Wanted: A Sugar Daddy (Or Two)
The Times Magazine, Mar 2016
Brandon Wade is the multimillionaire geek behind a controversial dating site that hooks up rich older men with young women. An increasing number of female British students are now signing up to fund college. So, who’s exploiting whom?
Also at The Times
When Brandon Wey was 16, at school in Singapore, there was a girl he liked but was too shy to approach. So his father gave him some advice – the way to overcome fear of rejection was to just go for it. Even if he was rejected, he’d know what it was like, and it wouldn’t be so scary next time.
So young Brandon practiced his lines: “Hello, I’m usually very shy, I don’t do things like this, but I really like you…” And then his chance came – he saw her in the cafeteria.
“I walked up to her, stepped on her foot, tripped and fell,” he says, his Singapore accent creeping through. “When I stood up, the only words that came out of my mouth were, ‘I am shy’. That’s it! I turned completely red, sunk my face into my hands and I just stood there while she laughed at me.”
Now 45, Wey helms a dating empire that might be considered the shy guy’s revenge. His flagship business Seeking Arrangement, now in its 10 year, is the world’s premier sugar dating website, ahead of Sugardaddyforme and Millionairematch. It’s where the also-rans of the dating pool can confidently approach the young and the beautiful, just so long as they’re willing to “spoil” and “pamper” or provide a monthly allowance. Sugar Daddies (or rarely Mommies) pay subscription fees of up to $70/month while Sugar Babies (largely girls) join for free, and the age old exchange is played out over and over – youth and looks for wealth and experience, a world of brazen, mutual exploitation.
Wey himself is perfectly likeable. He adopted the pen-name Brandon Wade to sound “more Hugh Hefnerish”, when he wrote his book about Sugar Dating – Seeking Arrangement. But he doesn’t resemble Hef so much as a slightly delicate science professor. He comes to work in sneakers, with a backpack, and as we talk, he’s so open and self-effacing, that I find myself encouraging him.
But Wey’s modesty belies his success. Business is booming. He has 40 staff at his Las Vegas headquarters where we meet, a nondescript office in a sunbaked business park close to the airport. They’re a young, happy bunch; as the site’s pretty Philipina spokeswoman Angela, 25, assures me, “we’re well compensated here.” He also has offices in the Ukraine and Singapore, with plans to open in Los Angeles and New York over the next two years. He has two other websites on the same theme -Whatsyourprice which lets girls charge for their first dates, and Misstravel, in which men pay women to go on vacation with them. But Seeking Arrangement is the flagship, and membership has exploded in recent years, from 2 million in 2013 to 5.4 million today. There are five Sugar Babies to every Daddy worldwide (six in the UK). Half of all Sugar Babies are students. And roughly 3000 new members join every day.
The UK has been key to Seeking Arrangement’s growth curve. Having recently overtaken Canada to become the 2nd biggest global market after America, UK membership has grown over 32% in the past year to 530,000 members. And half of these are students. T=So that’s a quarter of a million UK Sugar Baby students making, according to Wey, 2000 pounds a month on average. It’s not quite $10,000 every two weeks, which is the most lucrative arrangement that Angela has heard of, but still – that’s a lot of sugar. And Wey is actively boosting the numbers – he’s offering students free Premium membership (increasing their visibility on the site), if they can show proof of enrollment.
“Students are our natural market,” he says. “They’re young and single, they have flexible schedules to go on dates in Dubai and wherever. And in Britain, their expenses have gone up. When your government gave the green light to universities to raise their fees, we saw a big uptick in our membership.”
Does it give him pause, I ask, that he’s capitalizing on the financial hardship of young women?
Wey looks apologetic. “This is the society we live in,” he says. “I wish it wasn’t. In the US, after students, our 2nd biggest demo is single moms because of all the child support the fathers aren’t paying. With Seeking Arrangement, at least they can support themselves. In my day, women used to strip to pay for college – now they have more options. And Sugar Daddies can benefit students in many ways that are not financial. If you’re dating anyway, why not date someone older and more successful who can add value to your life?”
These are the stories that Brandon and Angela love most – those of ambitious students who seek the mentorship of older, successful Daddies, and an elevated social network. Some even want help with their business plans. Goaldiggers rather than golddiggers. A leg-up in the job hunt, as opposed to a leg-over in a posh hotel. After all, sex isn’t necessarily on the menu – scores of student profiles insist that a physical relationship is off limits.
For Lucy Waddington, 19, sex was out of the question. She just wanted help with her bills. A creative writing student from Surrey, she saw a documentary where “one girl got like a car, a holiday, a house. And I thought like, why not? If she can do it.” Her first was a lonely middle aged IT consultant, who was going through a divorce. He paid her 1000 pounds to accompany him to dinner. “It was so easy! He just gave me an envelope of cash at the beginning,” she says. For their second date, she got 500 pounds, and he offered her a job writing for his websites. But she got cold feet. “What if he wanted more and I was stuck there working for him?”
One of the site’s ironies is that it makes it harder for male students to date, because girls like Lucy are increasingly seeking out sugar daddies, and yet it was just this difficulty that exercised Wey so severely at college, that it led ultimately to him creating Seeking Arrangement.
A star student, he went to MIT to study electrical engineering and an MBA, but didn’t so much as kiss a girl until he was 21. And even then, it did nothing for his shyness. “She was a friend and one thing just led to another,” he explains. “So I was still fearful because I didn’t make the first move. I was still the guy at parties in the corner, alone.”
For all his terror around girls, Wey was fearless in other arenas. A few years after graduating, he raised $10m for a Boston dotcom that had 60 employees at its peak. When the market crashed, he launched a mobile start-up, creating apps long before the iPhone, but that failed too, so he left tech altogether and started a “Duck tours” business in San Francisco ferrying tourists around in refurbished amphibious vehicles from WWII. By the time that business also fell apart, he was 33 and approaching his 2nd divorce.
“Yes, it was a tough time!” he laughs. “Three failed businesses and two divorces!”
It doesn’t sound like he had much trouble meeting women – with two marriages under his belt. But that’s not how Wey sees it. “For my first marriage, I was 25, much too young. I was desperate, so I just rushed in! That lasted 2 or 3 years. And I met my second wife when I was setting up an office in the Ukraine, but after a couple of years, the spark was gone – I just couldn’t get hard, I’ll be honest – and I was looking elsewhere.”
So Wey returned to the dating pool, where he’d always struggled, and bitterness set in. Why was it so hard for him to find love? “It still affects me,” he says seriously. “I don’t think I’m ever satisfied. I think that I still have to prove myself, or that perhaps I’m still not loved or wanted.”
It was Wey’s mother who sparked the idea for Seeking Arrangement, a company that revived both his business fortunes and his personal life. (She currently works for Wey in his Singapore office.) She had long complained that Wey’s father was “stingy” – she’d come from money, while he hadn’t, so he would sooner save up than buy her gifts. And she warned Brandon not to make the same mistake. “She said women like to be spoiled. Girls will flock to you when you are successful and generous – you just have to show them!”
So Wey trawled the Craigslist personals, trying to find a way to show his generosity. And he found that women often used the phrase “Seeking Arrangement” in their posts. So he met two of them, and asked about their experiences – strictly market research, since he couldn’t afford an arrangement himself at the time. And a month later, he had coded the site, bought the domain name, “Seeking Arrangement.com” and was ready to launch. He ran a robot program that plastered posts all over Craigslist, in every city in America – “you could do that in those days” – and within a week, he had registered 2000 profiles. After a week of free subscriptions, he started charging $10/month. And within three weeks, his site was profitable. It was 2006.
The way Sugar Dating took off is a sign of our times. Wey cites our vapid consumerist culture, the Kardashians and Instagram. Then there’s income inequality, austerity measures, the decline of marriage etc.
But for Seeking Arrangement in particular, success came via two strategic business decisions in 2009. Firstly, Wey got proactive about PR. It’s why he surveys his members so frequently and issues provocative studies to the press – his list of Top Sugar Baby Schools, always makes headlines. “People needed to know that this was real,” he says. “We had real women on our site.” (Adult dating is plagued by fakes. The cheating website Ashley Madison which imploded last year, was exposed as running over 90% fake profiles sending fake winks to hapless subscribers.)
Secondly, Wey built a community – he launched the “Let’s Talk Sugar” blog, and hosted parties and “Sugar Baby Summits” where Sugar Babies could share information. “Just like dating, sugar is a game, and you need to know the rules of engagement,” he says. The blog reads like a Cosmo for hustlers, full of tips about “how to please your daddy” while squeezing him for dollars. There are stories like “How to upgrade your arrangement”, and advice like “use your charms”, “pour on the compliments” and “remember, an arrangement is so much more than just feeding a sexual appetite.” The kind of pointers an old school madam might give her working girls.
But arrangements are not prostitution – on this Wey is adamant. Not that he has anything against prostitution. In fact, he plans to follow the example of the legal brothels in Nevada. “They have weekly STD testing so everyone is safe,” he says. “I want to bring that best practice to dating websites.”
But Seeking Arrangement is not sex work. And to prove it, he makes sure that escorts, camgirls and prostitutes are booted off the site, up to 4000 a month, “in order to maintain the integrity of the dating pool.” He uses image search technology to scan escort sites for matching profile photos, and also face-recognition software, in case the photo is different. It’s just a little harder out there for a pimp.
Sugar Babies also distance themselves from the P word. Profiles typically stress the importance of chemistry, and prohibit “pay per hour” arrangements. But on the continuum between the pure love of the troubadours, and the cold transaction of the sex worker, Sugar Dating often veers perilously close to the latter.
“Men just assume that’s what you’re there for,” says Leila (not her real name), a 23 year old Sugar Baby from Richmond. She’s had several arrangements over three years – often two at a time – to supplement her income as a clerk at a property development company. But she receives dozens of requests that are indistinguishable from prostitution. The American businessman, for example, who, on their first date, offered her $2500 for a threesome. Or the fetishist who wanted to be treated like a dog, walked on a leash and abused, for 1000 pounds a week. She’s lost count of the Arab and Asian playboys who pepper her with obscene demands. “They get desensitized,” she says. “Women will do anything for them because they pay so well.”
Every time she turns an offer down, she learns where her line is drawn – “it’s like how much of my soul will I sell?” For now, her two arrangements are fairly typical – a lonely old man who walks with a cane and just needs the companionship, and a flash Middle Eastern businessman who flies in every week or two for dinner and sex. But she calls the latter “dating” because the businessman is attractive and she doesn’t get paid by the hour, it’s a monthly allowance (2000 pounds). “I’m not flying to Dubai for one night with a stranger, that’s just straight prostitution,” she says. “I’m more like a mistress.”
Remarkably Wey himself hasn’t always had a wonderful experience on his own sites. His first arrangement was with an 18 year old girl whom he spoiled so thoroughly that she fell in love and started to spy on his emails. (This is the main distinction he makes between “love” and an “arrangement” – the degree of possessiveness.) As for Whatsyourprice, he finds the premise a turn-off – paying women to go on a first date. “When they said, are you going to compensate me for taking time off work, my response was, ‘So your time is more valuable than mine?”
But for Wey, this no longer applies. He may be rich now, but he doesn’t live a Sugar Daddy life. Rather, he’s married for the third time. He met Tanya during a job interview, when hiring for his Ukraine office. Once they got together, he transferred her to Vegas where she worked for two years before they tied the knot. “She needed a green card,” he explains. “Otherwise why get married? After two divorces, I wasn’t in a rush!”
He insists it’s a real marriage, though. “We go surfing together, we have the same interests!” he says. “But every couple has its issues!” He laughs and falls silent. It seems, Tanya has left Seeking Arrangement and moved to New York where she wants to work in fashion. “I would like to move to Los Angeles… Let’s see!”
Ultimately, Wey believes in love. The self-described Adam Smith of online dating, who has inserted a tawdry financial component into all these areas where love might bloom – dates, vacations and long term relationships – has always believed in the kind of pop song love that money can’t buy, the kind his sites appear to lose sight of.
When I suggest that a financial transaction can make it difficult to know whether love is true or not, he agrees. “It’s true, that poetic innocence is lost on the surface. But that’s dating – it has always been superficial. All about looks and money. True love takes time. It’s like a sword forged in the fire! We just help to break the ice.”
He relishes these arguments. He has them all prepared. I propose that his sites have a corrosive effect on society – that if first encounters are mediated by cash payments, something democratic is lost and inequality widens. Neither Lucy nor Leila have any interest in having a traditional boyfriend, a relationship – not while the money’s flowing. “Now that I’ve had a taste, I’d never date an average guy,” says Leila. “I’m addicted to arrangements. But I’m young – I want to enjoy life to the max. I can can settle down later.” And yet what’s ‘later’? There are women on Seeking Arrangement who are in their 40s and 50s.
“But a lot of girls quit because it’s not for them,” he says. “They decide that true love, even with a poor person, brings more happiness than being doted on with gifts, because their language of love is not gifts, but touch or service, or other things.” What’s important is the ability to experiment, to choose, and above all – this is Wey’s most passionate argument – to negotiate dates upfront. “Seeking Arrangement is like a pre-nup for dating,” he says. “If people put all their secret desires and needs on the table, that breath of honesty can lead to love. You can stop playing games and let the feelings flourish.” It’s time to be pragmatic about money – it causes so much strife in relationships, why not be open about it? Sure they may be bad apples on Seeking Arrangement – gold-diggers and egotistical rich kids – but that’s life. Love is still possible, he’s seen it.
“My lawyer got married a few weeks ago,” he says. “It was beautiful.” He’d found this lawyer through Seeking Arrangement because he wanted someone who understood the site. He was a Harvard lawyer, with good ratings, up and coming. But his first marriage had failed. He had four children.
“And these children were there celebrating his new marriage. They wrote poems. It was amazing. And it all started with a Whatsyourprice date. He gave her $200.” He laughs. “So it might be superficial at the beginning,, but love can still grow!”