FounderDating: How to Find the Perfect Co-Founder

FounderDating matches up people who want to start a business, but don't know how to find a good partner.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
April 04, 2012

This news is for all you tired 9-to-5ers. It's for optimists sitting on the next big business idea that have been afraid to try. If you’ve wanted to break out of the cubicles and venture into entrepreneurship, but don’t want to go it alone, now is your time.

How do you find a co-founder that you can trust?

Enter Jessica Alter. After years of working at startups, the Harvard MBA started a project called FounderDating. It's an online platform where highly motivated entrepreneurial individuals to meet and even start companies together.

Alter and her friend Saar Gur (now a partner at Charles River Ventures and FounderDating adviser) came up with the idea in late 2009. About six months ago, Alter started to run with it.

Today, the company focuses on the technology space. Potential founders apply to be part of a secure online network. They are heavily vetted, a process that includes reference checks. Once in, they have access to a wide array of people—some with fully baked company ideas, others just wanting to start something new.

FounderDating offers in-person events at locations across the country, from New York and Seattle to Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles. The company is based in San Francisco.

I talked with Alter to learn more about her company and the secrets to finding the perfect co-founder.

What is the secret to finding the right co-founder? 
Look for someone whose skill set is opposite yours, but is culturally similar to you. And don’t get so excited that you prematurely jump in without doing a project together first. For example, if you want to open a restaurant, try hosting a catered event together. If you want to start a fashion label, first hold a trunk show. Establish a working relationship before incorporating and splitting equity.

How did you come up with the idea for FounderDating?
It started as a side project. After attending Harvard Business School, I worked in San Francisco at Bebo, a social network that was bought by AOL in 2008. After a year, I realized that I wanted to go out on my own.

When I left Bebo, I found that locating someone to start a company with is not easy. Besides needing someone with a complementary skill set, the timing and fit has to be right. I wanted to help people find others who aren’t just like them, but would make great co-founders.

A lot of entrepreneurs only look for a co-founder when they really need one. That's like starting to date only when you are ready to have kids. Dating is a process. An entrepreneur should always be looking for a co-founder. That's where we come in.

What does FounderDating do? 
We are an invite-only LinkedIn for co-founders. We have some in-person events, but the most important thing is our online network for people across the country who want to find someone to start a business with. We screen people before they are granted access to our network.

We are only working in the technology space right now. But our network is comprised of incredibly high-quality people. We have former founders and early employees from companies like Zynga and Snapfish, to name a few. We try to incorporate a balanced demographic of people into the community—about 50 percent engineers and 50 percent non-engineers.

What do you look for in applicants? 
We want to know what they used to do and what they want to do next. People who come to the site are in different stages, from those who haven’t quit their jobs yet to repeat entrepreneurs who haven’t figured out their next move. It isn’t just for people who already have something and want to scale it up.

What are some red flags in the co-founder search? 
It’s never a good thing to hear the phrase, "we’ve been friends for years." Being friends doesn’t mean that you will be good co-founders, especially if you’ve never worked together.

Another red flag is when people fail to have important conversations. What kind of company do you want to build? People focus on ideas too much. Ideas change, but people don’t.

And finally, listen to your gut.

How are you funded? 
Right now we have sponsorships from third-party vendors and VCs in the works. People also pay a one-time fee when they get in.

What challenges do you face at this early stage? 
We are constantly bombarded with ideas for how to change our company. People ask us why we don’t start an incubator or get into the recruiting space. Maybe this doesn't count as a challenge, but we are seriously focused on staying true to our mission—how to enable entrepreneurship.

What is your background? 
I grew up in Detroit and went to the University of Michigan for undergrad. After college, I moved to Chicago and did a stint in management consulting, but soon realized that working for big companies wasn’t for me. After three years, I went to Harvard Business School. I worked at a few startups and graduated in 2006. That's when I went to Bebo, and realized that I really wanted my own company.

What does the future hold for FounderDating? 
There isn’t a place to find a quality business partner online, even though you can get a home loan, buy a car and find a spouse online. We want to be that place that connects business partners.

Our plans for the future are to spread the message of how much more successful you can be as an entrepreneur if you have the right co-founder.

We are want to expand to other verticals beyond technology. We invite any budding entrepreneur to apply to our community for consideration.

Photo credit: Courtesy FounderDating