Not unlike many entrepreneurs currently riding the tech boom in San Francisco, Dan McDonley's resume is unusual.
McDonley's first online business was selling medicinal herbs — not that one — as an ethnobotany major in college. By the time he graduated, the business was profitable enough to sell. Then he took up poker in Ashland, Oregon, forming a legal club before an ex-girlfriend on the company's board forced him to reconsider both his professional and romantic lives. When I met him in 2006 while working on a story about professional pick-up artists, he was an instructor at a company called Charisma Arts, started by a guy named Wayne "The Juggler" Elise, who was featured in Neil Strauss' infamous PUA bible, "The Game." (Though McDonley says, perhaps optimistically, that he never really considered himself a PUA. "I almost immediately gave up — if I have to be a cocky asshole to be dating, I don't want to do it," he says.)
As nary a day goes by without another news report about how sitting is killing you and is as dangerous as smoking, he's created a product to tap into the massive hype around standing desks — a highly portable model called the Ninja Standing Desk that weighs around 4 pounds. With help from San Francisco's Tech Shop, a member-based craft workshop, his unique design its $10,000 Kickstarter goal in a little over 24 hours. It's now 150 percent funded, with almost a month left to go.
What makes a professional ladies man — er, dating coach — want to get into industrial design? McDonley said that he's been making things his whole life and when he developed stress and back injuries from sitting, he investigated standing desks. But he also had racked up 500,000 miles working remotely — McDonley still works as a dating coach, maintaining a web site called The Charming Geek — so he needed to make something portable.
"When I joined the tech shop, it was a huge boost in being able to make things. They helped me hone the prototype," he said. His design is simple: the flat desk boards are suspended by two straps covered in cloth that can be hung over doors or attached to walls and then easily packed — the whole thing weighs less than four pounds. Even though he'd perfected the design, McDonley funding challenges. "There's a new revolution in hardware, mainly because of Kickstarter. If you have an invention, if you have a hardware idea, traditional VCs don't want to touch that."
Which is not to say that McDonley would reject VC funding. He's just not getting his hopes up. "The standing desk is a great idea but not necessarily something that the average person would interested in — it's a niche market."
The worlds of tasteless pick-up artists and earnest makers seem very far apart; it's the undercurrent of "passion" in both that McDonley says ties his interests together. When he first got into the "seduction community," as it is non-ironically sometimes called, it was during a moment in 2005, when pick-up artists began to hit the mainstream. "I think I did see Neil Strauss on TV. I was already thinking more, 'I could use this in business' rather than 'how many girls can I sleep with.'" Eventually, McDonley found his way to Elise, whom he deemed "the most normal" of the bunch. He did well as a student, and Elise asked him to move to San Francisco in 2006.
"The goals are skeezy, but they want what we all want — a human connection," McDonley said.
Now, his dating coaching clients largely come from the tech world, but McDonley said, even with the influx of young, often socially-challenged guys into the Bay Area, it's not a huge business. The social stigma against hiring someone like McDonley is too strong, even if men in tech often to need his help. "I think very anlaytical people tend to look and feel comfortable with stats and data and coding — even non-techies but people like mechanical engineers, industrial designers. These feel quantitative, not qualitative. And you can't quantify a social landscape."
The standing desk and his new place in the maker community is now McDonley's primary passion. He intends to keep raising money to build units through Kickstarter and then, perhaps, with other investors. When I talked to Dan, I kept thinking about the social and aesthetic gulf between the cheesy guys and janky websites native to PUAs and the design-savvy folk at Kickstarter and Tech Shop. But like so many in tech and maker spheres, McDonley is a self-made man, sliding through different worlds with each project. "With the PUA community, it was people desperate for social communication." he said, "But we aren't united as much with the lingo or the lifestyle, we're united by our love of making things."