KEY POINTS
  • Usage of the Lunchclub service for introducing professionals has risen tenfold since the coronavirus pandemic caused the start-up to switch from setting up in-person meetings to arranging video calls.
  • Recently the small start-up raised a funding round that values it over $100 million.
Patrick Burns, left, and Alex Khadiwala, who met each other virtually on the Lunchclub service, had dinner at Khadiwala's house in Los Angeles on Aug. 20, 2020.

Patrick Burns wanted more human interaction after the pandemic sent him home from the start-up he was working for in Los Angeles. Then a friend invited him to Lunchclub, a start-up whose software introduces people to one another so they can interact virtually.  

"It fulfilled a lot of my deeper need to connect with new people in this very structured and professionally managed way," said Burns, who previously worked in product management at Amazon and Google and recently co-founded a start-up of his own called Grand View.

"It kind of plays into the need to connect in a social dinner-party-type way," he said, taking him beyond the interaction he has with his wife at home. He even met one person who had similarly obscure musical tastes, which developed into real-life social interactions.

Lunchclub is one of those companies, along with electronic signature software maker DocuSign and video calling service Zoom, that become more helpful after the coronavirus emerged. It's not as well known, nor does it have as much money to work with, but users are recognizing its value.

While DocuSign and Zoom were available years before Covid-19, Lunchclub had to change direction in a way those companies didn't. When it was established in 2017, Lunchclub encouraged people to meet in person, in San Francisco, New York and other cities. Then, like so much else, it went virtual in March. Instead of recommending places where two people could have lunch or coffee when making introductions over email, it sent links for talking on Google Meet.

The switch worked out. There are now tens of thousands of meetings happening each week, 10 times more than before the pandemic, Lunchclub's co-founder and CEO, Vlad Novakovski, said in an interview in July. The 15-person start-up recently raised $24.2 million at a valuation above $100 million in a round led by Coatue and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

How it works

You can sign up for the Lunchclub on the start-up's website. After you enter your name, email address and location, the system will ask you to pick a few objectives, such as meeting interesting people, investing or starting a company.

The service tells you to pick some interests and asks some follow-up questions that can lead to better recommendations. You can add an image and links to your LinkedIn or Twitter profiles if you'd like. Then Lunchclub asks you to write a brief biography that it can use when it will introduce you to people it matches you with over email. You can also provide some information on a good way to start a conversation with you, which Lunchclub can also pass on to the people you meet. 

Lunchclub sends you an email to confirm your identity. From there, you decide how many meetings you'd like to have each week and select some convenient times.

Then you wait for an invitation. 

'Good friends'

The hard part wasn't building a system to shoot out good-quality introductory emails to users. The hard part is predicting good matches using artificial-intelligence models. That's what the start-up is constantly working on.

The service asks users for feedback after each meeting, and Novakovski said that as the service grows, the quality of matches improves.

"If you could pick from anywhere in the world, the best possible match is a lot better," said Novakovski, who participated in math competitions and led the machine learning team at question-and-answer start-up Quora before he and Scott Wu began trying to build a sort of AI super-connector. 

Many users tell stories of surprisingly relevant matches.

Nicole Quinn, a partner at Lightspeed, signed up for Lunchclub last year and became more interested once it went online. No longer did she have to worry about going to a meeting place only to receive a message saying the other person had accidentally scheduled the event on the wrong day. 

One meeting made a particularly strong impression, when Quinn found herself paired with another woman in San Francisco with an English accent. They figured out they had both grown up in the same small village and attended the same all-girls school. They were one year apart and had never met. The other woman had also worked at Snap, which Lightspeed had backed.

"Oh, my God, we have a million things in common," Quinn said. Sometimes, coincidences like that just happen, Novakovski told her. 

Lunchclub had nine employees before the start-up went remote because of the pandemic. Now it has 15 employees, said CEO Vlad Novakovski, bottom row, second from right.

Burns had a similar experience. Lunchclub matched him up with Alex Khadiwala, who is near his age and also works in the technology industry in Southern California. After talking about ways to have healthy communication with colleagues while physically spread out, they realized they had similar taste in music. Burns sent Khadiwala a track he had produced, and Khadiwala, who has experience as a DJ, said it reminded him of the work of the solo electronic music artist Four Tet. It turns out that Four Tet had been a major influence for the song.

"The number of people in the world that have the same taste is probably in the tens of thousands, at most," Burns said. Following their initial conversation, Khadiwala attended a socially distant pool party at Burns' home, and Burns and his wife went over to Khadiwala's house for dinner one night.

Anastasia Golovashkina, a social media director in Boston, also met a Lunchclub match in person during the pandemic. She and a Lunchclub user living in San Diego both had experience working in politics, and the woman met met up with Golovashkina during a visit to Boston.

"We're going to be good friends for a while," Golovashkina said.

Earlier this month Bjarne Christiansen, formerly co-founder of mobile database start-up Realm, which MongoDB acquired last year, used Lunchclub to get to know an investor. After a discussion about their locations, they soon realized that the investor had once lived in Christiansen's apartment building. 

It's unlikely Lunchclub could have known about the locations -- it does draw on information from social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter, but it doesn't ask people where they've lived before.

"It's funny. It's a small world," said Christiansen, who joined Lunchclub last year after a friend invited him.

Long runway

The new funding round gives Lunchclub "a huge amount of runway" to keep improving the matching technology, and to come up with a way to make money, Quinn said. 

Novakovski has a few ideas. If executives find people to hire, or if founders find venture capitalists who invest in their start-ups, perhaps Lunchclub could be financially rewarded. He recognizes the potential of even connecting employees within large companies. And some individual users, including Golovashkina, said they would even pay for Lunchclub.

Competition is another question. Microsoft-owned LinkedIn already dominates professional social networking. But LinkedIn, at least today, isn't in the business of introducing people who wouldn't ordinarily meet. And when one person reaches out to another on LinkedIn, that's asymmetrical, Novakovski said.

Plus, on Lunchclub, people actually talk to one another, and sometimes build lasting relationships. That's not always the case on LinkedIn, said Christiansen.

"I have tons of connections, but most of them are not people I really know," he said.

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