“With the age group I’m in, I saw this happening with many of my friends,” Carol, who is now 70, says.
The duo had run technology businesses together before and built an online platform for small business contract referrals. They decided to rework it into a site for building social connections between those over 55 years old.
They invested around $750,000 in Chirpy Plus, a members-only site that also connects users to local meet-up groups, online bingo and an emergency call function to directly connect users to family and friends.
The process for finding potential users involved making the pitch in person.
“Our initial growth strategy was kind of organic: I just started driving around and talking to people. We then started micro advertising, and it mushroomed from there,” Shaun says.
For eight dollars a month, members can tap into a network of 20,000 users and find local lunch and catch-up groups in their area.
Carol says as the Brisbane-based business has grown, she’s come to appreciate the level of bravery it takes for someone to go out and meet with strangers if they have been socially isolated.
“I make a point to go around and meet our members. And we meet people who have taken a big leap of faith going out,” Carol says.
Over the past few years she’s met users of the platform who have logged on after very stressful events, like the death of a spouse or having to relocate to a new suburb or home.
“One lady who is running one of our catch ups now, had just moved into the area. She now has a group of six or seven people, and she’s now really confident,” Carol says.
Chirpy Plus has also grown to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars and is currently sitting at the $500,000 mark. The business has attracted $300,000 worth of external investment, including from NZ rich-lister Bill Smale.
The team is looking to launch into new markets, starting in the UK. Shaun says the company launched into a society where loneliness has been taking its toll on older Australians in particular.
“It’s the unspoken epidemic. The health implications and the social implications are big and our focus is to just make a difference in the lives of people.”
Another key appeal of the startup is its focus on friendship, Shaun says: “We’re a moderated platform, a members-only platform and we are not a dating site.”
The demise of neighbourly knowledge
The costs of loneliness and social disconnection in Australia have been a concern for years.
In its quarterly welfare report in September, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare highlighted half of Australia’s population report feeling lonely at least one day a week, while one in ten people over 15 say they lack the right social support in their lives.
Founders like Mike Banks argue technology has made it less likely for Australians to call on their neighbours for help.
“It’s increasingly awkward or socially unacceptable to proactively reach out,” Banks says.
Banks, who was previously chief of real estate startup LocalAgentFinder, has invested six figures over the past year to create neighbourhood building company Streethubs.
The company maps streets across Australia and gives each property a unique code on the Streethubs platform, which lets neighbours build their own closed social networks.
Banks started by mapping streets and then sending out fliers to properties to make his pitch.
“It was quite overwhelming. You’re kind of hoping for half a percent of responses to be successful, but anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent were coming back [and signing up],” he says.
“On the idea of being really isolated, we’ve really broken that down: by doing this [signing up to Streethubs], it gives you permission to reach out when you need to – that gives some level of comfort,” Banks says.
Loneliness-busters are not always the most profitable sector, however, and the model is yet to drive real revenue. For Banks, it’s a long-term side hustle and around 20 suburbs in Melbourne have been mapped so far to bring users online.
“The idea was to create a system that feeds ideas to continue to create community over time.”
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Emma is the small business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne.