Having taken a leap of faith to start Lunch Actually back in 2004 at the age of 24 when dating services still carried a big stigma, Violet Lim has since grown the company into a premier dating agency with 10 dating products in 5 countries. Besides being a matchmaking expert and relationship guru, she is also a TED speaker and best-selling author with a mission to create one million happy marriages.
As part of our series of interviews to celebrate the achievements of amazing women for International Women's Day 2019, here is our conversation with Violet on her journey with Lunch Actually over the past 15 years:
What’s your story like and how did you venture from the finance industry into starting Lunch Actually?
Violet: Well, like most Asian children, my childhood dream was not to become a matchmaker! In fact, I was set to have the typical Asian “route of success” of studying hard, going to an excellent university, and then getting a good job.
I actually read Law at the University of Manchester, and did my Masters in Personnel Management at the London School of Economics. I did a summer internship at a law firm, and I was handling a case between this divorced couple. I remember feeling really sad that they could not even manage to communicate to each other directly and they had to go through the lawyers to talk about a very simple thing like who's going to pick up the kids from school. I soon realized that as much as I Ioved law, it was not my calling.
Being soaked in the LSE environment where all my classmates were either applying for banking or management consultancy jobs, I got caught up into the “trend”. I was fortunate to be offered a job with Citibank as a management associate prior to graduating. While I was working there, I was surprised that many of my eligible and attractive colleagues were single.
I would have imagined that people who worked in banking would be extremely eligible and sought after, but yet, my colleagues weren’t even dating - they were all busy and virtually married to their jobs.
At the same time, many of my friends who were about the same age as my colleagues were getting engaged, married, or even having kids. I discovered that most of them met actually their future partners at school, or at university. I met my husband Jamie at university as well.
It seemed to me that after graduation, the chances of meeting a partner while building up your career were getting slimmer and slimmer, especially when you are working long hours.
That was the "pull" factor.
I had chanced upon the concept of lunch dating while I was travelling, and immediately saw the potential of this business. Lunch dates were short, sweet, and simple - long enough to know someone, yet not too long that it would become awkward. And after all, no matter how busy work gets, everyone needs to have lunch, right?
The "push" factor was also because I was unhappy with what I did, working in a bank. The “revelation” came one day when I was sitting at my cubicle and looking at my boss in her beautiful glass office. I was getting increasingly jaded and disenchanted with my job of paper pushing. However, I was realistic knowing that I am a junior staff and I will not at that point get to make policies. However, I remembered looking at my boss and realising that I did not want to do what she was doing in 10 years’ time.
So that was when it became very clear to me. I want to spend my time and resources to focus on something that I am passionate about, a business is not just about making money, but one that can make a difference and help others find their lifelong happiness. Having been active in community service work for years, I loved the idea of being able to combine my passion of helping others with the prospect of building a business.
Together with my then-fiance, Jamie, we decided to quit our jobs and start a dating company called Lunch Actually in April 2004. I was just 24 at the time, and it was tough breaking the news to my family and friends. They tried hard to talk me out of it, but I guess my degree in law and my persuasion skills came handy then!
How has Lunch Actually grown over the years since its inception in 2004?
Violet: As of 2019, Lunch Actually Group has expanded to a total of 10 dating products in 5 countries in Asia! We have arranged over 100,000 dates and created over 4,500 successful marriages and couples.
We keep our commitment to be the most effective dating service, and we have diversified our services to online dating, dating apps, and date coaching consultancies to help singles be successful in their dating journey.
This has been an amazing growth, seeing how we first started with just myself and Jamie 15 years ago, in one country, with just one offline matchmaking product.
After running Lunch Actually for so many years, can you share with us about some of the most satisfying moments along your journey?
Violet: I think there have been many wins along the way! For example, in terms of business, Lunch Actually Group has successfully grown more than 50% in 2014 year and hit a new revenue milestone.
We continue striving to beat our own milestones.
Others would be to see many of my associates who have been with me for many years, continue to step up and take up more leadership roles. I'm incredibly proud to see how much they have grown from an entry level to senior management.
But really, the most satisfying would be to see the lives of people that we have changed. Whenever I get wedding invitations, see photos of our successful couples and their Lunch Actually babies, these really are the most fulfilling reward of all.
As an entrepreneur, what motivates you personally?
Violet: Think about the "why". Every entrepreneur has their own whys. For me, I always look at the photos of couples who have gotten married because of our help, their testimonials, and even pictures of their babies. Those have kept me going and motivated.
I believe there is no other industry as fulfilling as the dating and relationships industry because through what I do, I can make such a huge difference in a person's life - helping the person find his/her lifelong happiness, and my work does not only change one person's life but it will impact generations to come. I can still remember attending one of my first few clients’ weddings, and how thankful the couple and their parents are to us.
To just know the impact of the work we've done and the lives we've touched, despite everything we've put up with, it's all worth it.
With your experience as a matchmaking expert, what’s your advice when it comes to building meaningful connections and long-lasting relationships?
Violet: My advice would be to remind couples (and singles) that love is not a feeling, it is a commitment. It's not finding someone that you love passionately right now.
It is about finding someone that you can fall in love with over and over again. And it requires constant and consistent effort to keep the romance alive. So when the initial fireworks have dissolved, the mistake that most couples make is to think that the attraction has died and the love has disappeared forever.
They then, would choose to end the relationship. In fact, this is a completely normal progression in every relationship.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BalanceForBetter to celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness about bias. What are your thoughts on forging a more gender-balanced world?
Violet: In our company of 100 associates, close to 80% are women. Our senior management team consists of 60% women. Throughout my 15 years of management, I have observed women are less likely to take on higher positions or bigger responsibilities as they take family into consideration e.g. newlyweds, wanting to start/expand family, looking to spend more time with school-going children etc. Men are generally laser-focused on getting ahead in their career when given the opportunity.
As a female founder and CEO, I hope to help bridge the gender gap by being a mentor to my younger associates, by showing them that it is possible to integrate work and family by offering flexi work arrangements and constantly encouraging them to take on bigger roles and to learn to delegate effectively so they can focus and prioritise.
Another thing is to raise awareness about the difference between working with male and female associates. For example, just because a female associate turn down an offer to step up once, it does not mean that she cannot do it, she just might need more encouragement and coaxing as compared to a male associate.
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
Violet: The importance of building great teams and surrounding yourself with competent people.
In the midst of the craziness that I was going through this year, what kept me sane were the people around me. Jamie, my parents, my helper, my extended family, my amazing team at work, my friends.
When I had to go for an urgent work trip, my support network at home pulled their weight and helped out with the kids. When I was feeling down and drained, and could not muster the strength to chair yet another strategy planning retreat, Jamie stepped in and did a fantastic job. When I was not sure if I could push my team any harder, the leaders themselves stepped up, kept morale up and took up the load on their shoulders. I am thankful for each and every one of these angels in my life.
Also, I would tell my younger self to not seek perfection in every role: the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect employer or employee. A woman can have it all, but not all at the same time. So enjoy the process and the journey.
What are your future plans for Lunch Actually?
Violet: Continuing to scale up the business to the next level; expand to new markets and helping as many singles as we can through our various dating services to reach our goal of creating 1 million happy marriages.