Heart Searching: Investing in the high-risk market of love: The Agencies. Continuing our series, Lynne Curry reports on different approaches to the business and asks if there is a blueprint for success

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The Independent Online
BUSINESS, like love, is a tough old world. Combine the two and nothing changes. The business of love takes no prisoners.

This is probably why a mother of three with no commercial track record is doing rather well, while a strategic marketing specialist with years of experience at exploiting opportunities is sitting on a depleted bank balance and chalking things up to experience.

Both tried their hand at matchmaking. One was up, running and doing 14-hour days before she had time to exercise her new-found ability to afford a nanny. The other called it a day after two months.

One charged pounds 575 per year and reserved (and used) the right to turn away anyone whom, occasionally on nothing more definite than an instinct, she deemed unsuitable. The other asked pounds 85 and offered potential partners the chance to see each other on a videophone as they talked, before they met.

One had to barge her way into executive offices in an attempt to secure publicity, using nothing more than her considerable presence. The other came up with such a novel idea that newspapers and broadcast media clamoured for interviews. Who would have rated her chances of success? Who would have rated his chances of failure?

Condolences to Michael Herson, the Middlesex businessman who conceived and then buried Eyetalk, his '21st century' technologically correct dating service in which only women could ring men and where possible partners used a videophone.

Step up Virginia Sweetingham, who risked all she had borrowed launching her Virginia Charles agency in an expensive pre-booked series of advertisements in 19 publications including the Law Society Gazette, Vogue, The Field and Harpers and Queen.

Some would say the wording was rather sniffy, specifying people of 'quality and integrity'. An interviewer on BBC Radio Oxford challenged Mrs Sweetingham over her chosen phrase. 'He said to me, 'you're elitist',' she recalls. 'I said, 'that's right'.' She points out that what she means by 'quality' is people of principle and decency and not those clanking with gold bullion.

For a woman who appears to have everything - four adored children, a wonderful house in an Oxfordshire village, looks, a housekeeper - she has a personal history so painful she will not have it disclosed. Its outcome was that less than a year ago, she found herself on her own with her children, no money and the house mortgaged to the hilt.

'I had to examine my own skills. I can get on with everybody from all walks. I thrive on it and love it. It doesn't matter to me what people think of me but it matters very much that my dealings with people are honourable. Therefore I felt that I could do this.

'I knew that there was a market for it; the figures speak for themselves - one in three marriages ending in divorce, 100,000 people on their own.'

She spent 'months' researching the venture, starting in the library with a basic guide to starting up a business. Then she talked with banks (and entrepreneurial members of her own family) and secured the loans she needed to start. She designed her own stationery and brochure, created her own office at home and personally collated a client base of about 100 people.

She had already decided on the sort of service she wanted to provide - a highly personal matchmaking which relied on her instincts in introducing the right people, all of whom she would have met at some length herself. This meant the usual method of starting a new agency - buying a client list from another agency - would have been fraudulent.

But finding potential clients was not as hard as she had anticipated. 'Wherever I went I used to preface my remarks with, 'you won't really know what I want to do' but it was just unbelievable how many people 'had a friend' or had been through dating agencies themselves.'

Finally, she sat down with Brad's directory of publications and chose her target readership. Advertising space was booked with the 19 publications, including newspapers, satirical magazines and society periodicals.

Of all the expenditure, this was the most frightening and the largest. 'I took the view that you can't play at this,' she said. 'I'm not a half-measures person. I knew I could start off going in one or two to see if it brought a response but then I thought bugger that, I knew where I wanted to be.'

From the start, she said, 'hundreds' of inquiries came in and have continued to come in. She now spends her working weeks - seven days - travelling around the country meeting her clients. Although she now has full-time agents, all women, who help her with preliminary interviews, she invariably meets everyone herself at some stage, and plays the major part in the matching.

'My starting up costs were between pounds 50,000 and pounds 60,000. Despite dire warnings the finances have been brilliant. With most new businesses you expect to go down and plunge into the red and come back up. We've never done that, touch wood.' Such is business, says Mrs Sweetingham, that she rarely crawls from her office before 10pm and is frequently telephoned after that.

Five miles along the road at Lechlade, across the border into Gloucestershire, the same eternal ringing never troubled the telephone of Janet Duff, once manager of the short-lived Eyetalk. It was no reflection on her that a veil was drawn on the service, launched in June, before the summer was out. The videophone, said Michael Herson, apparently failed to fire the public imagination.

'I'm not sure what the other reason was but I suppose it was basically people not wanting to get into this risk-minimisation area which all the press said was a pretty good thing, when people can see each other before they meet and men can't phone women. In that respect it was a non-event as far as the public was concerned.'

A hasty decision was made not to expand Eyetalk into other parts of the country from its test area of the West Midlands. 'We returned people's money,' said Mr Herson, who shared the pounds 50,000 start-up costs with other investors. 'I hate to say this because it sounds a bit snobbish with me coming from London, but it was almost as if the concept was too sophisticated for outside.'

Virginia Charles, April House, Shilton, Oxfordshire OX18 4AB (0993 840888).

Eyetalk is up for sale. Inquiries to Michael Herson, 7 Ingle Close, Pinner, Middlesex HA5 3BJ (0426 914357).

(Photograph omitted)

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