For several years Ali Emam took the lift up 40 floors to his office in Dubai Media City, looking at the same, semi-familiar faces of workers with whom he shared this space every day without knowing their names or what they did for a living.
It’s a familiar story, but Mr Emam decided to do something about it. So he set up an app for professionals to network – and lunch – with their neighbours. And so Lunch Matcher was born.
“Looking through my LinkedIn, 99 per cent of my connections had worked at the same companies as me, which was an eye-opener,” says the 39-year-old Iranian-American engineer, who has lived in Dubai for 10 years. “I realised I needed to meet new people. I am married with a four-year-old son and a nine-month old daughter so I need to get home after work, but I need to have lunch anyway, so why not use it to make new connections?”
Mr Emam searched online for networking apps, but found most were for dating, matchmaking or relationships – not, beyond LinkedIn, for professionals. “Neither does LinkedIn provide a medium to meet,” he adds, “and I wanted to meet people, not just stay in touch with those I already knew.”
In fact, Mr Emam also met his co-founder, Aiman Kabli, via LinkedIn. The pair work on developing the app part-time.
“Aiman worked in HR at Emirates and already had an extensive network. Through LinkedIn we discovered that we were both Dubai-based and both graduates of the same Texas university, so he contacted me, which was very adventurous,” says Mr Emam. “When I decided to set up Lunch Matcher about four years after we first met, I asked him if he wanted to be involved.”
LinkedIn is very relevant to Lunch Matcher, which hit the Google store in October and the Apple store in December. The app takes public profile information from the networking site: a user’s photo, name, current company and job title.
Once the user has registered and set up their lunchtime preferences (what days and what times they are available for a one-hour lunch meeting between 11am and 2pm), as well as the area they want to have lunch in, the app can match them with a fellow networking luncher and suggest a restaurant. Profile and contact details will only be shared once both parties have agreed to the lunch.
Currently there are filters to match by gender and to exclude lunchers from specific businesses – say, your current or former company – but these are to be removed in the next release, as Mr Emam has found no one is using either filter. After meeting, users rate both their lunch match and the venue, although this data is for internal use only.
Mr Emam sees future potential in monetising the restaurants listed – currently some 25 Dubai restaurants have actively requested to be involved, while the rest are pulled from Google Maps. He is also extending lunchtime to 2.30pm, to better suit regional appetites, as well as looking to add in morning and afternoon coffee dates.
While Lunch Matcher is staying focused on the UAE for now – Abu Dhabi is next on the expansion table – Mr Emam says it is “very valuable in densely populated business areas”, such as London, Paris and New York. He points out that a business does not have to be physically located there for the app to work in another city. In the UAE there is also great potential for overseas professionals, travelling here for business, to further network using the app.
For now, it is bootstrapped by its founders, and staffed by two full-time developers and two support staff in Dubai and India, with two more on marketing and social media. So far Lunch Matcher has been downloaded 1,200 times and has 500 registered users, with a target of 2,000 by mid-2016.
Although he says this is “semi-ambitious,” Mr Emam cites a statistic given by Majed Al Suwaidi, the managing director of Tecom Investments, that there are 45,000 employees within the free zone’s square kilometre of Internet City, Media City and Knowledge Village, and says those numbers offer a massive networking opportunity.
Mita Srinivasan, the 59-year-old director of Market Buzz International, is a perfect candidate for Lunch Matcher, with her business specialising in PR for regional SMEs.
“I like the premise of the app,” says Ms Srinivasan who has downloaded Lunch Matcher but is yet to use it. “It’s a good way to generate new leads, especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time on the computer. I also like that it’s not just about networking, or just about checking out a new restaurant. For a foodie like me, who tends to eat out most lunchtimes, it’s a great idea.”
Mr Emam lists two users, Susan and Yousef, who have lunched recently using the app. Susan, a legal specialist, met a management consultant in the Gold & Diamond Park, while Yousef, a managing director of a cables firm, met the head of digital from a consulting company next door to him in DIFC. “I had been curious to know more about that company, and was surprised we hadn’t met before, even though we were neighbours,” Yousef told the Lunch Matcher founders afterwards.