Erin Oldham has a professional background in child development, but this year began focusing on grownups by founding Local Flames, a dating service. Her approach is to get groups of interested single Mainers together at events – such as at an outdoor movie or a lesson on how to change a flat bike tire – and see if sparks fly. If not, her company also offers workshops on relationship skills to help the next time. Oldham said 240 people have signed up for either $99 monthly memberships or for the $250-a-month “matching” memberships, which include a more direct one-on-one matchmaking service. Local Flames has four full-time and four part-time employees.
Q. How did a dating service come out of a background in child development research?
A. Research is about numbers and I’m a statistician and what I always found so appealing about that was the stories behind the numbers. I learned that the common denominator among everyone is forming relationships with people and making connections with each other. What people want is love and connections. So, I had an epiphany that what I wanted to work on is providing a safe space for people to do that. I also saw that there weren’t many places or ways to help establish authentic relationships.
Q. How does your service foster those relationships?
A. Local Flames is about supporting healthy relationships. A lot of services are one-off – they match you up with someone and then you’re off on your own. I have two life coaches on staff that get to know you and we put together events designed to help you have a great conversation with the person next to you. We also teach the skills you need to know to be in healthy relationships, like communication skills. My overall goal is to reduce the rate of divorce in Maine, which has (one of) the highest divorce rates in the country. So the goal is to not just match people up, but support them in healthy relationships.
Q. And how does it work?
A. You first call us up or email us and we have an orientation, to get to know you, putting together a group of people where we explain what Local Flames is. You also get to know the other people who have just come in. Then we have events, from a bean-bag toss game to going out on a schooner in Portland Harbor, outdoor movies at Bug Light and a get-together for First Friday Art Walk.
Everyone is assigned a personal liaison from Local Flames and when you go out on an event and see someone across the room and you connect, you can contact your liaison and say, “Can you email my information to him or her?” We also have a whole specialty of traditional matchmaking and life coaching as well.
We’re adapting as we go. One of our first events was a dinner at Vinland and we got everybody together at the restaurant and said, “Have fun!” and then checked in the next day, but we found out that people want someone there to kind of help things along – someone to introduce people and then do something afterwards. So the next time we had a dinner, we’d have a course and then have everyone switch seats. And offer conversation starters, like asking who’s a dog person and who’s a cat person or finding out where they shop and say, “What are the three things you would always find in your food basket?”
Q. How do Mainers react to this approach?
A. Maine’s a funny place. It’s a place where people are friendly, but it’s hard to get past that initial friendliness. It’s also a hard place to be a single person, and we’re making this more comfortable, where you can have a great time and if you meet someone, that’s great. The idea stems from the fact that many people find with online dating, that you might weed out people who would actually be good for you. When you read someone’s profile on an online dating site, you might rule them out because they’re a bad speller or for some other reason. But when you meet in person, you get a sense of that person that there’s no way you can get online.
Q. But do you do some ruling out?
A. Our four pillars are authenticity, community, safety and growth. We do a background check and watch out for who’s in our membership.
Q. How’s the business going so far?
A. It’s really exceeded my expectations. We had 200 people sign up before we did our first event – that blew me away. I do know people who have met and are dating and we’re sending out a survey to find out that information, asking things, like have you found a friend? And we’ve learned some events totally attract men, like movie nights and beach days, and some were totally female, like a take control of your health workshop. We have 60-40 split, with more women than men, and we’ve learned that women tend to jump in quicker to things and men want to wait until a few days before to decide whether to go. So sometimes we’ll set something up and get women to sign up and then we reach out and invite men to attend.