Local Heroes: Boutique matchmakers mix business with pleasure
Ireland's biggest face-to-face matchmaking firm has now started to offer an online service - but only those looking for love need apply, writes Joanna Kiernan
In 2010, Rena Maycock and Feargal Harrington launched Intro, a professional matchmaking agency, offering a modern take on the tradition to facilitate meaningful dating in a market which had become saturated with poorly-monitored dating websites and littered with broken hearts and shattered egos.
Six years later, the company continues to grow and now employs six full-time staff members. However, while Intro has always been a more organic method of meeting potential partners than the often anonymous realm of online dating, Rena and Feargal have now launched a fully Irish-owned and operated dating website with the same personalised ethos, offering peace of mind and increased checks and balances for users.
"There are 1.5 million single people in Ireland and there is not one single reason why they should be single if they don't want to be," Rena says. "There is so much choice out there.
"Some people don't do online dating at all - but a sizeable amount of the people that we have spoken to who have tried it have had bad experiences, whether the people they met online were not who they said they were when they met in person, or they met people looking for affairs or just one-night stands," she adds.
"General dishonesty seems to be a bit of a theme, particularly on the free dating websites, and trolling too."
Using their combined years of experience and knowledge of the Irish dating landscape, Rena and Feargal developed arealkeeper.ie - a dating website which boasts a voluntary verification system to ensure that users are communicating with a real person and prevents fraudulent accounts.
"Unlike some others, we don't have a room full of employees creating fake or 'date bait' profiles to lure you to subscribe," says Rena. "And we don't buy in users from other sites. Our users are genuine people who are looking for the same thing you are, someone special."
So after years operating outside of the internet, what inspired Rena and Feargal to delve into the online market?
"Intro was ticking along nicely and the company was growing exponentially," Rena says. "We were on the Late Late Show over three years ago and that gave us a huge boost. The company grew by maybe 400pc almost overnight and it continued to grow from that point - but it has started to plateau a little bit. We are still going up but on a much smaller scale."
"Intro is a fabulous business and it will continue to grow a little bit every year - but we wanted to reach more people.
"The nature of Intro means that we can only have a few thousand people, because the more members you have, the more disengaged from them you become - and the whole purpose of a matchmaking agency is that you are engaged and that it is all personalised.
"We have a team meeting every morning and we discuss potential matches - and you can't do that if you have 50,000 people on the books. That personal touch just goes out in the window in that case and that is what people are paying for with Intro - they are paying good money to have someone at the other end of the phone to organise their dates and take all the hard work out of it."
Arealkeeper.ie is a more affordable option for potential customers, who may not have the €695 it costs to go down the face-to-face, personalised Intro route.
"Intro is €695 and that gets you five introductions over the course of about a year, sometimes it can be quicker and sometimes it can take longer because we offer a pause facility, so for example if you join and we send you out on a date and you get on great you can pause your membership and see how it goes," Rena says.
"It happens when the appropriate person is available and agrees to meet you and that's the only time it should happen," Feargal adds.
A monthly subscription for arealkeeper.ie however, will set you back just €45 for one month or €30 per month if you opt for a three-month subscription.
"It is the direct route approach to meeting people," Feargal says. "I had a woman say before: 'It costs €695? I could buy a pair of my favourite Louboutins for that!' and I said: 'Absolutely. So you decide what's more important, and if those Louboutins are going to keep you happy the rest of your life, great!'" he says.
Feargal and Rena met in 2009, while Rena was working in media sales and Feargal was an estate agent and they married in 2014.
"This was the area that we were both very passionate about. We had both matched friends and colleagues up together over time," Feargal says.
"What we ultimately wanted was to set up a business that we could run ourselves and take the best from what we had learned in our careers to date," Rena adds. "We were both business people and both salespeople and both very customer-relationship focused.
"We also wanted something that didn't involve capital - because we didn't have it and we didn't want to go looking for it."
The inspiration to pursue matchmaking as a business came as a bolt out of the blue.
"We wanted to start something based on our own talents and abilities, something we could grow organically - but we really didn't know what that was," Rena says. "Then we were in Gibney's in Malahide one night for my friend's birthday and I spotted a guy standing on his own clutching a pint to his chest and it eventually occurred to me that he was there trying to meet somebody."
"We weren't the first to break into the market in Ireland, there were some small companies, but they hadn't really made a huge mark," Rena says. "We set out to bring matchmaking into the mainstream and make it a very obvious notion to people. We wanted to make people talk more about being single - and if they didn't want to be single, we wanted them to know that there was something they could do about it."
With thousands of clients now on Intro's books and over 100 dates organised each week, it is undoubtedly Ireland's number one matchmaking agency. However, a lingering stigma in Ireland when it comes to looking for help finding love still poses a challenge.
"Every person in Intro comes in and goes through about an hour-long interview process; we fill out profiles and we ask about hobbies and interests, relationship history, what they are looking for in a partner and other information," Rena says.
"A big part of that process is asking what have you tried in order to meet somebody already, because that helps us to piece together what kind of barriers people might be throwing in their own way, or may be having thrown in their way by the environment that they are in," she says.
"Intro is a nice environment for people to come in and be treated in a highly confidential way, just like a GP's surgery, where they can say what they want and if they are looking for things that we feel are a little bit unattainable they know that they'll get a nice empathetic, yet direct opinion, as to whether we think it is possible or not," says Feargal.
"There is nothing embarrassing about it - what is embarrassing is going out to the pub Friday and Saturday night, getting absolutely hammered, spending €200 and talking to married or insane people and waking up depressed on Sunday. If we were in London or New York people would be screaming from the rooftops: 'Yes, I am proactive and motivated to meet someone,' but here it's that 'say nothing' policy. We want to change that stigma."
Intro's work has reaped rewards for hundreds of happy Irish couples to date, many of whom have since tied the knot.
"We started the company during the recession and we operated it part-time, while were both still worked full-time in other jobs," Rena says. "We now both work full time in the business, we have six employees and we have had to double our office space to cope with the growth of the business."
"Our work is so rewarding," Rena adds. "We have so many lovely clients and consider it a real privilege that they have entrusted us with finding them their special someone."
Check out www.intro.ie and www.arealkeeper.ie
Sunday Indo Business