Are 'business dates' a new way of networking?
Would you go on a business date at work? Would you think I was weird if I told you I did? Some apps are making this possible, so I decided to try it out.
Too late for Tinder. As a family man who has just entered his 40s, I am not going to be arranging romantic liaisons on my smartphone.
But maybe I haven't completely missed the boat when it comes to the thrill of swiping, matching and meeting up with strangers. What if you're hooking up for business not pleasure?
A few swipes on the Shapr app and I'm in touch with Carmel.
Shapr is an app that works like the dating app Tinder, but it's for making business connections rather than romantic ones. You sign up with your LinkedIn profile rather than your Facebook one.
Knowing your professional interests, expertise, aspirations and geographical location, the computer algorithm offers you around a dozen potential matches each day. When two professionals independently indicate they'd like to meet, the match is complete - the messaging can commence.
Carmel is an event organiser with a company called Boring Money. Our eyes don't first meet over a glass of Prosecco at a bistro after work. Instead, we meet at one of the conferences she organises. I easily spot her from her profile picture and we have a quick chat.
We are both short of time. She knows - because we've already messaged about it - that the person I really want to talk to is a speaker she has booked. I need an app developer for a story I'm working on.
All in all a very successful business liaison and we plan to keep in touch.
But can business really be kept strictly separate when organising liaisons between strangers? Could unscrupulous people use this as a way to seek romance by subterfuge?
There have been cases of unwelcome advances on LinkedIn before, after all.
Luckily Shapr suggests a meeting with someone who might know: Christina Leong, a matchmaker and relationship coach.
After some slightly stilted conversation, we slowly learn a bit more about each other's line of work.
Again, I'm open about being an inquisitive journalist.
"We're all human, we will always be looking for relationships," she says. The first person she met on this app was looking for love, she offers.
Then she turns the tables on me.
"I have to ask, are you single?".
This is not as awkward as it seems because this is also a work meeting for her. As a professional matchmaker she regularly "dates", harvesting the most eligible for her time-poor clients. Weeding out the dating-scene duds - like me.
Apps for business encounters
Shapr - The free app I'm testing was co-founded in January 2015 by Ludovic Huraux, the current CEO. He began by developing a dating app in France called Attractive World, which he sold this September.
Weave - Professional matchmaking site closed down this July after three years. It billed itself as "Tinder for LinkedIn" but evolved into a curated online service that facilitated weekly matches. The business model could not be made "financially viable", the management team said on winding up.
Grip - Original incarnation Networkr was another pioneer of the Tinder for business model in 2014, but it failed to gain traction. Grip now focuses on facilitating meet-ups at conferences. It is chaired by Brent Hoberman of Lastminute.com.
beBee - Popular in Spain and Latin America, it seeks to forge business contacts by first matching people by their hobbies and interests.
Let's Lunch - founded in 2010. Uses LinkedIn profiles to organise power lunches in your vicinity ripe for networking.
In fact the Shapr app's algorithm is designed to filter out Casanovas trying to use the platform for flirtation.
I learn this from the app's founder, Ludovic Huraux. At Christina's suggestion, I sought him out as my third date.
If you send suggestive, inappropriate messages, the app is intelligent enough to "de-prioritise" you, he explains.
He also admits that at the moment the free app makes no money.
However, he hopes business "dating" like this will become the new normal. Just as conventional dating sites have gone from "taboo to mainstream" in a short space of time, thanks to the rise of the internet and smartphones.
Ludovic is based in New York and London, but we managed to meet by Skype and you can watch our encounter here:
I've swiped right for a roughly equal number of men and women. The gender ratio of my matches is roughly 50-50, too.
Now it is time for my first "man date", with Anton Gu, founder of an app called Hitch.
"I know this area well, my girlfriend loves to come here", is his opening gambit at the cafe - perhaps a coded reassurance that this is not to be construed as a romantic date.
At any rate, it's another metaphysical encounter where we discuss the very essence of our rendez-vous, the merits of digital meet-ups.
The problem with Tinder, he says, is that it has a very small conversion rate for turning matches into conversations. People just treat it as a game.
"You end up swiping endlessly and eventually get bored. And the choice can become overwhelming."
Online conversations are a better route to finding who is actually relevant to you, he reckons.
This is a bit of a business pitch, because his Hitch messaging app is designed to do just that.
If I'm honest, my relationship with my usual colleagues had gone a bit stale. These lunchtime liaisons have spiced things up. Despite some awkwardness I enjoyed meeting new people.
And I'm struck that my dates all share something in common with me. They were all prepared to take a leap of faith with new technology to expand their business horizons.
Technology and social media are often accused of making us feel unhappy and isolated. But business dating is a reminder that they can also be used to create real-world encounters.
And nothing can quite match a face-to-face meeting, with all the surprises that entails.
The real test, however, will be when I explain what I've been up to at home.