairly awkward, with friends sticking to the groups they arrived in for the most part. But things soon start to change.
When the last polo match of the day comes to an end around 4pm, a helicopter flies in to take one of the players home.
I then start to tentatively approach male, female and mixed groups as the party gets underway to gauge why they’re here.
As you might expect, most are reluctant to give their name. However, some are happy to chat providing I keep their name out of this story.
The first group I approach comprises three girls sat down on the side of the pitch, away from the dancing singletons in the stands who are loosening up with every sip of alcohol that passes their lips.
Spotlight on singles
One of the ladies in the group, a professional polo player thought to be in her mid-twenties, explains how she met Michael Krayenhoff at Royal Holloway University, where she now teaches polo.
“I thought, ‘oh singles day’. I thought it would be fucking funny,” she said, adding that she’s recently split with her boyfriend. “We came from Ascot, we got on the train. We thought, 'fuck it, why not?'”
Next I approach two well-dressed males that seem to be attracting a lot of attention from the other guests. Both are wearing sunglasses and blazers and have slightly slurred speech.
It turns out they also know the founders and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they're very complimentary of the day's event.
One says: “You know when you’re out on the lash, no one speaks to anyone that isn’t in their group. But here, because it’s all single people, everyone speaks to you.”
He adds: “Polo is a weird kind of thing. It’s not about the sport it’s about everyone networking.”
Payal Dalal, 34, a guest that was happy to go on the record, said this was her second Inner Circle event.
“They definitely pick really good venues and people tend to enjoy the parties,” said Dalal, who works for a bank’s corporate and social responsibility team. “I talked to several people [at the last event I went to]. I don’t necessarily go to meet somebody, it’s just something a bit different.
“I think the average member is around 26 or 27, British or European and probably comes from more means than maybe the average person on the street.”
However, Dalal then went on to question how exclusive the platform actually is.
“I suspect they accept 90 percent of people who apply,” she said. “Everyone we know who has asked to join has got in. I don’t actually think it’s an exclusive thing.”
As the DJ wound up his set many of the attendees headed on to Mahiki, a venue frequented by Prince Harry in its early days, for the after party but my friends and I decided we'd continue the evening in Brixton - a part of London we feel slightly more at home.
The founders are bullish about the company's growth and expect The Inner Circle's existing user base of 60,000 members to increase as the app is rolled out to new cities and more applicants on the waiting list get approved.
But what about the company's business model? Well, it charges users £10 for two weeks of access to "special features". It also cashes in on event ticket sales for its exclusive parties, which have previously been held at the likes of Whiskey Mist in Mayfair and Bodo's Schloss in Kensington.
Vermeulen, who works out of the Amsterdam office with the Ukranian developer that built the entire platform, said he hopes to take on investment in order to support the company's expansion efforts. He refused to say how much he is looking for.
While not everyone is likely to agree with the elite dating app's vetting policy, it would appear that demand exists, with the mobile dating scene going from strength-to-strength.