Matchmaking beyond digital applications.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
I’ve found that nothing quite represents the maxim that ‘hope springs eternal’ more than the modern global dating scene. Regardless of the heartache, the rollercoaster ride of emotions, the ones that got away, and the ones that were – we’ll call them lessons well-learned, singletons the world over are expressing the indomitable human spirit in their quest for love. Nevertheless, I’m sure we can all agree that when it comes to fnding our perfect match, we could all use a nudge – or maybe even a shove – in the right direction.
This was the impetus behind Sunil Hiranandani’s decision to start Sirf Coffee, a self-described bespoke dating service for the global Indian. Charming, eloquent and a little irreverent, Sunil laughingly tells me that it all started with his desire to meet someone over coffee back when his work with HSBC had sent him to mumbai. “It was a really interesting time in India,” he recalls. “This was before the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and everything was moving in leaps and bounds, but I found that in terms of your dating life, everything was still a little archaic. It went one of a few ways: there were these matrimonial websites where you, or your family, could find yourself a bride, much like you’d buy a used car. You’d input features that you’d like: colour, mileage, make, and model, and it’d spit out the results, and you would get in touch, and you would…transact.
“On the other hand, you could meet people through your parents, and their networks, or you could attend these crazy, Vegas-esque, decadent parties where things were swinging completely the other way. Neither of these avenues appealed to me. I just wanted to have a coffee or a drink with someone; get to know them at my own pace. And so, I founded Sirf Coffee, which is exactly what it says on the tin: ‘sirf’ means ‘just’ – and following coffee, you can go on a road trip, get to know each other, or you can call it a day, be friends, and move on with your lives.”
This, I learn, was exactly how Sunil met his wife Shalini; the best possible endorsement for the platform. “I’d launched this site in India and then I moved to the Middle East, but I left it up in the cloud. Shalini had moved
from the UK to Dubai, and she’d applied to Sirf Coffee,” he recalls fondly. “I was on an R&R trip to Dubai at the time, so I decided to personally interview this potential client. I interviewed her over coffee, which led to dinner, then dancing, and the rest is history – we have two kids now!”
Sunil enthuses about how he wouldn’t have met her otherwise, as they had nobody in common except for a far-off business contact, as she was from the UK, and his background was a little more peripatetic. Born in India, he spent the first couple of years of his life in the Middle East, before moving to Thailand when he was five. “It’s pretty much where I grew up, and where I call home. This is where I learned my value system,” he tells me. An alumnus of NIST International School, he finished his secondary education in India before attending prestigious liberal arts school Whittier College, with a full tuition ride.
Afterwards, he moved to London to join HSBC as part of their international officer programme, and he’s since been in the finance industry for almost 15 years. This programme was a “launch pad for a global career,” as he tells it, taking him to London, India, the Middle East, the US, and then back to Asia, including a stint as a senior policy advisor in the UK government as part of the HM Treasury, to support UKChina bilateral commercial relationships from an infrastructure perspective, which he claims was “a very impressive pace of working and outlook.” Despite juggling a remarkable fulltime career, he still found time to complete
a global MBA at the McDonough School of Business in Georgetown University together with ESADE Business School, which also allowed him to travel around the world; as well as other pursuits – like brewing his own whisky over the lockdown period.
He credits this array of experiences with shaping the foundation of his perspective. “It helped me realise a couple of things. Never say never; assumption – about people, countries, experiences – is just about the worst thing you can do,” he says. “Travelling gives you a wholesome perspective.” His travels also allowed
him to be “exposed to several types of ‘Indianness,’” with Indian people from all walks of life, from around the world, and this helped form the basis for Sirf Coffee’s vision to cater to the global Indian diaspora.
He spoke to Masala further about the business of matchmaking, and how love can be found in the most unlikely places and people – if you’re happy to give it a chance over a cup of coffee.
Tell us a little more about the genesis of Sirf Coffee.
Sirf Coffee as an idea started as early as 2008. Mostly, it was me wanting to get to know interesting, attractive women in Mumbai and not having the means to do so. [Laughs] And it worked! I had a good network in Mumbai already, as an expat banker, I was fairly eligible, and I had gotten to know the singles’ scene in India, so from a marketing perspective, it became a huge success, even though I didn’t quite know what I was doing yet.
Sirf Coffee pre-dated this entire start-up world and ecosystem. The phrase ‘start-up’ or even ‘entrepreneur’ didn’t exist in everyday vocabulary. In my head, I was launching an e-commerce company. When HSBC asked
me three months after starting Sirf Coffee to be an investment banker in Saudi Arabia, it was a really difficult decision for me. In hindsight, I did not fully appreciate how big and how quickly the dating space would explode over the next few years.
So I took the easy way out, and I carried on with my banking career. A couple of years later, you have Tinder, Bumble, etc. By the time I got to New York in 2010, and started looking at this again, it felt like I had almost
missed the boat. Nevertheless, I re-visited Sirf Coffee in the middle of my stint in New York, so commercially, we started around 2011. I asked my sister Naina to join me; she was an editor of large international magazines in India, and she had a great background working in lifestyle, so she was a great fit.
It wasn’t until I got to Singapore that I was able to fully professionalise the business. We’ve since hired a full-fledged team in India and in Dubai, and back then, with me in Singapore, we were able to grow the business to what it is today, between the three sites.
What would you say are its USPs compared to other matchmaking businesses?
We’re quite different to anything that’s out there. We cater to the global Indian diaspora, regardless of citizenship, religion, etc. for two reasons. Firstly, I myself am Indian, and having lived in Europe, Asia, and the US, I’ve come across a lot of different Indians, which gives me some expertise in this subject matter. All of us in the team have become very familiar with the specific nuances of different Indian communities in different generations.
Secondly, our community often doesn’t equate success until you’re married, so there is perpetual demand. Yes, while a lot of people around the world want to get married, I’ve found that the Indian community is particularly keen, whether they will admit it or not.
Another USP is that we’re not an app; we’re not as democratic about who can join, you have to apply. We ask people to dedicate 20-30 minutes of their time to fill out a form, and pitch to us why they would like to be part of Sirf Coffee. We then have the luxury of picking our own clients.
We’re also quite different in that we facilitate your first contact with your potential match, and it’s never just via text – we set up a real-life date first, or a video chat if you’re in different geographies. We get to know you, but your identity and your profile is kept private, so it’s never in the public domain, and we use our discretion, skill set, and domain expertise to match you up with other clients. The human touch is so important; we’re true matchmakers in that sense.
What are your criteria for accepting applications?
Firstly, basic veracity of information – you say who you say you are. We don’t conduct background checks, but we do cross-checks, and, there’s enough of a network within the Indian community and figure out who this
person is within a phone call or two.
Secondly, we do a progressiveness check. This is not a glorified arranged marriage setup. Some people say they’re progressive but they’re not, and you can see this with hardcore financial criteria, ethnic criteria, people mentioning their parents more than once in an 8-page application form [Laughs].
Finally, we do what I call ‘the douchebag test.’ If you’re arrogant, or rude, we won’t take you on. By definition, we’re catering to the high achievers, many of whom have a tendency to be “I love me” types. I think there’s enough people out there who are nice and have done a lot with their lives, so we have the luxury of weeding out the not-so-nice ones.
What advantages would you say it offers over the many professional matchmakers in India and around the world?
I like to think we are professional matchmakers, but catering to the modern Indian. I think two things make us different. One, we deal with individuals directly and exclusively, so no matter what parents or friends or siblings tell me, for us, intent is everything. If I don’t hear “I want to get married” or, “I want to meet
someone” directly from the client’s mouth, we’re not going to work with them.
Secondly, the metrics that we use are extremely different. A lot of Indian matchmakers dealing with families will have metrics like height, complexion, skin tone, salary, square footage, what part of town you’re living in; the list goes on. We find that those metrics make for a great wedding alliance, but not necessarily a good marriage.
We want a great marriage beyond the wedding, and for that, you have to talk about things like, “do you like cold weather?” or, “do you smoke?” Most parents don’t know if their kids smoke or not; most don’t even know if their son likes girls! And by the way, if he doesn’t like girls, or she doesn’t like men, we are keen on expanding to cater to the LGBTQI+ community soon – we’re big champions of the community, and I think we’d be a pioneer in this space.
As Indians, we often assume that just because our hardware is the same, our software is going to be the same. It couldn’t be more different. I take my own example: I met my wife on Sirf Coffee, so it worked.
We’re both from the same community, we’re both the same age, but our approach to life couldn’t be more different. It’s important that those different approaches complement each other rather than contradict each other.
You mentioned the importance of the human touch – why do you believe it’s still so important when some would say algorithms can make matches faster, and more accurately?
I’ve been quite cautious to use technology in the matchmaking process. It’s hard to use algorithms to match folks; the human touch is needed to unpack five millennia of cultural history, including the nuance of community, religion, socio-economic class, and then who you are as a person. AI may work to figure out
instant attraction, but instant attraction and long-term compatibility are two different things. We’re trying to find that individual that you would be best friends with, and hook up with, and take home to mum, all rolled up into one. And in the Indian community, historically, that’s been three different people!
We do have some very basic algorithms that suggest matches, but by and large, all our matches are made in-house. Firstly, every client is interviewed and we take extensive notes. We then huddle as a team, we do all
the FBI-style profiling [Laughs], and then we talk about the kind of person you’d like to meet, and we pitch you internally. It’s almost like banking-style deal team. Just like a frontline banker will pitch to credit, one
of my matchmakers will pitch to another matchmaker, here’s why two people should get together.
How do you train people to accurately assess people and what they need?
It’s a tough one! There is no matchmaking business school. It’s almost like investigative journalism. You have to take your own bias out of it. It’s not what you think, it’s what our clients think. We tread a fine line in delivering our clients expectations, and their wants, and pushing back on the stupid stuff – clients who only want to talk about city postcodes, or wealth. Our clients by and large tend to do well anyway; they’re either killing it professionally, or they’re pursuing something in a purposeful way.
What we do is for requirements that we believe are legit, and are conducive to matchmaking, we will deliver on them, and we’ll try to push back on the more frivolous requirements. The more open-minded you are, the bigger your net is, and the more likely you are to find someone that’s compatible with you.
While you mention the importance of the human touch, in this increasingly digital age, how do you leverage technology in the business?
Technology has a huge role to play, and for us, it’s about reach, and enabling your client base. Sirf Coffee’s reach is global, we’re in 19 countries now, maybe 30 international cities, with around 1200 clients. So wherever there are Indians, Sirf Coffee is there. We follow them to Boston, Bangalore and Brazil. We’ve used tech to globalise the Indian market because as Indians, we’re a hardworking, tenacious community, and we’ll chase opportunity globally, so it’s only fair that in the search of our soulmate, we’ll chase the soulmate globally as well.
Because of the pandemic, business on matrimonial platforms surged – what was your experience during this time?
The pandemic was a blessing for us, commercially, we no longer needed to convince people, “hey you’ve killed it professionally, it’s time to consider your personal life.” With everyone at home, there was a lot of navel gazing, and people realised that they wanted to share all their wealth with someone. We were already built to operate remotely, so we were already setting up virtual dates. Our business model didn’t really have to pivot, so we were ‘COVID-ready.’
There was a massive surge in demand, and it was coupled with the time when the show Indian Matchmaking came out, and the phrase ‘indian matchmaking’ became salient. So those two things combined really worked for us, and business really grew. People became far more accepting of talking to someone halfway across
the world. People’s expectations changed, reality checks set in for a lot of people. There was a renewed sense of humility amongst everyone.
You mentioned pushing back on frivolous requirements – can people still filter based on things like socio-economic class and religion? What would you say to the concerns that this can perpetuate outdated standards of colourism, classism, etc.?
We come from a 5,000 year old culture that’s bogged down by a lot of bigotry, unfortunately.I’ll call it out for what it is. We remind our clients as much as possible they’re getting married for themselves not for their family. By definition, our clients do come from a certain strata of society where they tend to be fairly progressive.
And because we have the luxury of choosing our clients, if you’re really bogged down by cultural bigotry, we probably won’t take you on to begin with. We push back against requirements like complexion and height,
although we do address fitness, or if someone wants to meet someone who’s earning a salary
on their own, we’ll cater to that.
There is some light validity to people’s preferences, and we deliver on them, but we take care not to perpetuate stereotypes and the problems that have plagued our culture for centuries.
I heard that business in the ASEAN region is booming, and in Thailand specifically – can you tell us a little about your experience with this?
Southeast Asia, and I’ll include Hong Kong in this region, is very interesting. The Indian community in this part of the world have done really well for themselves, for the most part, either professionally or through their family business. However, they’ve grown up in very close-knit communities. This has led to a certain amount of boredom, and particularly the women in this part of the world, who are very smart, capable, and attractive, turn to Sirf Coffee to help them get out of this. We help you get out of your circle and meet someone that you wouldn’t normally meet at, say Roast.
What are your forecasts for the industry in the next few years, in terms of future market trends and market growth?
I think there’ll be a huge return to the offline approach. I think the big players will catch on that the quality of your interaction is going to dictate the quality of your relationship. They’ll soon realise that our needs are sophisticated, and that there’s been a bit of an online dating fatigue. I’m sure we’ll face more competition.
AI is going to play a role to create cognitive behaviours, deep-level profiling, and I’m worried about that, because no amount ofprofiling can replicate the spark. If you like someone, you can’t explain it, and I suspect,
neither can the computer. And if you’re not romantically attracted to someone, it’s hard to explain why.
Any advice for us singletons, and people looking for love?
It’s a bit contradictory, two halves of the same coin. On one hand, be open and available. If you have a date, show up. I wouldn’t discard someone on their Facebook or Instagram or LinkedIn profile, because it’s probably inaccurate – for good or worse. So show up, give people chances, be extremely open-minded in terms of meeting people. On the other hand, when it comes to settling down, don’t compromise. This person needs to see you on your best and worst days. Focus on the two or three things that matter to you – family, travel, or even money, it’s ok, as long as you’re honest with yourself, then let the rest go.
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