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Startup Stories: Melanie Leahy, Co-Founder of Ziinkle

Ziinkle co-founder, Melanie Leahy, had a chat with us about how her own experiences led to her launching a dating app.

by hao-nguyen on October 21, 2021

Melanie Leahy is the co-founder at Ziinkle, an Australian dating app that is designed so singles can match and meet in real-life, in real-time.

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Hi Mel, welcome back to The Nudge Group, it’s great to have you back chatting with us. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about Ziinkle, and how you and your co-founder Elisse came up with the idea for it?

Ziinkle was born out of pure frustration with the experiences I was having on dating apps and the belief that there had to be a better way.

The journey started when I came out of a long-term relationship in 2019. I didn’t know how to get back into dating or where to go out to meet people, so I downloaded a few dating apps because that’s what everyone was doing and there really weren’t any other options. 

However, the more I used these apps, the more frustrated I became. There was such a lack of connection and my matches rarely led anywhere. I found it really difficult to make a meaningful connection with a digital profile and all I wanted was to meet someone in real-life where I could assess the connection, chemistry and attraction.

Elisse was vicariously frustrated by my dating app experiences. She couldn’t understand how anyone could make a connection with a 2D photo on an app, so she became my wing-woman and we started going out. However, because we’d both been in relationships for so long, we didn’t know where to go. 

So, we’d research the latest hot spots, but on the night when we got there, the crowd was either too young, too old, or there wasn’t anyone there at all. We resorted to Instagram stories to see real time where other people were out and about and what the vibe was at different venues. We’d then get taxis across town to what looked like better options.

After doing this for months we thought there had to be a better way, and the idea for Ziinkle was born. 

Nothing like scratching your own itch for a start-up idea right? 

Exactly! Ziinkle is designed so that singles can match and meet in real-life, in real-time and helps singles make decisions on where to go out based on the people they want to meet and be around. We’re on a mission to help people find and nurture meaningful and organic romantic connections.

We know from our research that, on average, singles that use dating apps only go on dates with 11% of their matches. That’s 89% of matches that go nowhere and very often after lots of meaningless chat. Studies show that 84% of millennial users say they’d prefer to ditch the apps and meet potential partners in real-life. 

It’s been a personal journey for me and one that I’m passionate about so that I can help others.

Before Ziinkle, you spent a majority of your time working at large corporations. I’m interested to know what the transition into a start-up founder role was like?

Honestly, it was actually quite natural for me. The years I’ve spent in large corporate environments gave me exposure to a range of different projects and joint venture start-ups that allowed me to get hands-on experience in areas outside of marketing.

For some projects I worked directly with Group Executives and leadership teams which gave me exposure to higher levels of business and strategic thinking, and other times I was managing multi-million-dollar budgets and working closely with the finance team. 

On other projects I was working with business partners like Google and Microsoft and had exposure to things like contracts and working with legal counsel, being embedded in the digital team and having first-hand experience in development, as well as being involved in the operational elements of the businesses.

When I had these opportunities, I seized them as much as possible, and being a natural learner, I soaked it up, asked questions and felt completely in charge of what I was doing. Having worked in the consumer, business and brand verticals in these large corporations, allows me to come at things from all angles, as a consumer, as a business or as a brand.

Now being a start-up founder, it means that I can bring all of these skills I have together in a meaningful way that allows me to have maximum impact. I love solving complex and challenging problems and being able to have variety in what I do. From my experience a key difference between working in a large corporation and being a start-up founder is the rigidness of a large corporation, whereas as a start-up we’re able to move more swiftly and be adaptive in an effective way.

As I’m sure you know, running a start-up, or working at one, just isn’t for everyone. From your experience, what type of person do you think thrives in a start-up work environment?

To thrive at a start-up, I would say you’d need to be a person who likes to learn, wants to be challenged and pushed outside of your comfort zone, and likes to roll up your sleeves and jump in the deep end. You need to be adaptive, patient, determined and thoughtful. Having passion in your purpose should be at the core of what you do and why you do it.

Switching gears now, to raise funds for Ziinkle, you turned to equity crowdfunding platform Birchal. Can you talk about your experience using that platform and why you chose that investment path? 

When it came to raising capital, partnering with Birchal was an obvious choice for us. They have a great track record, specifically with female founders, and we love that they give all Australians the opportunity to invest in the brands they love. It speaks volumes about your business and brand when you have a community of people wanting to invest and join you on your journey.

The Birchal team was wonderful to work with, we raised just over $455k from 202 investors, whilst also building a community of users and generating brand awareness. This was key for us, as we’re launching in early 2022 being able to start spreading the word, having people joining our waitlist, and telling their friends is critical to a successful launch.

One last question before I leave you alone Mel, what have been some of your biggest challenges to date, and what have you learnt from them?

The biggest challenge so far has been gaining investment privately from individuals as well as from VCs. There seems to be a real gap in the market in Australia for start-ups that are going from an idea to an MVP, pre-launch and pre-revenue. 

Even having pretotyped and prototyped our idea, and generated paying users, they still were only interested in investing once we launched in the market. That’s why working with Birchal has been so important to us. It’s proven the need for Ziinkle and allowed those who believe in what we’re doing, and who want to use Ziinkle, to invest.

There was a second challenge that came from some of these investor conversations, which was gender inequality. Most of the private individuals we met with were males, and in a number of these meetings we were constantly referred to as ‘girls’. In some instances, they looked at us and assumed “oh they’re young females” and didn’t take us seriously because they would say “they don’t have the experience, they don’t know what they’re doing”. 

Which couldn’t be more opposite to the reality of the situation. We’ve lived the experiences and are very clear on the problem we’re solving. In some meetings these people called in their millennial kids to run the idea past them, and they would completely validate everything we’d said.

I think there’s more to business than what’s traditionally known as ‘business’. The customer insight and core purpose of what you’re doing is the most important thing. Without fundamentally solving a problem for people you won’t be able to help them, you won’t attract users and you won’t gain traction.

We have an outstanding team around us that fills the knowledge gaps Elisse and I have, but in time those gaps will be filled. There’s nothing like being in the field and living through the learnings. In his book, The Hard Things About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz explains there aren’t any CEO courses you can do that can truly prepare you for running a business. You need to live it.

We’ve seen this across so many thriving businesses, in particular Canva, and how Melanie Perkins has grown that business into what it is today. She wasn’t an off-the-shelf, ready-to-go CEO, and I think that’s a real advantage. Yes, you have to learn some hard lessons, but that’s life. It means that you don’t come with any preconceived ideas or ways of doing things because ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. That approach doesn’t foster innovation.

Thanks so much Mel, it was wonderful as always to chat with you. We’ll let you get back to working on Ziinkle, and we’ll definitely be watching your story!

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