Entrepreneur

Forget Swiping, This S'pore Startup Revives Old School Dating With Conversations Over Coffee

Dating apps came along and changed everything our generation knows about meeting new people and falling in love.

In our office alone, I know at least three people married or in long-term relationships, who met their partners online (in fact, there’s one each to represent Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel and Bumble).

But not all who swipe are lucky in love.

And even for my colleagues who found happiness through dating apps, they all share that the journey was long and painful.

Over conversations with them, I’ve seen how they grew tired from months or even years of futile swiping and struggling to make meaningful connections through a screen.

Sometimes it’s difficult to even cross into a real-life meeting at all, and their time, effort and emotions invested go down the drain.

For 26-year-old Lee Jing Lin, her answer to this dating app fatigue is a new service called Kopi Date, which aims to strip away the walls of technology and take us back to good-old getting to know each other over coffee.

Somewhere Between Dating Apps And Matchmaking

“So… is it just another matchmaking service?” I wondered.

Not quite. Jing Lin eagerly explains the space her startup wants to occupy, taking elements from both traditional and digital dating.

Kopi Date is not entirely like dating apps, which tend to result in superficial interactions; or matchmaking services, which come off as too serious — instead, she says it’s “the sweet spot” between the two.

Lee Jing Lin, Co-founder of Kopi Date / Image Credit: Lee Jing Lin

New members start off by filling in a questionnaire that helps the team understand their personality, background and interests.

Here, Kopi Date taps on the useful aspects of technology by using an algorithm to sift through responses and identify potential matches.

“But we will also always have a human element to [perform a final check], and ensure that each date is thoughtfully matched,” says Jing Lin.

Ultimately, she says they focus on the “quality of conversations” that can be sparked between two people.

Let’s get to know each other over coffee / Image Credit: Kopi Date

When a match is made, in about one to three weeks, the ‘Kopi Artisans’ then provide a personal concierge service through Whatsapp to inform both parties individually and help them set up a date.

They also drop snippets of hints about the other party’s likes and interests without revealing too much, just enough to set a foundation and get you excited to meet them.

The location—always a cosy cafe chosen by the team—is kept a surprise and revealed one day ahead of the date.

Lastly, when date day arrives, Kopi Date equips you with an ice-breaker kit of questions to help you get things going, and the rest is up to you!

Image Credit: Kopi Date

Accidentally In Love (And Business)

Behind this young company that just set out less than two years ago to help people find love, there’s also a sweet story between its co-founders.

Ironically, Jing Lin first met her co-founder, 28-year-old Liu Zhiqun, when they matched on a dating app years ago.

“We became really good friends because both of us were really spontaneous and bold,” says Jing Lin. But for the time being, that was how it remained.

In 2018, a friend of Jing Lin’s took up a couple of booths at Carousell’s bazaar event Carouselland, and offered her a chance to share the space.

As a graphic designer with an avid love for street photography, she intended to sell her photography prints at the booth, but these plans came to a halt when her hard drive abruptly spoiled.

Jing Lin’s photography plays with colours in our urban landscape / Image Credit: Lee Jing Lin

Determined to carry on, Jing Lin started thinking of new ideas from scratch, and roped in Zhiqun to brainstorm with her.

Eventually, we thought of [a way we could] use just ourselves and the people who attended the event as the primary resources. [Our idea was to] pair singles for a date at the booth over a simple cup of coffee.

Jing Lin, Co-founder, Kopi Date

With the concept settled, it was all hands on deck between Jing Lin, her sister, and Zhiqun, to prepare their branding, operations and logistics in time.

Jing Lin even rushed out the design on the night before the event, and printed all the collaterals the next morning.

On the day of Carouselland, they split up to approach males and females, conferring every half an hour to manually identify matches.

Even with a simple set-up, people were curious enough to try going on a spontaneous date / Image Credit: Kopi Date

“Eventually, the event came to an end and we were proud of our efforts. We had six dates [at our booth that day], and 35 more sign-ups.”

Pulling through the intense project together, it was not only an unexpected opportunity to start a new business, but also an unexpected chance to develop their own relationship.

Jing Lin and Zhiqun both continued working on Kopi Date together, and officially became a couple in June 2019.

Image Credit: Kopi Date

Leaving Their Jobs To Brew Up Romance Full-Time

Carouselland was version one of our product going live. Since the event, people responded with a clear desire for more of such “old-school” dating—the magic of connecting with someone new.

Jing Lin, Co-Founder, Kopi Date

Following their first success, they set up a simple landing page so people could continue to sign up online, and started pitching to cafes to secure some beautiful venues for their dates.

They also decided to test the grounds again at the National University of Singapore (NUS), putting up posters around the school’s popular hangout spots to gather new members.

This gained a sudden inpouring of 100 sign-ups, which told them they were headed in the right direction.

Image Credit: Kopi Date

A few months later, Kopi Date had grown so much that it pushed the couple to think about leaving their full-time jobs.

“It was an extremely hard (and emotional) decision as both of us had really great career paths at this point of time,” Jing Lin shares.

She was an award-winning designer managing accounts like Vespa and Nike for renowned creative agency Bartle Bogle Hergaty, while Zhiqun was an associate product manager at Circles.Life at a time when the startup was scaling up massively.

We decided to leave when we realised that it’s almost impossible to grow Kopi Date to the level we’ve set out [for it], without working on it full time.

Jing Lin, Co-Founder, Kopi Date

The couple declines to reveal how much they invested into the business, besides the fact that it was funded by their own savings.

They stress that they try to “thrive on spending as little as [they] can”, which they see as a “creative challenge to work within constraints”.

Kopi Date charges its members a fee of $39.55 to secure a match, which includes a complimentary beverage during the date.

By February 2020, they have arranged about 250 dates, with about 20 more matches in queue, and have gathered “over thousands of sign-ups” in total.

Dare To Put Yourself In New Situations

Jing Lin and Zhiqun have always taken a fresh and experimental approach with Kopi Date. In fact, it may be one of the reasons people have been drawn to them since their run at Carouselland.

Even with just a makeshift set-up of foldable chairs and a small table in the middle of a crowded event hall, passers-by were curious to put a pause on their shopping and try out a completely unexpected experience with a stranger.

The concept also caught the eye of local vlogger Umehara Keiji, who sat down for a date at Carouselland and shared his experience on his YouTube channel.

The Kopi Date founders still continue to keep their customers thirsty for new experiences with unique marketing campaigns.

They try to create new sparks, from challenging people to talk to a stranger in the middle of Orchard Road, to urging parents to gift their kids a Kopi Date ang bao instead of asking “got boyfriend/girlfriend already?” during Chinese New Year.

More recently, they asked their Instagram followers to “advertise” their single friends, offering free dates to three of the most creatively written ads.

Jing Lin hopes more people will open themselves up to “the simplicity of a face-to-face conversation” in the age of online dating.

“At its core, the heart of Kopi Date is to refresh the dating culture [and help] our users to get connected and walk away with meaningful, treasured memories,” she says.

Find out how Kopi Date brews their recipe for romance here, and follow them on Instagram here.

Featured Image Credit: Kopi Date

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