Finding the Perfect Startup Match

A service called FounderDating helps tech entrepreneurs meet their ideal startup mate.

For David, it was Traun’s intellectual curiosity that got him hooked. For Traun, it was David’s warm heart and trustworthiness.

It’s a match: Signature Labs founders David Hegarty and Traun Leyden met through FounderDating, a service that helps bring together startup founders with different skills.

Shortly after their first arranged meeting, at a bar in Palo Alto, California, in April 2010, the pair got together at a nearby café. They kept talking and getting to know each other, opening up about what was important, and by the summer they knew it was a match: David Hegarty and Traun Leyden were going to found a startup together.

Hegarty and Leyden came together through FounderDating, a matchmaking service for would-be startup founders that was created by Jessica Alter, CEO of social-gaming startup Formative Labs and former general manager for the applications platform at the social site Bebo, and Saar Gur, a partner at Charles River Ventures.

FounderDating emerged from Alter’s frustrations at how difficult it can be to find a startup cofounder—something that is essential to many would-be entrepreneurs, since it’s rare that one person has all the skills necessary to build a successful tech company alone. “What we say is, finding the right cofounder—and the emphasis is on ‘right’ and not ‘cofounder’—can drastically change the value and the outcome of your company,” she says.

Alter figured that it would help to get a mix of people into the same room—software engineers, business folks, and more. She and Gur reached out to their own networks and promoted FounderDating on Twitter and Facebook and through some university alumni organizations.

Their efforts caught on quickly. The first event, held at a Palo Alto bar in late 2009, attracted several dozen carefully selected attendees. Lots of e-mails followed from interested entrepreneurs, and the project has since expanded beyond the Bay Area to New York, Boston, and Seattle (Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, are coming in late March). The events, typically held at bars, include both group discussions and open mingling. FounderDating also has an online network where members can search for others by skills, interests, or location—giving users access to more potential mates than they’d have just by attending an event, as well as a way to reconnect with people they met in person.

Potential FounderDaters must answer a series of questions about their skills and experiences, and they must provide references. Alter is determined to keep it small and selective. For a February round in San Francisco, they accepted just 55 of 500 applicants.

Currently, accepted applicants pay a one-time fee of about $50. Alter says that FounderDating, which counts Charles River among its sponsors, is working on the quality of its network right now and will focus on monetizing later on.

While it is still quite young, the service is seeing results. Alter believes nearly a dozen companies have been created by members, including Hegarty’s and Leyden’s latest effort, Signature Labs, which offers a shopping app.

Leyden, who found out about FounderDating on Twitter, thought the service would be a good way to find a partner who had the business savvy he lacked as a programmer. At the time, he was working as a contract employee for a company based in Germany and trying to build iPhone apps on the side.

Hegarty, meanwhile, was hoping to find someone technically minded to help him found a new venture. A former member of Microsoft’s corporate strategy group, he was running a service called Hollrr that let people share product recommendations with friends. It was initially successful but soon “fell off a cliff,” Hegarty says—a failure he attributed to working with programmers based in Poland while he was in San Francisco.

Hegarty and Leyden started out by talking about mobile apps that focused on social interaction and product recommendations. In the summer of 2010 this grew into their first product, a mobile app called SnapDragon, which included entertainment and digital comics that a user could gain access to by “checking in” to everyday products with an iPhone.

Featuring a pink dragon that made fun of users, SnapDragon didn’t last. But it did lead to an introduction with a big Bay Area retailer (the guys won’t say who), which led to the development of their new project, Signature.

Based in San Francisco, Signature Labs released its first iPhone app, called Signature, in November. Signature acts as a personal shopping assistant, allowing consumers to see new merchandise at participating stores, add items to a wish list, and send messages to specific salespeople. A corresponding app for stores gives sales associates access to customer wish lists and other information, and alerts them if a Signature shopper checks in at the store.

Signature Labs has snagged funding from investors including venture capital firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson and NEA, and its retail partners include Neiman Marcus department stores and jeans retailer 7 for All Mankind.

Both Hegarty and Leyden speak positively about the FounderDating experience, saying one of the good things about it is that it lets you start fresh with someone totally new. “There’s definitely a lot of benefit of not having any baggage from previous friendship or family relationships,” Leyden says.

They’ve kept in touch with a number of people from their initial event, even hiring a designer they were introduced to through someone connected to the FounderDating network.

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