The COO of Sirf Coffee, a bespoke dating service for the global Indian, Naina Hiranandani brought a fresh wave of change to offline dating, and inherently the world of matrimony. An enthusiast of the content world, she maps her journey of working with industry geniuses like Namrata Zakharia and building Sirf Coffee with her sibling, Sunil. She talks about the operational side, and the birth of the idea for this venture along with some crucial tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.
1. What’s your educational & professional background?
I was born in India but when I was about 2, my parents were living overseas, so I moved around and I’ve lived in the Middle East. I’ve spent my formative years in Bangkok, Thailand where I studied at an international school backed by the United Nations. It helped me gain a lot of global exposure and I had a very happy childhood. In 1999, my family had to relocate to India, so we moved to Bombay and have been living here ever since. I went on to study commerce and then I did my Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media (BMM) from KC College. After that, I did my MA in Literature while I was working. I’ve always had an interest in the written word – creative writing, journalism, content. The idea of BMM was to figure out what exactly I wanted to do when it comes to this space. From a very early time, I realised public relations and advertising is not for me. I am more interested in selling stories, directly to the consumer or the reader with my perspective. The reason for taking up Commerce was because I am from a business family, and the acumen in entrepreneurship is quite high. Both of my parents, my grandparents, my uncles, and aunts are all entrepreneurs. When I was doing BMM, I started interning with various media outlets.
My first internship was at The Indian Express. I worked with Namrata Zakharia, then Editor, Newsline, current Editor at Mumbai Mirror. It gave me a sense of what the newspaper life is like. I knew early on, I wasn’t cut out for hard news like reporting didn’t interest me, but I was more interested in soft news like features selling stories about people, places, travels, history, heritage, food and wine, everything that we appreciate about life outside of work.
After The Indian Express, I got a job with The Ogaan Group; Ogaan Publications at the moment publishes Elle Décor and Elle India. I stuck around with them till 2012, which was a good 5 years. In 2015, I worked as a Consulting Content Director for a PR firm that specialises in lifestyle luxury brands like Good Earth, Manish Malhotra, Swarovski, L’Oreal Paris.
2. What prompted the idea for Sirf Coffee?
My sibling Sunil is the founder of Sirf Coffee. He was living in India in 2009 and realised there were no avenues to meet like-minded people who were young, fun, single and came with the intent of long term. There was nothing in the market except Shaadi.com or panditjis and the communal matchmakers. We have them in every community, Sindhi, Gujarati, Punjabi where you have a bunch of women in the room with biodatas. They know what you do, what your parents do, your income, your caste, skin complexion, your height, weight and other invasive information. They try to make a match for you pretty much within the traditional parameters, which is where you live, what community you are from, your height, your birth time, if horoscopes are required to match, and all of that. While that space existed, it was extremely limiting. First of all, you couldn’t meet people by yourself. You had to go through rounds of interrogation where parents will be involved. They would want to meet or interview people to see if they were worthy enough to meet their son/daughter. There was an absolute and tremendous amount of pressure. If you met someone 3-4 times, you can assume back in the day that this Roka is impending news. Today, if you look at anyone young, it takes 3 meetings or 3 rounds to clear a job interview, forget getting married.
So, the space was completely void of anything progressive and modern. It was surprising to see educated, global people are still subscribing to this. One of Shaadi.com’s biggest clientele is NRIs, because they don’t know how and where to find someone Indian. Sunil was single at the time, so our parents suggested he meet someone and settle down, he said, “I’d love to but how do we do this without circulating my personality on a biodata amongst random strangers.” So Sirf Coffee was in its inception stage by 2009. By 2010, it was still taking shape while we built the website. For the first few years, we were a beta website, it was free, it was going to friends and family.
By 2012, I had reached a point of fatigue, the media world had an intense culture, it was very high pressure, and extremely out of balance. I was looking to leave, and do something new. So that’s when Sunil approached me, by then I knew the inception of Sirf Coffee. That was over 8 years ago, people were interested in doing something like this even though there was no segment of dating apps. Now, being on Messenger or Bumble is common but you can imagine back then people didn’t do this, they would only meet someone through contacts. Whether it was a date or rishta; it relied heavily on human connection. We also wanted to give the opportunity not just to Indians in India but also to Indians all over the world to meet someone like-minded without being public, without having the pressure to make decisions. That’s how I wound up at Sirf Coffee, I started working here full-time in 2013 and I have been here ever since. We have grown in terms of scope, size and team strength.
3. Did you always know you wanted to work in this space?
I definitely think I had the entrepreneurial business acumen back in the day. Even when we were young, we would try creating something from arts and crafts and adding on a price. Either you have the vision for selling something or you don’t. Anything that we do, either it’s a product, a service, or a concept, requires selling at any point.
I always knew I am excited by new things and the concept of creation. I was in my 20s and I thought it was cool and what we do is amazing and there is a lot of scope. I am associated with operations at Sirf Coffee and one of the challenges was to bring about a system with order – a process.
4. What was your first milestone & how did you get there?
I went to meet a client in Bandra and he was 40 years old and he was the M.D of a global bank and he tore a cheque. He said, “Here you go, I am excited to see what you guys come up with.” It was definitely an awesome feeling, this person is almost 10-15 years older than you but he trusts you, he trusts the concept, and is supportive. Within a couple of years, we were able to break even, which was early by industry standards.
5. What are your tips for an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to enter the matchmaking space?
- Be prepared: It is not an easy space. In matchmaking, in general, you are entering a sensitive, personal, and intimate part of someone’s life. It’s not like recruiting because recruiting is a job and you can change jobs and you can do all sorts of things in your life; you are not restricted. But finding a partner or going one step ahead and marrying somebody is pretty life-changing. It is not an easy space to be in.
- Build credibility: It takes a lot of trust for someone to literally say, my personal life is in your hands, do what you think is right.
- Be honest: To build that credibility, you have to be honest. One of the reasons a lot of people come to Sirf Coffee or people who worked with us keep coming back is because we don’t have the tendency to say what people want to hear. We actually tell them the truth. Unfortunately, there are a lot of services in my industry where people don’t seem to do that. I’ve heard people have bad experiences or they felt like someone just took their money and bounced without anything concrete as they were given major promises; we don’t do that, we are always honest. Because, I think if you don’t have that fundamental premise with your client, they will never respect you and they will never want to work with you again.
6. What were the 3 best business decisions you feel you’ve made?
One of the first and best decisions we made was the risk to try something new; you have to take that leap. Many brands want to become just a copy of another. When you are taking this risk, take the risk to be original. We have always prided ourselves on that. Every word you see on the website is written by us. There is a direct connection, everything that we have thought of, devised, has been original. It has been a risk, but it has paid off. That is something we are thankful for. And I do have to say that in the last couple of years, various companies have tried to ape what we’re doing, there was a company that took part of our brand name, and built an app. But if you are good at what you do and people recognise it, you will outlast your competition.
The second one would be to persevere and believe in what you are selling. Sirf Coffee took a long time. I see many new start-ups that get funded in six months or twelve months and they raise a lot of money. We are not one of those stories and I am really glad we are not. We learned a tremendous amount by just persevering, not giving up, not just giving it two-three years and saying this is not working out, let it go. I have always been bootstrapped. And we have managed to figure out what works, what doesn’t work. You have to give any company at least three to five years, to see it really going somewhere, if you really believe in it. The key is to not see anything as a failure and keep persevering.
The third is the ability to adapt. Because of Covid-19, most of our dates are now virtual, you are not able to get coffee with a guy in Delhi or Bangalore that easily as people are worried and you are trying to stay safe. But since 2009, Sirf Coffee has been COVID-proof; we did the virtual medium very early. A lot of people who got married in 2011-12 were the result of Skype dates. And back then people had questions, that isn’t it weird to get on a video call and how do you do that. But it is one of the best things that we did – to recognise the potential of technology. I do think technology can leverage access. At the same time, we are matchmakers, we don’t use algorithms.
Every single person that we suggest is handpicked. There is a tremendous amount of work and research that goes on because technology cannot replace love at first sight. We understand that you can start-off online but eventually, you will meet in real-life. You will want to fall in love, you will want to interact and go on dates, go on coffees or dinner with this guy and that makes us different from the apps today. On other apps, it is completely free, anyone can sign up. There is no consensus of intention. Someone who is looking for casual dating is also on the app, someone who is looking to get married is also on the app and someone who is looking to hook-up is also on the app.
Because you are only interacting through a screen, you are not seeing them, you are not hearing them, you are not making conversation and so even stuff like chatting, I find it very misleading because someone can come off as so different on chat, and they are actually so different when you meet them. So I think that was one of the best decisions we made was to really adopt technology early-on and in general, being adaptable and being receptive to what people want.
So one of the things we did recently, just a month ago was that we started introducing a shorter membership. Earlier, we used to have a year-long membership, and we realised that if you do come on Sirf Coffee, you start dating, you meet someone, and you find a boyfriend in 3-weeks or 3-months, so why do you need to sign-up for a year? What Sirf Coffee is trying to do is make you mindful about the time and energy of whom you want to date.
7. How long did it take you to monetise your venture?
We did monetise after 2-3 years but we saw the demand increase before that. There was no financial pressure as such to make it work or I will lose all my savings.
When it comes to Sirf Coffee, we didn’t have a lot of pressure, we didn’t need a physical office, we could meet people anywhere, and we could work from anywhere. Before the whole working from home thing became cool, it was nice to be able to focus and do other things and not have a 9-5 desk job. We kind of cracked it quite early. Either we were lucky or we were at the right place at the right time but, monetisation wasn’t a problem.
Sirf Coffee has, without advertising, built a community and built a network of people all around the world. We have clients from New York to Brazil to Poland to India to Sydney who trust our credibility.
8. Are you looking for funding for your business?
We haven’t, but that may be a future plan. We are very people-centred. We don’t use BOTs, or chat BOTs. Our idea of Sirf Coffee is not to have a set up where I don’t know everyone by name and face. The personal touch is very important for a personal life. The idea is to get bigger and better and stay true to our company philosophy, by not selling our soul.
We have spoken at a forum hosted by The Global Shapers, they are a bunch of young talent funded by The World Economic Forum. We have been interviewed by mainstream media, and have had our share of podcasts (The Indian Startup Show, Vision-Nari, Behind The Shaadi and so on). Most recently, Sunil was on a panel discussion with Smriti Mundhra, the producer of Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, on Al-Jazeera. It’s moments like that, when we see ourselves on television, that feel like a milestone, and hopefully, we will have many more to come.