Forget our ‘progressive’ society, Zoë Desmond — who set up single-parent online hub Frolo — says there’s still stigma in not being part of a nuclear family, and that dating as a single parent is beset with challenges, not least when children are sometimes seen by potential partners as a burden...
When Zoë Desmond was navigating being a newly single mum in London, she craved the camaraderie and support of other single parents, so she did what any 21st-century, entrepreneurial-minded individual would do — she built an app for that.
Launched in 2019, Frolo (a portmanteau of the words ‘friend’ and ‘solo’) is an online hub that empowers and supports single parents by offering opportunities to meet other single mums and dads in addition to advice and assistance. It also features an optional dating service, where being a single parent is the norm rather than something one has to tentatively navigate how and when to reveal.
“The idea of a single-parent app didn’t begin as a business idea, but was something I had hoped already existed,” explains Desmond, whose son, Billy, now six years old, was just one when his parents split up. “I discovered that one in four families in the UK and Ireland are single-parent families — with one in three in the US — and yet it felt as if I was the only single mum in my London borough. Why couldn’t I find all of these single parents?”
The daughter of businessman Dermot Desmond maintains there’s still a sense of stigma and shame attached to not being in a traditional nuclear family. “Even in 2023, nobody’s shouting about being a single parent,” she admits.
Desmond recalls how she used to wish away the weekends when she first separated from Billy’s father. “All you see is happy families everywhere. It’s so easy to feel lost and isolated. I think if I had known other people who were going through the same experience it would have helped me to cope with the loneliness of being a single mum, as well as navigate the throes of new parenthood.”
The 42-year-old searched desperately for some kind of online group that would offer her the opportunity to connect with others in similar circumstances, and throughout what proved to be a fruitless pursuit, she became convinced that an online
single-parent community would be transformative for her and others like her.
Desmond’s “lightbulb moment” was chatting to a local mum she knew in passing and discovering not only that she too was single, but that her son was a similar age to Billy. “She had just arrived home from a holiday alone with her son. A range of emotions hit me that day,” explains Desmond. “If only she and I had known the other was single, we could have connected earlier and offered each other the kind of friendship and support you really need as a single parent, especially in those early months and years of a separation or divorce, or when you have really young children. Sometimes, all you need is somebody to enjoy Sunday lunch with.” Entrepreneur Richard Branson’s famous refrain: “There is no point in starting your own business unless you do it out of a sense of frustration” was never more apt than in Desmond’s case.
So the Dublin native set out to build a community herself as a way to connect single parents in the UK and in Ireland. With the backing of investors — including Flickr founder Caterina Fake, who as a single mum herself immediately understood the premise and promise of Frolo — the platform was born. “I had a number of different investor conversations to begin with,” explains Desmond, “and certainly some individuals simply didn’t understand the concept of or need for Frolo.
“It was intimidating,” she adds, and dealing with potential backers was an enormous learning curve. The first round of investment I received was from a venture capitalist fund that focuses on under-represented founders such as women, and then Caterina came on board. She just got it immediately, which was amazing.”
Three years on and the Frolo community has 40,000 registered users (the app has had 100,000 downloads), with the ratio of men to women at 40:60.
The stereotype that all single parents are mums is, Desmond explains, completely outdated. “Frolo dads are incredibly active on the platform and super-engaged,” she says. “Many of them have had the same negative experiences with online dating as women. They, too, would prefer to date another single parent.”
Frolo won the Social Media App of the Year at the 2021 UK App Awards, and last July, the app’s dating service launched. Within a month of going live, there were over 3,000 matches, while in its first six months, more than 35,000 dating messages were exchanged. There has even been one Frolo engagement.
The dating element evolved out of user demand. She sent out a survey to the Frolo community more than a year ago, and to her surprise, the one thing they wanted most from Frolo was a dating service.
“It was a real surprise to me — dating is the last thing on the mind of some single mums and dads — but the feedback I received was that traditional dating apps were a negative and stressful experience for single parents.
“There’s always that quandary about whether or not to mention that you have children on a profile page, and it’s not unusual to see the word ‘baggage’ used to describe kids, which is not a nice thing when you’re a parent. On Frolo, nobody feels different or less-than because they are a single parent. It’s incredibly freeing,” explains Desmond.
“Every user signs up to the Frolo dating values of authenticity, respect and empowerment.”
The platform enforces these values with an anti-ghosting feature, which sends a prompt if a message goes unanswered for more than three days, encouraging the user to respond with a set of prewritten messages.
“The prompt simply says ‘no one likes to be left hanging’, and includes a list of responses, which you can choose from, such as ‘I’m super busy at the moment and don’t have time, sorry. I’ll be back as soon as I can’, or ‘I’m chatting to someone else who I have a connection with, but I really wish you all the best’,” Desmond explains. “This removes the fear and shame inherent in online dating. Nobody is left wondering, ‘Was it something I said?’”
Desmond has also put measures in place to ensure Frolo is a safer dating experience. There is an advanced two-step authentication process, similar to the likes of Revolut, so users need to verify logins through a mobile number as well as an email address, and a live photo is taken as part of the verification process to prove users are who they say they are.
Choosing a match when you’re a single parent is so much more complex than simply swiping right if you like the look of someone, explains Desmond, so Frolo dating profiles include each individual’s parenting circumstances — lone, co-parent or widow, for instance; the ages of their children; whether or not they’d like to grow their family, and what their key relationship values are. “There’s also an opportunity to answer a couple of ‘ice-breaker’ questions in your profile, such as ‘What’s your ideal family day out?’, or ‘What would you cook to impress a date?’. They just provide a context within which to start a conversation with someone,” explains Desmond.
This year, the entrepreneur has her sights set on launching Frolo in the US and Australia. “Frolo doesn’t exist anywhere other than the UK and Ireland right now, but I’ve had plenty of messages from people living elsewhere who want to sign up,” reveals Desmond.
She has also just announced the launch of the Frolo Directory, an online one-stop-shop where users can buy and book products and services that are rated and reviewed.
“There’s so much opportunity and so many resources the Frolo community is looking for,” says Desmond. The Directory will also serve as a space for advertisers and a revenue generator for the platform.
Like any good founder, Desmond has thoroughly tested out her own product. She now has a multitude of single-parent friends in her local community, whom she has connected with via Frolo.
It turns out that both Desmond and one of her “Frolos” (Desmond’s colloquialism for a Frolo friend) were walking their buggies along the same street in London at 4am in the morning a couple of years previously, trying to send their babies to sleep.
“What it would have meant to have had each other’s support at that time,” she laments. “I’ve also been on plenty of Frolo dates,” she confirms, “and I’ve made some really lovely connections and had only positive experiences. It’s so different dating another single parent because there is an immediate shared connection.”
Desmond says Frolo is changing lives through the support it offers — her life as much as anybody else’s. Whether or not she meets her Mr Right, it sounds like she
has already found her happy ending — a thriving business, a sense of purpose and her Frolo “family”.