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My parents thought I was crazy: Lunch Actually co-founder

Melissa Law

Crazy. That's what the parents of professional matchmaker, Violet Lim, thought when she told them she was launching her own lunch dating company -- with her then-fiancé Jamie Lee. That's because the chief executive officer and co-founder of Lunch Actually was groomed by her parents to study hard, get good grades and get a good job. Starting her own business was never part of the plan.

But once she sets her mind set on something, this Malaysian-born Singapore PR throws her 100 per cent into making it a success. Yahoo! Singapore spoke to the cheerful 32-year-old entrepreneur at her cosy and violet office in Park Mall, where we learn of the challenges faced in shaking the stigma of dating agencies.

Born of a father who was a used car salesman and a mother who was a tailor allowed Violet Lim to learn first-hand all about the challenges of starting a business.

Wishing for an easier life for their daughter, they discouraged Lim from becoming an entrepreneur.

"They didn't want me to go on that path (of starting my own business) so they pushed me towards the corporate ladder because that's where everybody said the money is," said the entrepreneur who is also the Southeast Asian executive director of the Matchmaking Institute.

Admitting that she initially never really considered starting her own business, Lim shared that her initial interest was in litigation and family law.

She read law in the United Kingdom but realised by her second year of university that she was not cut out for the degree and started exploring other options.

Thinking that human resources was the way to go, the University of Manchester alum then obtained a masters degree in industry relations and personality management from London School of Economics.

She then decided to pursue a career in the financial sector in Singapore. She took up a job as assistant manager at Citigroup where she worked for more than a year.

It was during her stint at the bank that she realised that many of her colleagues were single but not dating -- a puzzling situation since they were attractive and eligible.

At the same time, she had other groups of friends from the same age group who were engaged or getting married.

Upon further investigation, she realised that her colleagues' singlehood was a result of the long hours of their job rather than their age.

Her friends had met their significant others during their university days, which was also when Lim met her then boyfriend Lee.

"When we start working, it becomes increasingly difficult to meet new people. Sometimes, these people work such long hours that they just want to go home and sleep when they're done," she said.

Coincidentally while visiting her friend in Tokyo in 2003, Lim chanced upon the concept of lunch dating while flipping through some magazines.

From there, the idea of a lunch dating agency for professionals was born.

"I found the idea very interesting," said Lim.

"People might work long hours but lunch is something that they definitely have to do. Instead of meeting with their usual friends for lunch, why not just take one lunch hour in a month to meet someone whom they've never met and who knows what might blossom from there," she said. "I thought it was a great idea."

After discussing the idea with Lee, Lim quit her job at Citibank. Lunch Actually was incorporated and officially launched in 2004.

Taking the risk

When Lim's friends first heard that she was about to start a business with Lee, they all thought it was a very risky decision.

"They all asked me, 'What happens if the business or your relationship doesn't work out?'," she said.

"I mean, either way it doesn't end well right? But you know, we never actually thought about these things. Starting a business just seemed like the most natural thing to do," mused Lim, who has been happily married to Lee since 2005.

Describing her personality and her husband's as "complementary", Lim said that they always got along and worked well together so doing business together never became an issue.

"I mean, of course we argue and we have our disagreements, which happens a lot because we both have very strong opinions, but we're both very professional. Once we realise that the other person has a better idea, we take a step back," said Lim, who now has two children with Lee.

In fact, she feels that working together with her husband has lots of benefits since there are no conflicts of interests.

"There're no boundaries to our relationship. For some people, they're not allowed to talk about work at home and vice versa. But for us, work is home and home is work," she said. "It's actually really nice."

Standing out

However, she soon found out that coming up with the business idea was only the tip of the iceberg. Lim shared that the biggest challenge was posed by the stigma attached to dating agencies.

According to her, this stigma even caused them to have problems renting an office space.

"When we first started the business, the economy was facing a downturn and we could afford a Grade A or B+ office. But when the landlord heard what business we were doing, they said no," said Lim. "They told our real estate agent that our business was too advanced for them."

It was the same for advertising space. No one wanted to take the risk for fear that the business was something "sleazy".

As a result, careful consideration had to be put into the branding and positioning of Lunch Actually.

The words "cupid" and "love" were avoided for their company name to differentiate themselves from the traditional dating agencies.

Purple was chosen as the corporate colour rather than the usual red. Their advertisements were witty to portray a professional yet fun and creative company.

Eight years down the road, the company has spread its wings and expanded into Malaysia and Hong Kong.

Out of 20,000 dates arranged in these eight years, 85 per cent of these matches were rated by customers as satisfactory to excellent.

Earlier this year, Lunch Actually even launched the premier version of their service, Lunch Actually Platinum, which specifically targets individuals with an annual income of more than S$500,000.

But despite coming into so much success, Lim remains grounded and concedes that all these would not have been possible if not for the support of her family who helps her to juggle her work and family commitments.

"I'm not a superwoman," said the affable entrepreneur. "I'm actually very ordinary. I just have a great support network."

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