Tech

Inside the SXSW Startup Meat Market

“Hi, hey, what have you built?” Speed dating for startups is just as awkward as it sounds.

“Hey. So yah, we’re here. What’s going on?” The first date I eavesdropped on didn’t sound like it was going very well. A few tables down, two young guys were running through the basics. “Where are you from?”

“San Fran.”

“Oh amazing, me too!”

If you’re not good at actual speed dating — and who is? — then you’ll probably feel a bit awkward at Co-Founder Speed Dating, an event held every year at SXSW to help people find startup partners. This year it’s in a Hilton conference room, which feels about right.

This is SXSW boiled down to concentrate: A few dozen people in a room, trading business cards and trying to figure out if anyone else might be able to help make them rich. It’s like a real-life LinkedIn. In a way, it’s refreshingly honest.

The rules are simple. To register, you’ve got to answer a few blunt questions: Do you already have an idea? If we let you in, will you definitely come? Can we have a link to you LinkedIn profile? Once you’ve been accepted, you take a seat. The clock starts. You’ve got three minutes with each person. Every rotation starts with a hearty handshake and ends with a hearty handshake.

As in regular speed dating, you’re not really trying to get to know the people you’re sitting across; you’re just trying to see if you should talk to them again — or “follow up,” in startup parlance. Still though, it seems like people spend a lot of time trying to figure out if the pairing even makes sense: Are you trying to find a partner, or join a company? Can you code? Have you ever started a company before? It’s like showing up at speed dating and having to ask everyone you sit down with, “so wait, are you straight?”

Brian Curliss, founder of Bookedd

If you ask me, the real action is over in the overflow area. There are no time limits here, for one, and the people seem more aggressive: I mean, they’re the ones who just showed up. Brian Curliss, a student and founder of an Airbnb-style service called Bookedd, is scouting the talent. He’s eager to find a new “technical cofounder” for his company, but he’s nervous. “This is harder than dating. When I make a pitch, feel like I’m suffocating.” He and the other overflowers seemed to bond over the awkwardness, though, and before long he found someone to talk to.

Nearby, a guy named Todd (just Todd, he has a job he isn’t ready to quit — not pictured above) is looking for a partner, any partner. He kinda wants to start his own thing, but he’s not picky. “If someone else has a better idea than me, I wouldn’t be opposed to joining them.” Asked about said idea, he sounded annoyed: “yeah, I’ve got one.” Our date wasn’t going very well, either.

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