LetsLunch offers a tasty take on networking

Networking is a necessary evil of the working world, and an "inefficient" one at that, according to Kiwi entrepreneur Chirag Ahuja. We're connected to more people than ever, but are all those hundreds of LinkedIn contacts meaningful ones, or just people you met once at a random event?

Ahuja says it's hard enough to keep up with the professional contacts that you do have, let alone meet new people.

Enter LetsLunch – a product of Silicon Valley that's aimed at helping you expand your professional network over lunch (apostrophes not included).

Launched in cities all over the US, including San Francisco, Washington, and New York, LetsLunch is currently in beta in Auckland. 

Sign in with your LinkedIn account, enter a time and date for a lunch slot, and its algorithms then match you with people that you should lunch with based on factors such as shared industries and interests. Afterward, you'll be asked to grade the experience; these crowdsourced rankings contribute to your individual rating, and thus, kudos. The system selects a restaurant for you based on your preferences, and you foot your own bill, obviously.

And because quality beats quantity when it comes to contacts, users with the best ratings get the added bonus of access to VIP members – in the US that's the likes of entrepreneur Eric Ries and Dropbox chief executive Drew Houston, and Pacific Fibre cofounder John Humphrey and GNS Science director Claire McGowan in New Zealand.

Humphrey, who's been involved in a lot of startups, says plenty of people have helped him out over the years – but it's tough for people starting a business to make the kinds of contacts they need.

"For young guys and young women starting a business it's quite hard to make connections with people who can give them good advice.

"On the other side of the fence its quite difficult, if you're in a position with lots of business experience to potentially mentor people, to meet the younger ones coming on through."

Of Silicon Valley, he says: "They have a whole culture of having a go, learning from experience and along the way passing on lessons to other people.

"New Zealand is missing a lot of that, a) because we're a very young country and b) the tall poppy syndrome... It's time we developed that generational point of view, and this is a good way of fostering some of that."

While Humphrey has around 10,000 LinkedIn connections, he says actually meeting people through the network takes more effort, and LetsLunch offers a "promising", more structured way to do that.

Ahuja, the person behind LetsLunch New Zealand, entered the University of Auckland's Spark business challenge with a very similar concept. But he soon found out that others were already doing the same thing, and got in touch with LetsLunch founder Syid Shuttari through Twitter. He then helped LetsLunch with its digital marketing efforts, before undertaking to launch the concept down under.

The entrepreneurial community is an obvious target, but he says the focus could broaden to include larger businesses and corporates.

"It facilitates connections between people who might otherwise not meet ... this might include entrepreneurs, corporate professionals, executives, investors, public sector employees, entertainment and music." 

He says many networking sites keep interactions online, but taking them offline is crucial as well. As a small country, collaboration is key to succeeding in a knowledge economy.

"New ventures are launched by brainstorming new ideas and commercial collaboration among individuals from different industries. New Zealand needs this more than ever."

LetsLunch will debut in Auckland – specifically, Auckland central and the North Shore – and he says depending on demand it could spread to Wellington and other centres. LetsLunch Australia will also launch next year.

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