Love at first byte: Tech co-founders meet through dating sites
Gina Lujan did not meet her Hacker Lab co-founders the usual way. They were not
childhood friends. They did not launch their business from their Harvard dorm
room, or at incubators like Y Combinator or TechStars.
Lujan first met Charles Blas and Eric Ullrich after they responded to her personal ad
on Craigslist that read: “seeking all hackers and enthusiasts – where are you?”
“I got a few weird responses,” admitted Lujan, but she also hooked up with Blas, a
hacker who works for a local security company. “It was like founder at first site. The
minute we met each other we said let’s do this.”
Last year the trio launched Sacramento-based Hacker Lab, a tech co-working space
that doubles as a start-up incubator. Lujan had been running a similar co-working
business in nearby Berkeley, but was forced to leave when her landlord’s rental
property was foreclosed on.
The 10,000 square foot facility has a dozen offices, which Hacker Lab rents out for
$500 a month. They also offer desk space, mostly used by students, for $45 to $100 a
month. In addition, they host weekly tech events such as meet-ups, hackathons and
educational seminars that regularly draw 50 or more people.
“We support tech startups and people who want to learn about technology,
specifically in coding and robotics,” said Lujan, noting they are currently adding
about 20 new people every month.
This week marks Hacker Lab’s one-year anniversary and the company is marking
the occasion with a large gathering of Sacramento’s most prominent technorati. As
part of the festivities, Lujan will host a founder-dating event to assist entrepreneurs
to find like-minded people with the hope of starting a company.
“It’s in honor of Valentine’s Day so we tied in the founder dating,” she said. “It’s
really weird how my last year has happened. It’s been very serendipitous.”
Founder dating is a trend that has sprung up since the advent of social media, as
entrepreneurs have used the technology to connect and launch startups.
Chicago-native Sue Khim used dating service OKCupid to meet AllTuition co-founder
Sam Solomon before launching their student-loan assistance service in 2010. Khim
also managed to snare OKCupid owner Sam Yagan as an early investor.
The business of matching founders has since become a cottage industry, with
several sites devoted to helping entrepreneurs find their soul mates.
Jessica Alter, a Harvard business school graduate, launched the aptly named
FounderDating network last January, because social media sites like LinkedIn were
inadequate when it came to pairing up co-founders.
Alter observed that entrepreneurs tend to focus more on finding funding rather
than the right partners and that it should be the other way around.
“They see it as the last thing they need, when it should be one of the first things they
do,” said Alter, who started the business as a side project while she was working as a
community manager for social network Bebo, which was acquired by AOL in 2008.
Alter’s service, geared to technology entrepreneurs, charges a one-time fee of $60
and is invite-only. It works like an eHarmony for business, screening applicants, half
of which are engineers, who must fill out a lengthy questionnaire.
“People don’t ask the tough questions or don’t think enough about the personality-
side of things,” she added. “It’s probably the most debilitating problem for
Based in the tech hotbed of San Francisco, FounderDating is now active in 18 cities
across North America and its membership includes former founders from Zynga,
Gilt, Box and Udemy.
Lujan, 41, started her own entrepreneurial career at 16 after she had the first of her
six children and sees it as her mission to help other entrepreneurs.
“I had five kids by the time I was 22 years old,” confessed Lujan, who dropped out
at the age of 14 to raise her daughter, who is almost 25. “My kid’s father said: ‘You
don’t have an education, you’re a minority and you have a kid now, so the only thing
you can do is to work for yourself.’”
Lujan, a second generation Mexican, first caught the entrepreneurial bug growing up
in East Los Angeles, where her father ran a successful construction business. “They
paved most of Los Angeles.”
After her sixth child was born in 1998, Lujan taught herself how to code web
pages and opened her own graphic design firm in Oakland. She also dabbled in the
mortgage business, but had the foresight to get out just before the real estate crash
“I just kind of looked at my life and said: ‘what am I doing? This isn’t me. I make a
lot of money, but I am miserable and my kids are spoiled,’” said Lujan, who during
that time got divorced from her first husband (she remarried in 2009). “I basically
started my life over.”
Lujan believes that experience has helped her connect with people and has been
approached to reproduce Hacker Lab’s success in tech hubs around Sacramento.
“I had no idea that I had this thing for building communities,” she said. “What we do
on a grassroots level is what is missing from a lot of cities that are trying to spark
innovation and create a tech ecosystem.”
Image: Hacker Lab co-founder Gina Lujan. Courtesy of Gina Lujan REUTERS/Handout