Violet Lim: Timeless Love, Reinvented
Countless singles have been in my seat, hoping to find the love of their life. The soft Bossa Nova tunes playing in the background, and lush violet interiors lit by warm yellow light, help prospective lovebirds relax and open up about something many might be slightly uncomfortable with—their wants and don’t wants in a partner. A book, Lessons from 15,000 First Dates, lies handy on the table for those who need a quick reference. The author, Violet Lim, had seen the dissolution of many marriages as a young law student following her master to court proceedings. “I’ve seen relationships break down to the point where they cannot even communicate a simple thing,” she recounts. “There was this particular case where the lawyer’s letter read: My client would like to request that your client, fetch our son, at this time, from this school.” She is visibly relieved she’d left that world behind.
Almost as a show of defiance, in this world she has built, it’s about finding true love. Even as divorce rates have increased over the years, the love consultant is sticking to her mission to create happy marriages, with the kind of love she was blessed to have found. Her co-founder is none other than her husband. “Getting a divorce is very similar to getting married. You also have to say: I agree.” Her stint in Law has left an indelible mark on her. Being a businesswoman, she’s also practical in what makes a long-lasting marriage. She says younger clients tend to have expectations which are unimportant for a successful marriage. “Why do you want to date a guy who is 185cm?” she asks, alluding to some members of her gender. “To show off to their friends?” I offer. “Maybe,” she responds. “Actually, some of the reasons are that they want to wear heels so they can lean on him and rest on his chest—whatever right?” Then, as if to comfort me, she adds, “Happiness does not come in 185cm!”
YONG HUI YOW: You left your job to start LunchActually. Why?
VIOLET LIM: After graduating from university, I joined Citibank as a management associate. Initially, I was quite happy, but I could not see how I was making a difference. I’m a person who likes to see tangible rewards. I got increasingly bored, but I tried to tell myself that maybe it’s because I was just starting out. But when I looked at what my boss was doing, it definitely did not excite me. I asked myself if I really wanted to do this… even though I’d worked most of my life to get to that point.
YONG HUI: How did the idea come about?
VIOLET: At the bank, I came across many colleagues who were single and not dating. That was strange because they were attractive and eligible. What was the difference between my colleagues and me? Many of us who were getting married had met our other half in school. If not, it gets increasingly more difficult once you start working. Shortly after, I came across the concept of lunch dating, which had been very popular in the UK, US and Australia. I was convinced of the demand.
YONG HUI: Why is lunch dating popular?
VIOLET: Lunch dating is short, sweet, and simple. It’s long enough to get to know someone, but not too long that it gets awkward. I also noticed that my banking colleagues never missed lunch, even though they worked very long hours. After about 1 year and 4 months, I quit my job to start LunchActually with my husband.
YONG HUI: How did you find your first clients?
VIOLET: I was a 24-year-old, without much business, working, or management experience. At first, what we were doing wasn’t palatable to some people. When we wanted to get an office space, we were turned away. When we wanted to advertise in the newspapers, they were not comfortable. Eventually, we pushed through and found that there was really demand for such a service.
YONG HUI: How did you choose the name?
VIOLET: We wanted the word lunch for obvious reasons. We spent about a month thinking of names. Our favourite was LunchMartini. We liked it so much we’d already got our designer to start designing for it. But after surveying our friends, LunchActually was the clear favourite. They thought LunchMartini sounded pretentious. Whatever! [laughs] But it was the wiser choice.
YONG HUI: How was the business funded?
VIOLET: When we started the business, we knew we didn’t want to be just a mom-and-pop shop. Nothing wrong with that, but we wanted to really build a business. We sat down to write a business plan, and started meeting investors. The first person we met decided to invest. We were very blessed. Together with the investor’s capital, we started with S$150,000.
YONG HUI: How did you find out that law was not your thing?
VIOLET: I found out early, but not nearly early enough. When I was studying law, my interest was in family law and criminal law. During my internships and attachments, I saw a lot of cases, and went to court with my master. The more I read family law, the more depressed I got because family law deals with divorces, child custodies, or people fighting over their parents’ money. I remember one which really stuck. The lawyer’s letter went: My client would like to request that your client, fetch our son at this time, from this school. Their relationship had broken down so much they cannot even communicate a simple thing. I went to divorce proceedings, and do you know getting a divorce is very similar to getting married? You also have to say: I agree. With criminal law, my master felt it wasn’t suitable for a woman because I’d be working with criminals or could-be criminals.
YONG HUI: Why did you launch LunchClick?
VIOLET: We’ve been in the business for 11 years. When we started, we never thought that lunch dating was the only way for people to meet, because different things work for different people. For some, it might beLunchActually, for others, it might be singles events, and for others, it might be LunchClick. In 2007, we forayed into our first online dating venture, eteract, which was speed dating. In 2010, we started another online matchmaking portal, eSynchrony, which is a half offline, half offline hybrid.
YONG HUI: Why enter the mobile space now?
VIOLET: People ask if we wanted to hop onto the bandwagon, and the answer is no because we found two gaps in the market. First, there isn’t any app only for serious daters . The other gap is that all the current apps are about swiping and chatting. Based on experience and feedback, swiping and chatting do not help you get offline quickly. The common conversation would be that the guy says “Hi”, and the girl says “Hello”. The guy says “What are you doing?” and the girl says “I’m working”. From there, it goes downhill.
YONG HUI: What is the problem with swiping?
VIOLET: Guys and girls swipe very differently. For girls, they swipe no for most people. For guys, they simply swipe yes. What is the reason for this? Because most swiping apps use double-blind systems, which allows you to starting chatting when there is a mutual like. So for guys, why bother to look through? Just wait for the girl to like me back, and then I’ll decide if I want to chat with her!
VIOLET: There’s no swiping on the app, and no chatting.
YONG HUI: Why is that?
VIOLET: Every day at noon, users get one curated match based on who they are, and what they’ve shared with us through some filtering parameters. They have 24 hours to decide if they want to like the person orpass. If both parties like each other, they can have a conversation, but not an open chat. It’s an MCQ-style conversation. You choose from a series of questions ranging from aspirations, personality and interests. For example, I may ask a guy: If I come home from work one day, and I was very upset, what would you do?. There’s no right or wrong answer, but based on what you choose, it’d give me an idea about who you are as a person. They exchange a series of questions before deciding if they want to meet up. We have a feature to propose a date, time and venue, and the other party can counter-propose. With that, they’re all set! This is something that has worked for our other services. The idea is to meet up, and not judge so quickly.
YONG HUI: What do you think of Ashley Madison?
VIOLET: Obviously, I don’t support them, so I was very glad the government decided to ban them. In Singapore, we’re accredited by the government, so we run through our database with ROM [Registry of Marriages] to make sure people who’re married are not allowed on our services.
YONG HUI: Do all these dating apps disrupt your business model?
VIOLET: At the end of the day, whether I like it or not, there will be new trends. When we first launched eSynchrony, people in our team asked us why? With its lower price point, photos and so on… wouldn’t that be bad for us? Similarly with LunchClick, people feel the same way. LunchClick is free. However, at the end of the day, it educates people to outsource their dating life.
YONG HUI: Are you in the Chinese market?
VIOLET: No, we are not.
YONG HUI: Any plans there?
VIOLET: Right now, our plan is to expand into South East Asia.
YONG HUI: You just opened up in Indonesia. How is the dating scene like there?
VIOLET: Dating services are still quite new to them. They’re like us 5 years ago. It’s very exciting over there, with a lot of potential. They need time to understand what we’re doing.
YONG HUI: Do you feel dating apps de-humanise people?
VIOLET: It depends on the person. It need not necessarily be that way. We’ve had a small minority of clients who’d always demand more from their matches despite being satisfied with the basics. I call that elevator dating. First floor opens: she’s very pretty, but find me someone who is not just pretty, but also smart. Second floor opens: She’s pretty and smart, but can you also find me someone who can cook?
YONG HUI: Is your industry recession-proof?
VIOLET: Before I entered this industry, people have told me that it is. When there is a recession, business does drop because people tighten their pockets. But after awhile, people come back. It’s because they realise even though the economy isn’t doing well, they still need to find companionship and love.
YONG HUI: Can long-distance relationships work?
VIOLET: Yes and no. I was in a long-term distance relationship with my husband. We dated for three months, and had a long-distance relationship for two and a half years. There has to be very strong trust.
YONG HUI: How do you build that?
VIOLET: One way to help your partner feel secure is to have consistent communication. Now, it’s easier with technology. Most importantly, there must an endpoint to the long-distance relationship with a clear time frame. For my husband and I, that was clear. He was my senior in university, so by the time he graduated, I had one more year. Later, I decided to do my masters, but we knew that by the time I finished, I’d come back to work, so that was an endpoint.
YONG HUI: How about the lack of physical interaction?
VIOLET: They either live with it, or they can’t. If that’s a deal breaker, it will not work out.
YONG HUI: Is love at first sight too idealistic?
VIOLET: It depends on what people define as love. I define it as what Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his wife had. That’s old love where you go through many years of marriage, and still remain loving. I don’t think it is possible to experience love at first sight, because you don’t even know each other. A lot of times, people think it’s love at first sight… chances are it’s lust at first sight.
YONG HUI: What about sex on the first date?
VIOLET: I don’t think that works out well, but it depends on what you’re looking for. If people are looking for a one night stand or a fling, perhaps it works; but if people are looking for a long-term relationship, it’s not a wise move, because there will be a lot of issues. If you have sex with me on the first date, does this mean you also sleep around with other people?
YONG HUI: How old is your oldest client?
VIOLET: Over 60.
YONG HUI: Did it work out?
VIOLET: I’m not sure if he found someone. He was retired, so he was longing for companionship, not necessarily to get married.
YONG HUI: How differently do middle-aged people date as opposed to younger people?
VIOLET: Generally, with age, people tend to have more realistic expectations, and things that used to seem important, don’t anymore. For example, younger ladies may only want to date a guy who is 185cm tall. How many guys are that tall? Why do you want to date someone who is 185cm?
YONG HUI: To show off to their friends?
VIOLET: Maybe. [laughs] Some of the reasons are that they want to wear heels, lean on him and rest on his chest – whatever, right? Love should be timeless. A person who will go through thick and thin with you, be a good father, and look after the children. These are the yardsticks which constitute a happy marriage. It has nothing to do with whether the guy is 185cm.
YONG HUI: How is this rectified with age?
VIOLET: When people are younger, they are more idealistic, and are very influenced by the media. As they grow older, having dated a number of people, they start to realise what’s more important.
YONG HUI: Are all good men taken?
VIOLET: [laughs] This is a mindset problem. People say all good men are either married, gay, taken, or dead. If people think that way, chances are they’ll never meet someone. Even if I match-make the best guy for you, you wouldn’t see him. What’s right for you may not come in the package you want. If you ask your friends why they’re single, they’ll usually say they’ve not met the right one, but what they don’t realise is it starts from oneself. Finally, you must choose the right person; some people keep choosing the wrong people.
YONG HUI: Do you help people get over their baggage?
VIOLET: We are not a therapist, but we have date coaches. People may have issues with where they are, but we can help them. If it’s more deep-rooted, we may refer them to a counsellor or therapist.
YONG HUI: What are dating trends in Singapore?
VIOLET: People are becoming more open to dating divorcees, widows, or widowers. This is a huge change. Now, close to half of the people surveyed are open to dating divorcees. The reason for that is our divorce rates are on the rise. Secondly, society has become more accepting of divorcees. This allows people to get a second chance.
YONG HUI: Do married couples stay together for the kids?
VIOLET: Our objective is not just to create marriages, but happy marriages. It is very important that when people get together, they do so for the right reasons. We match people based similar values because that results in greater chances of you being happy.
YONG HUI: What are the wrong reasons to be together?
VIOLET: Well, lust at first sight – physically-driven motivations. Some people get married to leave home. That may sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how many people do that. Sometimes, people may feel they’ve no choice because if they don’t get married by a certain age, they think they’d be past their prime. I know someone like that; if you ask her if she really loves the guy, her answer would be 60 to 70 per cent.
YONG HUI: Do many girls think this way?
VIOLET: It’s very biologically-driven. It becomes more difficult to have a baby after the age of 35. In general, I’m glad to say that all the weddings I’ve been invited to, the couple looked very happy together. But I’ve attended some weddings, not my clients where… [grimaces] I hope you do not attend weddings like that – it’s quite sad.
YONG HUI: Marrying for money?
VIOLET: It could be. People make choices, and with every choice, there are consequences.
YONG HUI: What do you consider an attractive guy?
VIOLET: I married my husband so obviously I think he is attractive. [laughs] When I chose my husband, I didn’t have the knowledge I have right now, so it was based on superficial aspects. I was looking for someone taller and smarter than me. But this had no correlation to how the relationship worked out.
YONG HUI: What is the right number of criteria to have?
VIOLET: We tell our clients to have three must-haves, and three no-nos. Just be flexible about the rest. In this world, there’s no perfection, unless I have a machine and I can input all your orders, and out comes a human species which is perfect for you. I wanted someone who’s outgoing, the life of the party, both of which my husband are not. My husband is someone who may bring a book to a party.
YONG HUI: Is chemistry a myth?
VIOLET: A lot of people are expecting or hoping for love at first sight. They want their hearts to beat faster when they meet the person. Based on our experience, after having set up more than 30,000 dates, most couples don’t get together because of ‘love at first sight’. Usually, they are rated 7, not 9 or 10. This shows that people who’re more willing to give the other person a chance, and at the same time, give themselves a chance, will have a higher success rate.
YONG HUI: Is dating a skill?
VIOLET: This is a great question because I’ve no dating skills. I don’t know how I ended up with my husband. There are guys who are such nice people, the sweetest people ever, yet they are single. With some guidance and tips from our coaches, they succeed. Maybe they’re bending over their backs to please the girl, which becomes a problem if you go overboard, because the girl may feel something’s amiss. I’m not saying be nasty to girls, but it’s about knowing when to hold back, and when to give. Some guys may not know how to escalate a relationship. How do you move from dating to asking her to be your girlfriend? If the guy is smooth or suave, it might help, but if you don’t come across as authentic or genuine, the girl will become suspicious and think the reason you’re so smooth is because you’re chasing girls all the time!
YONG HUI: Should girls never make the first move?
VIOLET: It depends. If you’re interested in a guy who’s the life of the party, outgoing, extroverted, you probably should not make the first move. If he’s interested in you, he would have asked you out. If not, chances are that he’s not interested. If the guy is more introverted, the problem is that if you don’t make the first move, nothing is going to happen. So, what I recommend is that you don’t necessarily need to ask him out directly, but you can give him a chance to ask you out. For example, you can hint that there’s a new movie coming out, and you really want to watch it, but all your friends are not keen, so it’ll be quite sad to watch it yourself. Just stop there. Now, if the guy is keen, he will seize this opportunity because he knows his chances of getting rejected are not very high.
YONG HUI: Do opposites attract?
VIOLET: I was a straight As student. I topped my class for 5 years. I’m not saying this to brag or impress you, but only to give you some background. My husband, on the other hand, always got sent out of class because he daydreamed and didn’t do his homework. He does not recall ever having done homework! The funny thing is we have ended up at the same place. We’re both entrepreneurs running our own business. It does not matter how well you did in school. We are quite different, but it worked out.
YONG HUI: Is that always the case?
VIOLET: It depends. If you’ve someone who believes in self-improvement, and in always upgrading him or herself, and the other person is lazy, prefers status quo, and is a couch potato – that’s problematic. It’s about compatible values. A lot of things can be sorted out, but a difference in values and outlook can be very difficult.
YONG HUI: What keeps you going in business?
VIOLET: I’ve been very blessed in my personal life. I’ve a great marriage, great kids, a thriving business, and I’m making a difference in people’s lives. I also have an amazing team. I think I’m given all these for a reason, which is to help other people out there find the same happiness I found.