Sugarbook: Sugar daddy dating site founder says being jailed made him more determined

Darren Chan shares how he became more determined to expand Sugarbook after spending time in prison.

Darren Chan, founder and chief executive of Sugarbook.
Darren Chan, founder and chief executive of Sugarbook. (PHOTO: Sugarbook)

SINGAPORE — On a February afternoon in 2021, Darren Chan, the Malaysian founder and chief executive of online dating platform Sugarbook, was on his way to lunch when he was arrested by police whom he said arrived in four vehicles.

At that moment – which in his own words was like a scene "straight out of the movies" – Chan knew that his company's viral marketing strategy had "blown up a bit too much" for its own good. A few days prior to his arrest, a post on Sugarbook's website, titled "Top 10 Sugar Baby Universities in Malaysia", garnered significant attention from the authorities and drew the ire of a segment of the country's population.

Chan spent 10 days in jail and was subsequently charged over the article's publication, to which he pleaded not guilty. While the outcome of the trial has not been reported on since, Chan, now 36 years old, told Yahoo Finance Singapore recently that his legal troubles have been "sorted out" and that "the case is now closed". He did not want to elaborate further.

Despite the controversy, Sugarbook said it has some 4.5 million members – predominantly from Malaysia, the US, and Singapore – across more than 90 countries. The platform is also expanding into new markets such as Taiwan and has introduced new features such as live-streaming.

While he was unwilling to reveal the company's earnings and other financials, Chan said that revenue has risen by 60 per cent year-to-date, compared to the same time period last year. Sugarbook has also paid out US$1.7 million to live streamers since the feature was launched last year, he said. This included luxury gifts such as Hermes, LV, and Chanel handbags.

What sets Sugarbook apart from regular dating websites is the "sugaring" element – a transactional relationship between two consenting adults – as encapsulated in the platform's tagline "Where Romance Meets Finance".

Controversial meets conservative

Why did Chan decide to launch the controversial platform in a Muslim-majority country like Malaysia? He said that it was – simply – his home country. He also believed that if he could make it in "conservative" Malaysia, he could make it anywhere in the world.

Chan founded Sugarbook in 2016 when he was 29. By then, he had made some money from the sale of music tech startup Gigfairy, which he funded as an angel investor, in the same year for an undisclosed sum – he said it was "somewhere in the low millions".

Calling himself a workaholic who "really love(s) the tech industry", Chan said he "needed something to do". "One day, I was sitting at a cafe in Bangsar (a gentrified area in Kuala Lumpur), and I was seeing all these fancy cars dropping passengers off. These passengers were older men who looked really wealthy and had their female partners beside them, and they were way younger," Chan shared.

"So, I was wondering if there was a social networking platform for these kinds of relationships. I did some research, and it came down to a set of statistics showing the reason that a certain amount of relationships fail not because of cheating; it's because of finances," said Chan on how he first got the idea to start Sugarbook.

Sugaring is a lifestyle choice

Once he found his niche, Chan went about building the company despite being told by many not to do it.

"I knew what I wanted to do. To me, there was nothing to be afraid of as long as we are not doing anything illegal. We are just facilitating relationships and creating a platform for people to meet," said Chan, who added that he believes all relationships are transactional.

If it weren't for my loved ones, I'll get into jail in every country and get Sugarbook viral.Darren Chan

He set aside a budget of RM100,000 (S$30,000) and gave himself a one-year timeline to get the platform up and running. The money was used to pay for office rentals, job postings, servers, advertisements and any other expenses he may incur for the year. He also hired a website developer, whose salary he claimed he could not afford to pay initially until the platform started seeing some profits six months after its launch.

Chan also shared how he removed himself from his social circle and gave up family time in order to focus on building the company.

"I had to separate myself from the group of friends I was with mainly because I need to focus. If there's too much noise, and if I go through Sugarbook with anyone else, people are going to say you shouldn't do this and that, and that might cause you to have doubts," said Chan.

Not giving up

Chan added that spending time in remand made him more determined to make his venture a success.

"Every day, I was planning on ways to expand Sugarbook," said Chan. "I knew that I was not doing anything illegal." In fact, he shared that he had offers to invest in the business from people he met in jail.

On whether he has any plans to sell the company, Chan said that he has received 11 offers to buy Sugarbook. "Selling is definitely not in the pipeline, but should there be a good offer, with a number that is very, very attractive, we are more than happy to explore," said Chan.

Ultimately, Chan said, "Would I do it again? If it weren't for my loved ones, I'll get into jail in every country and get Sugarbook viral."

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