For most entrepreneurs, giving back to their community means contributing to a charity of choice, starting a non-profit or participating in a fundraiser. For EO Singapore’s Violet Lim, co-founder of LUNCH Actually—Asia’s first and largest lunch-dating service—community outreach has taken on an entirely new meaning. In this special interview, EO sits down with the professional matchmaker to talk about her detour from law to love, the importance of pursuing your passions and helping people find happiness.
Your entrepreneurial path is unique in that you went to school to study law, only to later dedicate your career to matchmaking. What inspired this transition?
VL: I would be lying if I told you that my childhood dream was to become a matchmaker. Like most Asian children, I was groomed by my parents to study hard, attend a good university and land a great job. I did exactly that. I slogged for 12 years as a student, earning my law degree from the University of Manchester and a master’s in human resources from the London School of Economics. I wanted to specialise in family law because I enjoy working with people, and I wanted to make a difference in their lives. But the more case studies I read, the more depressed I got … divorces, fighting for custody, family asset arguments. I couldn’t do that for a living, so I pursued human resources, which helped give me the foundation I needed when it came time to start my own business.
After school, you worked for a prominent financial firm, where you came up with the concept of LUNCH Actually. What led to this business idea?
VL: Upon graduating from school, I landed a cushy job at Citibank Singapore, where I worked for several years. It was there that I found my inspiration for LUNCH Actually. I was surprised to see that several of my colleagues were single and not dating, though my non-work friends were engaged or getting married. It occurred to me that although my co-workers worked long hours and had little time to date, they never missed lunch. So I thought, why not help people leverage their mid-day breaks to meet someone new? My husband, Jamie, and I started to do some research. The idea of a dating service really excited me because it’s not your typical business … it’s a company fueled by a straight-from-the-heart mission to help singles and change their lives. I had found my outlet for helping people … something I had originally expected from a career in law.
In 2004, when you were just 24 years old, you quit your job and set out to fill a void in Asia. How did you get started in the matchmaking industry?
VL: When I decided to quit my job, I had to first break the news to my parents. They weren’t thrilled when I told them that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, so you can imagine their disappointment when I told them I was going to quit my lucrative career to become a matchmaker! At the time, dating services were a bit taboo, especially when it comes to the Asian culture. It wasn’t like it is today, where a good percentage of relationships are formed through online services. I was swimming in uncharted territory, so I had my work cut out for me. I managed to convince my parents that helping people find love is something I really wanted to do, and they eventually gave me their blessing. My friends, however, thought I was crazy for taking the risk!
Matchmaking is not rocket science, but it is an art that you master through years of experience. When I discovered that I had found my calling in life, the first thing I had to do was get the proper training to become the best matchmaker I could be. To my delight, I found the Matchmaking Institute in New York, where I was able to kick-start my matchmaking career and build my knowledge bank. I was the first Asian to be certified by the Institute, and I was ready to apply what I learned to the real world. But even then, it wasn’t a guarantee that I could build a career out of matching the right people together.
What were some obstacles you faced while launching LUNCH Actually, and how did you overcome them to make a mark?
VL: From the time Jamie and I decided to start the business to the time we launched it, it took four months. The early days were tough. I had to deal with a lot of negativity. As I mentioned before, people in Singapore weren’t familiar with the concept of dating services. The initial stages of LUNCH Actually were marred with obstacles. One of the first things we needed to do was find an office space. We came close several times to landing spots in business buildings, but they retracted their offers when they discovered what kind of business we were running.
When we finally did get everything set up, we needed to advertise our company and services. We called newspapers to place advertisements, only to be immediately turned down.
We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the traditional matchmaking companies who were already advertising in the classifieds section, but they said ‘no.’ We eventually found a suitor and started to gain traction in various publications; the ball started rolling from there. Before we knew it, we had more clients than we knew what to do with!
Like the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. All of these challenges honed us into becoming better matchmakers and businesspeople, and we’ve taken those experiences and used them to perfect our business infrastructure. Today, our in-house matching system has a success rate of 85 percent, meaning that out of all the dates that have occurred since we opened our doors in 2004 (more than 20,000 now), 85 percent of them have been rated as ‘satisfactory’ to ‘excellent’ by our clients. We just kept working at it, kept tinkering with it and kept improving with time despite the odds against us. If we got a ‘no,’ we kept going until we got a ‘yes!’
How has matching people improved your own relationship-building skills?
VL: My business has taught me to suspend judgment and listen better. As matchmakers, it’s very important that we do not judge our clients. When people judge, it is oftentimes based on their own standards or values. By learning how to suspend my judgment in my business and personal life, I have given myself chances to know people better, rather than shut the doors too quickly and potentially miss out on a great business opportunity or friendship.
My industry has also taught me the value of listening. To gather important information from our clients so that we can make smart matches, we must learn how to really listen to their needs. This skill has helped me tremendously when it comes to relationship-building. I have learned throughout the years that the best communicators are people who are the best listeners.
What would people be surprised to learn about your industry?
VL: Many people have a misconception that people who join dating services must be socially inept, or that there must be something wrong with them because they can’t find someone on their own. That’s far from the truth. In fact, a majority of our clients are people just like you and me. They are hard-working professionals who are simply too busy and have not had the right platform to meet the right person. Also, people would be surprised to know that we do have to turn people away. That can be tough because we’re committed to helping people find love, but we also have to be honest about the possibilities of finding a suitable match. We accept members only when we know that we have the right matches for them.
In many ways, starting a business is a lot like finding the right life partner … it’s all about timing, connections and taking a leap of faith. What words of wisdom do you have for our single EO members out there when it comes to dating?
VL: If you were creating a new product or introducing a new service as an entrepreneur, after the first prototype you would continue to improve on it and make it better, right? You wouldn’t immediately give up on it. The same thing goes for dating, especially first dates. Many people go on a first date and decide right away whether or not they should go on a second one. And many times the reason is because there’s no chemistry, but the thing is, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
It takes time to get to know eachother, to make a connection. Most of our successful couples didn’t experience love at first sight. Instead, they went on more than one date to get to know each other better … and it grew from there. Like in business, dating is all about persistence. Approach your dating journey the same way you would conduct your business. If you create more opportunities to meet other likeminded singles, your chances of success will increase dramatically.
Looking back at your journey from law to love, what has thisentire experience taught you?
VL: It’s so hard to narrow down my lessons learned so far, but here’s a big one: It is imperative that you have a passion for what you do. Every business is marred with obstacles and difficulties, and if you don’t have an anchor that you can go back to—your vision, your mission, your passion—it will be difficult to sustain your success. But passion is not enough. You need to be able to strategize, and of course, have the right business skill sets. I’ve also learned a lot about love.
When it comes to relationships and life, this entrepreneurial journey has taught me the power of perspective. When I was younger, I used to choose my dates superficially. My three golden rules were: He must be taller than me; he must be smarter than me; and he must love me. I’ve since realized that the ingredients to a long-lasting relationship are not superficial criteria like height, looks or social status. It’s about common values and a shared outlook in life. When the looks go, you still have to wake up to the person beside you every day. If you choose superficially, you’re going to be miserable. But if you choose wisely, you have the opportunity to grow old with your best friend. And at the end of the day, that’s what love is all about.