ach5

Meet Naza Shelley, Founder and CEO of CarpeDM Social 2021

ach5

After feeling left unsatisfied with her dating app experiences, Naza Shelley took matters into her own hands and created video-based dating app CarpeDM Social to meet her needs.

Credit: Foster K. White

The 3-year-old tech company utilizes a patented matching process that requires interested singles to video chat before texting. But its exclusive iOS app isn't just for any and everybody—it's specifically for singles seeking to connect with professional Black women (initially in the Washington, DC area, with plans for eventual expansion to other cities), and there's a membership process to even join the platform. 

“We want to be that space where if Barack and Michelle were online dating, they would have met on CarpeDM,” Shelley told Ach5 in a phone interview. 

Quick Facts About Naza Shelley

Name: Naza Shelley

Age: 34

From: "I'm a military kid, Army. I was born in Germany, but I grew up all over the U.S. I've lived in Hawaii, Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan, and my family settled in Virginia when I was about 13."

Random delight: Shelley maintained a plus size fashion blog during law school, where she would review free clothing she received. 

Key quote or motto you live by: "I feel like I live by the golden rule. You should do as much good for and as little harm to others as possible on your journey to find happiness."

An Unlikely Journey Into Tech

Even though Shelley initially didn't have an interest in becoming a startup founder, falling into the tech space came naturally as she was conceptualizing her company, so she ran with it. 

"The real emphasis behind me starting CarpeDM Social was just a personal problem that I had," Shelley said. "I just had a real issue with dating in DC, and I thought there has to be a better way to engage with people."

Shelley's interest in business, which she gained from watching her parents start and sell companies, is what led her to switch careers. A lawyer by trade, Shelley said her legal background has helped her develop problem-solving skills that have become invaluable as an entrepreneur.

She attended Howard University Law School, and worked as an attorney until January 2020, when she decided to go full-time with CarpeDM. 

"At the time that I left my job, we were planning to move to New York, because that's where most of the users for our original product were," she said. "Then COVID really hit and threw everything into a tailspin, but also in a good way ultimately."

Weathering Changes Through COVID and Other Obstacles

Shelley was able to raise funds from friends and family back in 2018, which allowed her to get CarpeDM's minimum viable product onto the market in February 2019. She's been bootstrapping her company ever since to keep it financially afloat, and right now is the only full-timer on her eight-person team.

"I do wish the rest of my team could work full time, but I'm not able to pay them," she said.

When the pandemic hit, Shelley was often asking herself, "Where are we going from here? Who are our target users? What's the rest of the app going to be like?" Like many business owners, Shelley had to question if the path her company was on was the right one.

"We want to create a product that serves an audience that we're passionate about."

"We spent about a year doing concept validation, only to have COVID pretty much come in at the same time and immediately validate our concept, but then also push other dating apps to accelerate the use of video in their platforms," she said.

When dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble quickly implemented video capabilities into their platforms, Shelley knew CarpeDM had to stay ahead of the game. After hosting a live dating show called Lovecast in partnership with District IRL last summer, the company pulled its MVP from app stores, removed any existing ads and halted all interaction on social media as it made plans to revamp its offerings. 

"We're really focusing on what the next two years for the company is going to look like and a lot of that really stemmed from my inability to secure funding," Shelley shared.

The CarpeDM founder said that, despite pitching to multiple investors and venture capital groups, as well as entering pitch competitions, the company has not yet been able to secure any funding. Taking this step back is helping CarpeDM figure out what kind of company it wants to be and what kind of customers it wants to attract.

To fund the company, Shelley is eliminating her own personal overhead by selling her condo, liquidating her accounts, and moving into her parents' basement. It's unfortunate that she has to make these decisions, but it's a stark reality for most Black tech founders. 

As the competition continues to rise and financials stay top of mind, Shelley is meeting all of these challenges by leading some new ideas to take CarpeDM to the next level. 

Future Plans and Further Focus

The company has been spending this time answering those questions that Shelley was asking herself at the beginning of the pandemic. For the past eight months, CarpeDM has been focused on building a new version of its flagship product that will hit the market in February. 

"We're calling it a launch, not necessarily a relaunch, but [more so] the evolution of our initial product," Shelley said." These last eight months have really been nose to the grind."

Credit: Foster K. White

With the new release of its app, CarpeDM is hoping its product will address a lot of the pain points you hear about online dating, like fake profiles, low engagement, too many options, no curation and beyond. 

"We want to create a product that serves an audience that we're passionate about," she said. "That's how we landed on a combination of a matchmaking service and a dating app, which we call tech-enable matchmaking that's serving singles seeking professional Black women."

CarpeDM will now be leveraging its algorithm and personal handpicked matches to elevate the overall online dating experience for its consumers. With this tedious process, Shelley said the application process and membership into CarpeDM will be "pretty exclusive."

This year, CarpeDM is focused on getting at least 500 members on its platform, implementing its new algorithm, growing its team of matchmakers, and building an online dating community. Look out for a new series from the company in March focused on providing dating and relationship resources.

By the end of the year, Shelley also is hoping to start drawing an actual salary from the business, along with her chief marketing officer and product lead, depending how the new product launch goes.

Following a soft launch next week, CarpeDM's iOS app will launch for the public at the end of February. Anyone interested in applying to join the community can do so through the company's website.