This ex-Apple employee creates a Google-like algorithm for matchmaking

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Oddly named after a small town between Jammu and Srinagar, Banihal is a matchmaking startup. When asked why a matchmaking startup was named after this small town, Ishdeep Sawhey said that the landscape of Banihal has the plains of Jammu on one side and the lush Kashmir valley on the other. Marriage he says, is similar; an individual goes through a Banihal-like tunnel and life completely changes on the other side.

After completing their Masters in Computer Engineering, Ishdeep and Upender Sandadi worked at Microsoft. During the time Ishdeep was looking to make some investments, he came across a speech of Warren Buffet’s in which he says the most important decision one makes is who they marry.

Ishdeep with David Cheriton

He says that, if you think about this decision, it is very hard to predict how one’s life will progress over the next 60 years, and hard to predict how your wife’s life will progress over the next 60 years. This makes it incredibly hard to gauge how both couple’s lives will progress together.

Fortunately, he adds, research from neuroscience on decision-making reveals factors that influence individual decisions. It was at this juncture that he decided to develop an algorithm for finding a good match. “I had been ruminating on the idea for Banihal, and Upender came on board after the very first time we talked about changing how people get married,” says Ishdeep.

While doing his thesis during Masters, he first experienced the joy of taking a complex problem and coming up with a simple solution, and the challenges of developing all the details. He started working at Microsoft in 2003 and developed an idea called Fone+, which was presented to Bill Gates through Thinkweek. They filed a patent for it. After Microsoft, Ishdeep worked at Apple on the first iPad. That was his first entrepreneurial experience, and showed him that he had the perseverance to see an idea through.


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Creating Banihal

 It is common to look for different options when one is looking for a match. People look at friends, ads, online and offline communities for decisions. It is a universal answer for someone looking to get married – introducing them to someone they like and will be compatible with.

“We provide five recommendations that are likely to lead to marriages. We are focused on making introductions where both individuals, when they meet each other, are ecstatic and feel like they have never met someone this good,” adds Ishdeep.

Banihal makes sure that their program leads to finding the right match. Over 20 profiles are picked specifically for an individual, which he or she can view and decide from. The computer program acts as a personal matchmaker. Ishdeep compares this to a Google search, where the keywords might get you three million results but you can’t go beyond the first five search results.

At Banihal, he adds that a user gets to see only the most compatible profiles, and their own profile is also only visible to selected members on Banihal. Explaining further how these recommendations are made, Ishdeep says that our brain automatically forms an opinion on an individual after meeting them. This opinion keeps getting updated on the basis of what we learn.

In marriage he adds that individuals connect on some intuitive level, and update this information often. This model of thinking is recreated for each individual as they go through completing their profile. Each time the user uses the app, the algorithm updates itself, and basis this it finds the best match.

Challenges faced

To Ishdeep it was obvious at Microsoft that to have an impact on the world one has to have a great team. After interviewing candidates almost every week, Ishdeep says that he began to understand the importance. “The biggest challenge for a startup is to get talented people, and that has been a focus at Banihal. Even though I have understood this for 10 years, I am still continually surprised by the impact having good people on the team has on building a business,” says Ishdeep.

Currently operational in Redwood City California and Delhi, Banihal is seed funded by Dr. David Cheriton, Prof in Computer Science at Stanford, and a few other angel investors. They have had over a thousand users from the beta launch of Banihal.

The business of matchmaking

Today, matchmaking in its online form is growing at 30 per cent. In fact in the past ten years the top three marriage sites, Shaadi, Jeevansathi and Bharat Matrimony are believed to have accounted for over five million marriages. The current matchmaking market is said to be $100 million, of which eight metro cities are said to account for 50 per cent of the users.

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