The rishta aunty business playbook

It isn’t quite a formal business sector yet, but in the near future it might be

The scene is a common one if not a familiar one. In a lavishly decorated drawing room, complete with paintings and gaudy golden furniture that belongs in a catalogue of Victorian antiques, two families sit opposite each other smiling politely. The room is a cacophony of spoons clanging onto plates, teeth munching soft food, tea being slurped, and trolley upon trolley loaded with food being carted in and out of the room. 

The conversation is polite but superficial. The conversation centers mainly around the weather, past events, and other mundane pleasantries that occupy the airwaves in a room when two groups of people first meeting each other are trying to keep the conversation going. The two families are, of course, meeting to decide the fate of their children – more specifically whether the son of one of the families is a good match for the daughter of the other. 

It is entirely possible that the children are not even present. But there is one presence that is usually even more vital to the proceedings than the prospective bride and the groom. That is the rishta aunty or uncle. This is the person that has arranged the meeting between the two families. It is usually a mutual friend, or a relative that knows the other people and is the bridge that allows the two families to interact and get to know each other. And even as both families exchange their inane drawls about what they do, where they come from, and what television they are thinking of buying – behind the scenes before the formal meeting, the matchmaker has already provided details like how rich the other family is, how much the boy makes, how many powerful friends the girl’s father has and so on and so forth. 

In the many drawing rooms where scenes like this are common, particularly those of the wealthy, the concept of the rishta aunty is fast changing. At a time, the rishta aunty used to be a member of the family or a well wisher and almost always a woman. Now, they are at times paid semi-professionals who charge at times exorbitant fees to get the rishtas for families that are looking for very specific qualities in their childrens’ spouses. 

Of course, much like the rest of the shaadi business in Pakistan this is highly unregulated and undocumented. Since this is a service that mixes social connections with money, it is even more difficult to track down. Which is why this is not a strictly business story, mostly because it is a mix of social capital and monetary interest. But if things keep going the way they are, Pakistan might not be far from having celebrity matchmakers like it does wedding dress designers. This is how the elusive world of matchmaking works in Pakistan.

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The need for them

The need for these services is actually not very funny. In the past weddings were seen as unions between families and communities. People were already close and connected and used these as a means to enforce that connection. However, in today’s world parents just aren’t as connected as their parents were. As for the young adults looking to get married (or pushed into it), finding someone on their own in Pakistan is not a walk in the park.

If you have passed out of university, the chances of you finding someone for yourself is very slim. The next best hope for you would be someone at your workplace even though that is usually not recommended. Other than that, the options for dating or meeting people are very slim. With apps like tinder very much banned in Pakistan where one can meet someone.

While Bumble is up and running, most of the users on it are not really there to meet “the one” and make meaningful connections. It’s for a good time, not a long time essentially.

In times like these, a number of groups have popped up like Skip the Rishta Aunty, Lums Matchmaking, etc. In 2019, Areeba Atif created a facebook group called Skip the Ristha Aunty where people post their profiles, interested people comment below and then talk or meet. The group acts as a platform to connect.

Another such platform is Two Rings set up by Fakiha Khan, an IBA grad. The group has more than 200 successful matches to its credit. Unlike STRA, two rings is more public and is often used by adults finding matches for their kids or siblings whereas STRA is more centric to people finding matches for themselves. Both these groups are free.   

The various business models

Business models differ from matchmaker to matchmaker. Some matchmakers charge nothing and do this as their social work. These are usually people that don’t just provide this service for their friends or relatives, but are retired and socially active and make use of their time by playing matchmaker. If they have a knack for it, families from far and wide might come to them seeking their help, and it is entirely possible that at this point they start charging money. But however one gets into the business, different matchmakers have different rates and different business models. 

Mrs Mumtaz, of Clifton Women Welfare Society has a business model that is mixed with social work. She says she used to do this for free, and sometimes if it were a particularly difficult rishta to broker she would ask for some money to cover the cost of her phone calls. However, as time went on, she started charging registration fees. The website says this is because they felt people would take the process more seriously if they paid a registration fee that could expire. Her website says, “When CWWS was established people were only charged Rs. 100 as charges for the CWWS services. The service charge was imposed for two reasons. Firstly to meet operational expenses such as salaries, telephones, advertisements etc. Secondly it was noticed that without charges the people did not take the service seriously.”

However, what’s unique about this process is that she doesn’t request a picture. All you have to do is register either by visiting her office or over the phone all. After that, she sends you the number of the other party. You share details with them including pictures. If you find the one using her services, you can pay whatever you want to Mrs Mumtaz for her services. There is no fixed rate or expectation. At least, that is what she says. Her website says, “Its rate of success in finding suitable matches is very high, something like 65 percent. And the rate of successful marriages, marriages that continue, is 95 percent.”

Similar to this, Mrs Asghar, new to the matchmaking circle, says she charges a flat fee of Rs 5000 for registration which is valid for a year. In that time she whatsapps profiles to the girl and boy’s families. If they both approve of a profile, she then arranges for them to speak over the phone and eventually meet. After a few meetings, if they feel it’s a suitable match and the “rishtas goes through”, she gets paid. In fact she gets paid half when the couple gets engaged, and the remaining half when the couple gets married. Considering Mrs Asghar is starting out, she charges Rs 40,000 per rishtas unless the girl or boy is out of the park. Most of clients are people she already knows directly or indirectly, thus she doesn’t not have to worry about not being paid for her services. Mrs Asghar does not have a website. Her primary mode of operation is whatsapp and she incurs little to no expense for running her business other than the wifi connection she has at home.

Mrs Siddiqui has a similar business model like Mrs Asghar. However, Mrs Siddiqui, has different rates. She charges more from the girl’s family than the boys. Rs 50,000 for a local boy, Rs 100,000 for a boy in the middle east, and Rs 150,000 for North America and Europe.

Another such rishtas aunty is Mrs Rahim. She has a flat registration fee of Rs 5000 and charges Rs 75000 from both families once the rishtas is done. However, in her case, she also makes it a point to visit the families, assess their living situation and lifestyle before finding matches for them. This is a service people tend to appreciate, particularly because the house that the other family lives in and how much money they have are major considerations in arranged marriages. 

And while the field is dominated mostly by women, there are also so rishta uncles that find themselves playing matchmaker, and taking money for their services. Major Iqbal is one such name. After retiring from the Pakistan Army, he started his matchmaking services 25 years ago. His business model is fairly simple. Local families go to his office to register, international registrations are over the internet. He assesses the family during the meeting and decides whether he can find them a match or not. If he feels like he can, you have to pay him Rs 12,000 upfront and Rs 35,000 once they’re married. His charges are flat for all rishtas, doesn’t matter who it is for.

Then there are also the online business models. Some of these are websites where you can find uploaded profiles for rishtas, and on others you can find matchmakers. Shaadi.org.pk is where we found Mrs Shah, a matchmaker based in Pakistan. If you want to look up potential matches leisurely on your own time and pace, you’re welcome to go through their free service on their website. However, if you want someone to match for you, all you have to do is get a personalized matchmaking service from them.

The website says this service is for, “Paid Premium Matrimonial service is for those who are Busy Professionals OR looking for very Good Verified Proposals OR want to Meet Families Directly OR want Abroad/Foreign Proposals OR are Highly Qualified and looking for same proposals OR have some Special/Specific Requirements OR looking for Quick Rishta OR want to meet only genuine proposals OR want to save their time and want to Get Married Soon.” Interestingly enough the website also says, “Please note that this paid service is for those who are mentioned in point 12 above. Low income / less educated people can use the free website services of an organization.”

Once you pay and fill out your forms including your details and requirements, the matchmakers show you profiles as per your requirements. While their website doesn’t really mention rates, we tried finding out rates over call. The minimum rate for someone is Rs 40,000. She called these “normal locals”. You have to pay Half upfront and half at the time of the wedding. “The packages are differently priced based on whether you’re single, abroad, or divorced.”

“For a rishtas in an elite family you could expect the package to be around Rs 500,000. If the elite match lives abroad, this could easily go to Rs 1 million.”

“We add you to a whatsapp group with the matchmaker and show you 10 profiles a month for 3 months. That means 30 profiles in total out of which you have to pick 5 you like. Once agreed upon by both sides, numbers are shared. The families get to know each other. They can choose to meet at our offices or at their home.”

It is important to note that when we asked Mrs Shah her credentials she refused to tell us more about herself. She did not sound old, in fact she sounded younger than me (25 years old). So Mrs Shah might be a pseudonym for a young business development executive whose job is to bring in clients and then pass on their profiles to matchmakers. 

The fraud in success rates

Most matchmakers quote absurdly high success rates. These are usually lies. Other than Mrs Asghar and Mrs Mumtaz, every matchmaker we spoke to on record had the same concern that most of the time families ran away without paying once they found a match they like.

Iqbal said, “80% run away. We don’t follow them because frankly I don’t have the time.” Major Iqbal says the success rate he has is approximately 40% based on the limited knowledge he has of weddings being done. In his opinion the rate is higher but because the marriage isn’t reported to him he doesn’t know.

“This is a form of advertisement for me considering most of the registrations I get come in through word of mouth. So it makes no sense to chase after them,” says Iqbal.

“A family showed up to give me money after a couple had two kids. They said they didn’t like how they hadn’t paid and it was eating them up inside. They didn’t tell the details of which profile they were paying for and then left. What I’ve noticed is that the groom’s family forces the bride’s family to hide that they found a match through me so that they don’t have to pay. Some people are okay with that, some pay in discretion to get their conscience clear.”

Smaller matchmakers like Mrs Asghar, Mrs Rahim, and Mrs Siddiqui often work in partnership. In case they get a profile and don’t have a suitable match, they contact another matchmaker, make a deal to share their final amount with them, and profiles are shared between different matchmakers.

We’re introducing another breed, marriage brokers. Bantva memon usually have marriage brokers.

Mrs Jabbar is one such broker. “A girl’s family calculates the amount of dowry they can give such as whether they can buy a house, the amount of gold, the gifts, appliances, etc. They put a cap on the money a girl’s family can provide.”

 These brokers are paid a fee as a percentage of the dowry that has been decided. They only charge the girl’s family. Considering how big these transactions are, a small percentage also leads to a big sum. Essentially, the groom’s family sells their sons. The more qualified the son, the more his worth. Girl’s families shop for a groom based on their budget, the cap that is decided.

Why are they able to charge so much?

It is funny though, how these rishtas are priced. You would think there is a science to it, but more often than not, the pricing is based on your future potential and how much you’re worth.

One such 27 year old that was tired with the process said, “A matchmaker said she would charge Rs 300k from the girl’s family if she found a match for me. I feel Rs 300k is a bit low on the pricing scale if you do a DCF considering a typical M&A fee is between 3-4%.”

“So effectively, she’s put the present value of my implied earnings at Rs 10 million. Rishta aunties should get into hardcore finance. Rishtas should happen on comparable multiples. The pricing needs to be based on the earning potential.” As you can probably tell, the guy works at a major bank.

However, while speaking to a couple that has found a match through Mrs Rahim, they say Rs 75000 is worth it and that one can’t really put a price to a successful marriage and finding the right person.

However, it is interesting how these matchmakers are able to charge so much just for connecting families. It is rare for them to conduct any background information or verify profiles. You could essentially lie and fool someone with little to no chances of getting caught by the matchmakers.

While most families run away with the final payment, they treat the registration fee as a solid source of income and leave the final payment on chance. These rishtas aunties are essentially charging a finder’s fee.

The next step?

Size of online matchmaking in India for 2017 was estimated to be worth INR 15 billion or $200 million. Their websites like Shadi.com Matrimony and BharatMatrimony are leading the market. In fact, Bumble, the infamous app we mentioned above is also marketed as a rishta app whereby families look through profiles and swipe.

As per the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18, approximately 2.7 to 3 million people got married in 2018. Assuming the higher end of the range, that means 1.5 million weddings happen in a year. Considering a 2% growth rate in population, we’re going to assume that the number of weddings also increases by 2% in a year. That means approx. 1.6 million weddings happened in 2021.

This means the potential for someone to actually disrupt this industry is huge. The websites we currently have are shoddy and look like you’re entering into a potential Ponzi scheme. If someone uses human centered design, and streamlines the process of finding the right one online which encourages communication and somehow also gets rid of the trolley culture, we feel GenZ and Millennial would be first to jump on board.

However, while this is a business magazine, we feel it is important to point out that if the practice continues to remain patriarchal and predatory for the girl’s family, incumbents won’t be as successful with this generation. 

Ariba Shahid
The author is a business journalist at Profit. She can be reached at [email protected] or at twitter.com/AribaShahid

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