By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
“My dad and I are extremely close,” Dell said. “When I started asking him about starting his business and what it meant to be an entrepreneur, he started telling me more and more. He would give me little lessons every time we were in the car and use real world examples, like the Bernie Madoff scandal, to teach me about insider trading. We’d talk during car rides, dinners…we spend a lot of good time together.”
At 17, Dell is founder of a new online dating service for college students called Thread—not the same as a former Facebook effort to get into online dating by the same name. The idea, according to CEO Lander Coronado-Garcia, is that college students are safer and more likely to find good matches dating other college students, rather than being on sites like Tinder where anyone can view their profiles. The company intends to launch this fall with University of Texas organizations—like fraternities and sororities—and restrict membership to people with utexas.edu email addresses. In the future the company hopes to expand by adding other area colleges, and spreading from there.
To test the market, Thread created a fictional profile of an attractive UT student on Tinder. Of those who responded, 13 percent were UT students, 17 percent students of other schools and 70 percent “who knows?” Coronado-Garcia said. Moreover, some of the comments left by prospective “suitors” were obscene, bordering on threatening.
“Thread is about classy dating,” Coronado-Garcia said. “We’re going to be very explicit about the kind of behavior we deem acceptable.” In other words, a dating website even Mom would like.
Thread will tackle some of the other weird issues that crop up in online dating, too. With “hookup” sites, people can make 100 matches in an hour—clearly not the behavior of somebody looking for a substantive dating relationship. Thread will limit the number of potential matches presented each day to 10. If both parties say yes to the match, they can keep that match among 12 on a list. If someone adds another match, one falls off.
“That way,” Coronado-Garcia said, “You have to be a little more judicious in who you choose to match with. Each match is a little more important than if you just keep everybody in a bucket and keep storing them.”
A Junior Entrepreneur
Dell’s first business venture was hatched when he was playing golf on vacation in Hawaii at the age of 10. He had a friend along and they realized that golfers who hit balls into the lava fields never went to retrieve them. This was a high-end course. The abandoned balls were expensive. So Dell and his friend began collecting them to sell.
“We built up this huge inventory,” Dell said. “I had just finished reading about leveraged buyouts and selling your business and I thought ‘I want to sell my business.’ My business was the inventory so I decided to find someone to buy all my golf balls.” A friend of his dad’s, who was less than a stellar golfer, routinely lost golf balls. Dell offered to sell the golfer his entire inventory for a reduced price. It was the sale of his first business.
Another opportunity came along when his cousins started a summer camp in Dallas, Camp Spark. Initially, it was held at the cousins’ home. Then, as it grew, expanded to a local school. In recent years, the company has expanded to Austin, San Francisco, Boulder and Boston. By and large, it’s a camp where kids do all kinds of sports.
“If you’re a middle school kid, you’re happy to hang out all day with high school kids,” Dell observed.
Dell started Thread on his own. He had the advice of his dad’s network, but he refused to take money from his parents. Longtime family friend Brett Hurt introduced him to Coronado-Garcia who had been part of the founding team of Meritful—the winner of Capital Factory’s first annual “Move your Company to Austin” competition during SXSW Interactive. Thread is also in Capital Factory’s Incubator and Capital Factory is an investor in the company.
Getting Thread Up and Running
Coronado-Garcia, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, said he suffers from “career ADD.” He worked as a consultant for Accenture IT Systems but decided to go back to school for his MBA. He graduated from Wharton in 2011. He moved to Austin as part of Meritful but when that company folded, Coronado-Garcia was almost immediately tapped for Thread.
Eric Simone, CEO of ClearBlade had been a mentor of Meritful and also serves as a Thread mentor. Initially, Dell hired some developers to build the product and wound up with an unusable app. So he had to raise more money and Thread hired ClearBlade to build a software solution at a flat fee that could add functionality and scale.
“We said ‘Tell us how many hours it’s going to take and how long it’s going to take and we’ll hold you to that deadline,” Simone said. “That way we can control the scope of work and effort and not shove too many features in. So far the team has worked incredibly well together.” ClearBlade will also, for an additional fee, serve as Thread’s CTO until the company is ready to hire one.
“At first I thought, ‘Another dating app? Is that really what we need?’” said Simone. But the team convinced him that the absence of sleaze and protection of college students were huge differentiators. Also advisor Sam Decker has encouraged the team to involve Thread is women’s empowerment and safety programs as part of its brand, Coronado-Garcia said.
Max McKamy with the Tau Deauteron Chapter of Phi Gamma Delta at UT, otherwise known as FIJI, will be coordinating its first part of the year with Thread to make it a launch party. The main point of the app, he said, is to make dating sites safer for girls and if the girls are signing up, that’s where the boys will be.
Thread is close to completing its seed round of around half a million dollars, Dell said.
“My dad has been a huge help on the advice side,” Dell said. “What he understands is that for me to learn I’m going to have to make a lot of mistakes. If I make a decision, he’ll tell me what he thinks but he will never tell me I have to change it. He’s never invested a dime in my company and he never will. My mom is a very smart woman. She is an entrepreneur herself and she wanted to invest immediately but I knew I wouldn’t be learning as much if she did. And it’s been such a learning experience.”