After he graduated from UCLA with a degree in philosophy, Sahadeva Hammari emailed one of his heroes, the tech entreprenuer Seth Godin, about working together. It was a shot in the dark–but it worked. A few weeks later, Hammari was on a plane heading to New York to work on Godin’s then-new project, Squidoo. That was seven years ago, but as Hammari explains, “the idea of reaching out to a complete stranger to do something cool stuck with me.”
Hammari has spent the past few years building CollabFinder, a website that helps others connect with potential collaborators. He describes the site as “a serendipity engine.” On the recently relaunched platform, you fill out a profile detailing your skills, experience, and interests. You’re instantly connected to a pool of people who want to start new projects, have similar interests, or share a friend in common with you. A built-in messaging system lets you contact other users to see if it’s the right fit. Early success stories include Ideo designer Junu Yang, who’s started several projects with fellow CollabFinders, along with the three founders of the manufacturing services startup Maker’s Row, who met through the site.
Right now, there are plenty of services that let you connect with people within your profession: There’s Dribble for designers, say, or GitHub for developers. But finding a cross-disciplinary collaboration is tougher–most of us are more likely to head to a meetup or networking event to fish for someone outside of our skill set. That’s fine, but it’s not a very efficient way to find exactly what you’re looking for. “When you go to the New York Tech Meetup, you’re surrounded by 500 people, but you don’t know what those people are interested in beyond starting a startup,” he explains. “There’s no way to say, ‘Show me a particle physicist who’s also interested in music and who shares a friend in common with me.'”
CollabFinder doesn’t silo users by profession. It mixes illustrators, musicians, developers, and architects, finding connections that serve as a basis for chatting–an interest in board games or zines, or perhaps a mutual Facebook friend. “Cross-disciplinary stuff is where the magic happens,” says Hammari. The main point is to increase the number of interactions you have with others by making it “less weird” to approach total strangers about working together.
Though CollabFinder began as a way to increase professional connections, the model has potential applications in education, too. Starting with New York’s School of Visual Arts, the site is pairing with a growing list of schools and universities get their students and professors onto the site. The idea is to give students (and potential students) a real-time picture of what kind of work is happening at their school. “When I got to UCLA, I was dropped into a place with 40,000 other students. I knew no one,” Hammari remembers. “How do you find people who want to do the same sort of stuff you do?”
CollabFinder gives students x-rTay vision into what’s going on at every department and school. A science major at Stanford could connect with a musician at Berkeley to start a band, or a designer at the Rhode Island School of Design could search the MIT network for a developer interested in building a web app. “Administrators are excited about it because they’re trying to figure out how to help students actually build stuff and learn by doing, so they graduate with much more experience than someone who just went to class every day,” says Hammari. “In the future, prospective students aren’t going to go to a university’s home page, they’re going to go to that school’s CollabFinder page to see what people are doing there.”
At the core of CollabFinder is a simple insight that Hammari gleaned from his experience with Godin: Everyone–no matter how successful or celebrated–loves to meet interesting people. Social networks have neglected our creative lives, in pursuit of enhancing our professional or emotional selves. “There’s this perception, thanks to Facebook and Instagram, that people have these incredibly busy lives,” he says, talking about why so many of us hesitate when it comes to emailing a stranger about a possible collaboration. “The reason people like CollabFinder is because it allows them to say, ‘Yes, I actually do yearn to make things that change the world.’ “
This spring, CollabFinder is powering the fourth annual NYC Big Apps competition, weaving their social toolbox into the Big Apps site. For the record, there are 97 people looking for BigApps collaborators. Go check them out here.