Photo: Thomas Yau
CAUGHT IN THE NET I grew up quite comfortably, in Surrey, in the southeast of England. I went to a public school - one of the few co-ed ones, thankfully, so I got to meet girls - and played a lot of sport and video games. I loved computers and games machines and used to write my own adventure games on a BBC Micro [computer] when I was about nine. I probably spent too much time on that but I suppose it made me quite tech-oriented. I went to Nottingham University to study business and wrote my dissertation on the "Impact of the Internet on Consumer Goods Marketing". That was in 1996, so it was very early days for the internet but I was already thinking about what could be done.
NO FREE LUNCHES In the late 1990s, I worked as a trainee at advertising agencies. I moved into digital and worked on launching sites for Molton Brown, Swarovski and others, then went into direct marketing. I came up with the idea for a dating website while consulting for Barclays in marketing in Canary Wharf, in London. I was astounded by the amount of professional people all working in one small area. I thought, "Let's network this whole place up." I devised a website called Lunch Date London, based on the idea of meeting people who work near you for coffee or lunch dates. It was one of the first hyper-local dating sites, the locality being central London, and it resonated quite well. I got it off the ground with about £30,000 (HK$370,000) of my own money and we were literally bombarding people outside tube stations with flyers. We started to build quite a big base and I thought, "Surely this thing's going to go viral now, so I can switch off the marketing and be a millionaire in three months' time." Then it dawned on me - this was going to be a long hard exercise in marketing. As soon as I stopped marketing, the traffic started to atrophy.
LESSONS IN LOVE My marketing knowledge proved to be a lifesaver. I was the target market, but I also had all the ideas about how to attract it. My money was slowly reducing and I had sold two properties to fund it, so the concept really had to work for me. I kind of realised people were meeting after work. We had to make it more than just a lunch thing, but still based on the idea that dating is time-consuming - the aim is to get people offline as quickly as possible and out there testing the chemistry for an hour, or whatever, rather than playing e-mail tennis back and forth. So we bought lovestruck. com, which is probably one of our best decisions. It's a comprehensive, all-encompassing URL, very aspirational: there's no better feeling than being lovestruck. I spent a year on the investment circuit, while still working full time. It was hard but eventually we found a number of investors who believed in us enough and we raised £285,000. We re-launched in London and really invested heavily in marketing; and we were the first to have a phone app for people to date on the go, which we launched early in 2010.
PLAYING AWAY FROM HOME While London was getting off the ground, I put a small amount of money into sites in New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, just to test the waters. Within a few weeks, I realised I'd need serious money to take on the more established markets of New York and Sydney, whereas Hong Kong and Singapore were providing good returns as those markets were less crowded. As time has moved on, interest in what we do has grown and today we're spending £30,000 a month in both places on marketing. We're on a tightrope between growth and profitability at the moment, but the concept is working well. Initially in Hong Kong we were attracting mainly expat members but then we started seeing a Westernised indigenous membership. We don't have a site in Chinese yet - our research found a lot of people wanted someone who could speak English. Most people have smartphones here, so the app is very popular. We have about 45,000 members in Hong Kong, 85,000 in Singapore and 130,000 in London.
MATCH BREAKING When I'm not working, well, I go to a lot of bars, but that comes with the territory as we organise a lot of members' events. I'm constantly switched on; it's very demanding. My marriage suffered and broke down because of the strain - financial and time-wise - of what I was trying to do. My advice to people launching a start-up would be either to do it before you have a family, or make sure you have enough money behind you to provide security. I have a daughter, Isabella, who is seven, and a son, Zach, who is three. They live with their mother, so when I'm not working I try and make sure I spend as much time as possible with them. There's that and I try to watch Liverpool [football club] whenever I can. I also have a Ducati motorbike at home and enjoy snowboarding when time allows.
Right now, I'm single. I don't use my own site but have plans to in the future. I would also consider using competitors' sites - I know for a fact some of their managing directors use mine!