Who Should You Start a Company With? As Seattle Evolves, FounderDating Has an Answer

1/29/10Follow @gthuang

Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Before they were the co-founders of billion-dollar technology companies—Microsoft, Apple, Google—they were friends, classmates, lab mates.

But most people aren’t lucky enough to meet their ideal co-founder before it’s time to start a company. Is there a more systematic way for today’s most promising entrepreneurs to find the right business partners?

The short answer is no. In Seattle, local events and organizations like Seattle Tech Startups, Seattle 2.0, Open Coffee, Lunch 2.0, nPost, NWEN, and WTIA all play important roles in bringing the entrepreneurial community together. But none focuses solely on matching up potential founders. That’s where FounderDating comes in.

OK, in Seattle we already have Founder’s Co-op (seed-stage tech investment fund) and Founder Institute (entrepreneur training), and Foundry Group’s Brad Feld is a household name in these parts (he’s helping to bring startup bootcamp TechStars to Seattle this year). But FounderDating—this is something entirely different. And it could contribute to the changing face of how early-stage companies get off the ground in this town.

Unlike TechStars and Founder Institute, FounderDating is not looking to provide mentorship or training to entrepreneurs. And unlike most other local tech events, it’s not about content or general-purpose networking. It’s about one thing: hooking up with the right co-founder.

FounderDating was started in the San Francisco Bay Area by Saar Gur of Charles River Ventures and Jessica Alter from Formative Labs. They are bringing the event to Seattle for the first time on February 9, with the help of local organizer Brian Schultz, the co-founder of Seattle’s Ontela and Djinnisys (now Plectix Biosystems), who’s currently on his second tour of duty with Microsoft. The exact format of the event is TBA, but it will involve roughly 25 hand-picked entrepreneurs and potential co-founders meeting in a structured way at a restaurant. It might incorporate some “speed dating” elements or other ways to match up people who have interests in areas like mobile, Internet, commerce, advertising, and aerospace.

Schultz, who worked for Lehman Brothers in a previous life, speaks from experience when he says the big challenge in starting a company is “finding good people to do it with.” That means being able to “diversify the skill set and get momentum around ideas.” He says, “Most likely the sweet spot for FounderDating will be founders who have done it before. They know what they want, and what they need.”

The importance of the team can’t be overstated, it seems. “The number one cause of companies dying is founders not working well together. You don’t hear about those because they’re stillborn,” says Dan Shapiro, a fellow Ontela co-founder and now chief technology officer of Photobucket. “Picking your co-founder is a make-or-break decision for a company.”

I’ve recently talked with a number of Seattle-area entrepreneurs and scientists who are interested in the FounderDating program—either in participating directly, or in its potential to give a boost to the local innovation scene. A common thread is that it’s damn near impossible to meet the right co-founders at most networking events. But it’s crucial for entrepreneurs to broaden their network as they try to form the best possible team.

“How do you go beyond the circle of people you worked with in the past? It’s an important challenge,” says John Bito, a freelance software developer who has worked at five startups including Seattle’s Qpass and Entertonement. “If you’re interested in doing something new and different, it’s a good idea to have someone on board with a different perspective.”

But most founders end up choosing their co-founders precisely because they’ve worked with them before. “I actually think that’s more cancerous than advantageous,” says Ron Wiener, the founder and former CEO of EarthClassMail. Not necessarily because of power struggles or other interpersonal dynamics, but because it limits the types of expertise on the team, he says. Which is where a program like FounderDating could really help expand a company’s gene pool. To meet entrepreneurs with similar levels of experience but different strengths—“that’s invaluable,” says Wiener. “It’s a very exclusive club.”

Alexander Mamishev, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, is looking to start a company around the idea of helping corporations, government agencies, and academics write technical proposals and papers more efficiently. But he has had a hard time meeting compatible founders at local events. Mamishev thinks FounderDating is promising because it’s “pre-screened and then creating a good mix of people in the room.” But he adds, “I don’t know if it will work, because the problem itself is so difficult.”

It seems like the program could have a big impact on a relatively small group of experienced entrepreneurs who have done it before and are looking for their next big thing. But that’s the point, of course—to be very selective about the people in the room. We’ll be watching closely to see what new companies come of the experiment, and whether there is much of a correlation between startup success and the types of relationships among the co-founders.

“I’m pretty sure studies prove that success correlates with the quality of the relationship and skills” of the founding team, Schultz says.

He says if FounderDating is successful in Seattle, he’ll plan to organize quarterly events here. And possibly help expand the program to a national network that might include a database to enable entrepreneurs to connect to potential founders elsewhere.

In the end, entrepreneurs just want a wider pool of qualified people to meet—and a place where they can quickly size up whether they’d want to work together. Bito, for one, says he’s happy doing freelance work but could also see starting a company, perhaps in Internet commerce or enterprise software. “I’m looking for people who have juicy problems which have lucrative solutions to be developed,” he says. “I’m definitely ready if I can find the right person.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Tim

    Great quote from John Bito at the end. “I’m looking for people who have juicy problems which have lucrative solutions to be developed,” he says. Um, thanks John. Aren’t we all?

    Can you imagine someone saying, “I’m looking for people that have identified tiny problems that I could make some pocket change from. Nothing lucrative though.”

    I tend to be skeptical about this speed dating business partner idea, as personal chemistry is huge. To meet someone in this type of forum, how well can you assess them?

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ghuang/ Gregory T. Huang

    Tim, I think John Bito was referring to the need to think really big. Too many developers spend their time building incremental products. And I agree it might be tough to judge co-founder chemistry quickly, but people will follow up as needed. This program seems to facilitate the whole process.

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