The love or matchmaking industry has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years in many different forms. Over the last two decades, the industry has evolved to keep up with the times and technology has switched our concept of matchmaking. Think Tinder, Bumble and other dating apps.

However, throughout all of that, there has been a single brand in the space that has built a strong brand presence across Southeast Asia and beyond, including Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia. We’re speaking about Lunch Actually, a bespoke dating agency started by the husband and wife team of Violet Lim and Jamie Lee. To date, they have arranged more than 150,000 dates and 4,500 marriages.

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To find out more about the company’s journey, we speak to the CEO and Co-Founder of Lunch Actually, Violet Lim. She started the company at the age of 24 when there was no such service in the market and there was still a lot of stigma was still heavily attached to a dating agency. She has helped build the company in a multinational brand and is still going strong 17 years later.

Could you share why you decided to start Lunch Actually?

I started this company with my husband Jamie Lee in 2004 after I realized that many of my colleagues were single and not dating. I was working in a bank prior to that.

That was rather puzzling for me as they were attractive and eligible people. I soon realised that it is because they were working really long hours, they were virtually married to the bank.

When I came across the concept of lunch dating, I was immediately attracted to the idea because I felt that lunch was ‘short, sweet and simple’ – it is long enough for you to get to know someone, yet it was not too long that it would become awkward. Having always been passionate about helping people, I decided to quit my job at the bank and start a new career as a modern-day matchmaker, where the business is not just about making money, but helping to make a difference in people’s lives by helping them find their life-long happiness.

How has acceptance been evolving?

When we first started, there was this stigma attached to dating agencies and people perceived that only those who are ‘desperate’ would join such service. That prevented us from getting an office and advertising space to properly run the business. As a result, careful consideration had to be put into the branding and positioning of Lunch Actually.

We avoid the use of the words “cupid” and “love” in our company name to differentiate ourselves from the traditional dating agencies. Purple was chosen as the corporate color rather than the usual red. Our advertisements were witty to portray a professional yet fun and creative company.

As more clients started coming to us, and some of them allowed us to show their success stories and photos on our website and advertisements, people’s perception have changed as well. Especially now, with the rise of dating apps, it’s very common for singles to outsource their dating lives to a third party. Similarly with our service, our clients prefer to engage us as we will do all the work for them – from screening, matching, arranging dates, taking feedback, and coaching.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve overcome in the last couple of decades?

I think the most recent one I can share was how we quickly had to transform due to the pandemic.

In the past 17 years, we always conduct 1-1 consultation with our potential clients and coaching sessions with our clients in our office. We also arrange the dates for them in restaurants/cafes that they prefer. However, when the pandemic began to hit the countries where we operate, various regulations for social distancing were enforced and followed by the closure of offices and restaurants, and therefore, we had to transform the way we serve our clients and moved our services to virtual.

Due to these measures that were imposed, it has forced us to pivot as a company. It has always been my personal belief that even in the darkest of times, there are always silver linings. During these times, we successfully moved all our services to virtual. Our team is working from home, serving our singles virtually through virtual consultations, coaching and arranging virtual dates and virtual speed dating events. We also managed to launch our series of monthly webinars where we brought in different speakers (external and internal) to share about various self-improvements and dating topics with more than 700 participants!

4. What advice would you give women in Southeast Asia looking to build a successful business like you did?

Stay hungry and focus on things you yourself can control – your drive, your perseverance, your tenacity. Because there will always be challenges for different types of entrepreneurs out there. E.g. young entrepreneurs, F&B entrepreneurs or in some communities, even entrepreneurs from a certain race or maybe background. As entrepreneurs, I believe that it is more productive and effective to create the right condition for ourselves rather than waiting for others to improve upon the existing conditions.

Also, as women leaders, we need to use our strengths to our advantage. For example, rather than taking on a more masculine persona to blend in with the guys, we can leverage on our fluid communication and interpersonal skills to achieve our objectives e.g. persuading the person to our point of view. As females, I believe that generally, we are also more adaptable. Hence, we can use this to our advantage to make the best out of the market or industry conditions.

I would also encourage women entrepreneurs to open up and share with one another. The number one thing young female entrepreneurs or any business leaders need to know is: don’t be too shy to ask. A lot of people, when they go into business, would feel like they need to do everything on their own. But the truth is that, there are a lot of people who have walked the same paths and gone through the same trials and errors, and if you would just ask for advice, help, or guidance, you’d be surprised that a lot of them are actually more than willing to share their experiences. So you don’t have to go through what they have gone through and make the mistakes they have made.

What can expect from Lunch Actually next?

We have our own BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) – which is to create 1 million happy marriages.

We have a lot of exciting plans ahead (our new app, expansion plans etc) – but ultimately, they are all geared towards making our BHAG happen and helping as many singles as possible to find love!