Business Small Business

Friday 29 August 2014

Match made in heaven: this couple know all about perfect partnership

Rena and Feargal – the duo behind Intro Matchmaking – run a dating service with a difference

Sean Gallagher

Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30

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INTRO: Feargal Harrington, Rena Maycock and Sean Gallagher. Photo: Gerry Mooney

NOT everyone in the world is lucky enough to meet their ideal partner by pure chance.

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Some require a little more intervention when it comes to finding true love.

For many, such interventions come in the form of friends who introduce them to someone in their network who they think might best suit them.

For others, however, a more structured approach from a dating agency may equally prove successful.

While using dating services might have raised eyebrows in the past, today they are not only acceptable but fashionable. In fact, dating services and online dating websites now generate more than €4bn per year worldwide. Finding love has now become a very lucrative business.

Rena Maycock and Feargal Harrington know all about the dating game. Not only because they are engaged to each other and due to marry in June of this year but because, together, they own and run Intro Matchmaking, one of Ireland's top dating agencies.

"Dating can be difficult for many people, particularly if you are not into the pub or club scene," explains Rena. "But at the same time, you can't just sit back and simply wait and hope that your perfect partner will somehow find you," she says.

The company offers a nationwide service and has clients in every county. They cater for those who are single, separated, divorced or widowed and welcome people from all backgrounds and all ages. Their only stipulation is that all clients must be available and looking for a serious relationship.

"Our youngest client is 22 and our oldest is 80," explains Feargal. "We have everybody from farmers to surgeons and administrators to civil servants as well as a sprinkling of celebrities thrown in," he adds.

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"We provide a professional face-to-face service, which means that we meet clients initially to get a clear understanding of their interests and what they are looking for in a future partner. Once we've picked a potential Mr or Ms Right, we then arrange every detail of the date for the client so they don't have to worry about making that all-important first move," explains Rena. Separately, both Rena and Feargal had long harboured the desire to set up their own business but were unsure as to what type of business that would be.

They both grew up in Dublin. Rena studied media production in Dublin Institute of Technology and went on to have a successful career in media sales with 98FM and Sky Media. She later advanced to the role of chief executive of a regional radio station group before setting up the business.

Feargal studied human resource management at the National College of Ireland and spent a number of years working as a negotiator with some of Ireland's leading estate agencies.

It was while at a party in a bar in Malahide that the two finally settled on what they were going to do next.

"We were sitting there having a drink when we noticed a very well dressed man, in his early 40s, standing at the counter on his own. He was clutching a pint close to his chest. We thought he must have been waiting to meet a friend or his partner," explains Rena.

However, the couple soon realised that he was actually on his own. It then got them thinking about whether or not he had actually gone to the bar on his own in the hope of meeting someone.

Rena began to think of how several of her single friends would have been happy to go on a date with this man. The event got the pair thinking about whether or not there might be a market opportunity for a new dating business. They spoke to their own circle of friends in order to gauge their reaction and later put together a number of focus groups to further test their idea.

What they quickly discovered was that many people felt that dating in Ireland was difficult if you weren't into the social scene of bars or nightclubs. Others recalled how they had tried speed dating or online dating websites but didn't feel comfortable advertising the fact that they were single and actively searching for a partner.

"Some told us that it felt like advertising your wares in a shop window and weren't very comfortable with people having access to their picture and their details," explains Feargal.

For that reason, the couple decided to establish their own business as a confidential service where they would not give out personal information to potential matches.

"Some other agencies are content to simply pass out clients' phone numbers and leave it up to them to make contact with each other. However, we're different. We arrange every introduction ourselves," insists Rena. "We will book the table in a restaurant if people wish to meet there. We don't give out people's phone numbers or their photographs but we do provide an emergency number in the event that either party is late or unable to turn up for some reason," she explains.

It's an approach that is proving popular among their clients, some of whom are either too busy or too shy to arrange these meet-ups themselves. Some weeks the couple organise as many as 100 separate dates.

"We will even call our clients afterwards for feedback so there is no need for them to make awkward calls to a stranger if they don't want to see that person again," adds Feargal.

In addition, the pair check their clients' IDs in advance of arranging meetings so as to validate that they are who they say they are, which helps ensure that they are not already in a relationship.

"It's a very common problem in the dating scene," explains Rena. "Whether you are meeting people through online or just randomly in a bar or club, you simply have no way of knowing whether or not they are married or in a relationship."

Like all budding entrepreneurs, they had their fair share of challenges when starting out. Their first big challenge was trying to get access to the start-up capital they needed in order to fit out their offices with phones and computers, as well as pay for the development of their branding and marketing materials.

"The banks weren't very helpful," explains Feargal. "They even wanted personal guarantees for an overdraft facility of as little as €5,000," he adds.

However, their friends rallied around. Many came forward with offers of spare office space as well as unused computers and office equipment in order to help them get their fledgling venture off the ground.

It has been a positive experience for the couple who have seen their business grow year on year. Last year, they doubled their staff numbers and significantly increased their office capacity in line with increased demand. After only three years in business, their office is full of cards and notes from satisfied clients who have found long-term relationships. They have even begun to receive photos of newborn babies from couples who met through using their services.

"It's naturally great for business because one in three of all our new business comes via satisfied clients who tell their friends about us. But it's also personally very satisfying for us to be able to bring such happiness into people's lives," says Feargal.

"Our business is about helping people find partners and find happiness. We understand that the reason why so many of our clients hadn't managed to find a partner before coming to us was because about 90 per cent of them just weren't in the right place to meet someone. Our job is to help make sure that they are," adds Rena.

They have great praise too for their staff who have been hugely instrumental in the success of the business.

"They are flexible, hard-working and extremely committed to our clients and are great ambassadors for the business even when outside the office," explains Rena.

The pair have exciting plans to expand their business further and are exploring the possibility of launching internationally.

I ask them what it is like as a couple being in business together.

"It is really great with one exception. Sometimes we can end up literally taking our work to bed with us," says Rena, smiling. "We can be in bed late at night and find ourselves on our laptops, still responding to emails from clients. Sometimes it can be hard to switch off."

Rena Maycock and Feargal Harrington are deeply committed to what they do. Their previous experience in business and sales, in particular, has equipped them well for the challenges of setting up and running their own business. Like all entrepreneurs, what they really needed was to find a business opportunity that excited them and for which there was a market demand. In Intro Matchmaking, they definitely seem to have found both.

Rena and Feargal's advice for new businesses

1 Just do it

"If you are thinking of starting a business then stop thinking and start acting. The sooner you start a business, the sooner you'll start turning a profit. Now is a great time to start."

2 Advertise your business

"Don't be afraid to advertise your business. You need to constantly get the message out to potential clients. Marketing and advertising will create awareness and promote business opportunities."

3 Don't be afraid to ask for help

"Think about all the people you know, and all their experience and contacts ... most people are only too willing to help you when you are starting out. But you do need to be prepared to ask."

Business Masters

Company: Intro Matchmaking

Business: Dating service

Set up: 2011

Founders: Rena Maycock and Feargal Harrington

Turnover: On target to reach €500,000 in 2014

Number of employees: Five

Location: Dawson Street, Dublin

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