“Love among the microchips”

Anyone looking for a Silicon Valley success story should look no further than Randy. At 35, he is the head of a hi-tech company that plans to go public next year. He drives a BMW 740 and has just paid $4m for an acre of land in the Valley’s swanky Atherton area. One female friend describes him as a “sort of tall Al Pacino”.

Randy is about to marry a woman he met via dating agency Kelleher International (slogan: “Beautiful women want to meet Silicon Valley men”). A “lover of people” who says he has been on lots of dates since arriving on the West Coast 10 years ago, Randy was nevertheless ready to pay for Kelleher’s services.

Article continues “Most people in Silicon Valley are pragmatic,” he explains, “and anything that saves time is good. It’s all about maximising time over target. When I’m looking for a senior executive, I go to a search agency and give them my criteria. The chances of finding a long-term match are far higher with such a recruiter than if you try to do it in a scatter-gun fashion.”

Randy is not alone in wanting help to find a mate in California’s Silicon Valley. The area around Palo Alto, a magnet for some of the most highly educated, highly paid people in the United States, is also a centre for matchmaking services. Kelleher has almost doubled its client base in the past two years.

Last year the American Singles dating service moved its annual convention from Anchorage to Palo Alto for the first time. The move recognised the fact that men who prospect for oil are no longer as valuable a commodity as those digging for virtual gold, but it also acknowledged the demographic and social factors that have left the most successful part of America, if not the world, one of the loneliest.

The boom in dating services might seem odd to outsiders. Silicon Valley attracts some of the world’s youngest, most dynamic people. San Francisco bars are full of twenty- and thirtysomethings at weekends, while launch parties and networking clubs such as Wildcat Wednesday attract thousands every night of the week. What’s more, Silicon Valley enjoys one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, with around 64 new millionaires minted every day.

Yet speak to these eligible men and women, and a surprising number talk of a work and wealth-obsessed culture that breeds financial and career success while keeping fun for later. Simon Levene, director of corporate development at Excite@Home, says: “People call it the Joseph-in-Egypt phenomenon. They put up with seven years of famine and hope for seven years of plenty.”

There are lots of reasons for the famine in Silicon Valley, the first of which is demographic: there are simply not enough women to go round. In Palo Alto, the heart of the hi-tech machine, there are 36% more men than women – almost the reverse of figures in the US as a whole, where there are 43m single women compared with 36m single men.

Added to this statistical anomaly is the fact that the typical Valley man is not known for smoothness when it comes to the opposite sex. Think bad haircuts and an obsession with Tomb Raider. The oft-used line about dating in the Valley is that while the odds are good, the goods are odd.

Hannah, a former comic book publisher who arrived a year ago to become a senior manager at one of the world’s biggest websites, says: “I could tell you 10 horror stories about guys I’ve dated here.” The 29-year-old has been to parties where “the geeks walk in two-by-two and sit on the floor to discuss database design”.

American Singles fell foul of the techie nature of its target audience when it held its inaugural Valley event during Comdex, the annual convention for tech types. Hardly any men showed up to a ballroom full of women who had paid $35 a head.

Yet demographics based on number and type go nowhere near ex plaining why Silicon Valley is full of singletons. Anecdotal evidence suggests nobody has any time for sex and its attendant anxieties. Amber Kelleher confirms this. “People fly in from all around the world. They are suddenly placed in this Valley of Competition and it’s all business. Their personal lives are thrown out of the window.”

Kelleher International was founded by Amber’s mother over 20 years ago. The agency has witnessed several changes in that time. Until 10 years ago new clients tended to be divorcees in their 40s and 50s; now they are more like Randy – in their early 30s and looking to settle down for the first time. “What’s happening now is that work takes precedence over relationships and people want a career before they want a family,” Kelleher says. This Generation-X behaviour is hardly unusual, but a culture that boasts of 24/7 devotion to work intensifies the phenomenon.

In spite of her bad experiences, Hannah fell for a “tormented genius” when he laughed about her company’s well-publicised technical woes. She saw him “once in a while” for six weeks until one too many dates was cancelled because he was working all hours on a new start-up and she was too busy herself to be fitted into his schedule. “There are so many men out here who are good on paper, who my mother would love, but when you meet someone really nice, it’s impossible to find the time,” she says.

Randy is typical. After finishing a doctorate in electronic engineering, he worked an average of 80 hours a week for seven years. When he became CEO, he slowed down a bit to “between 60 and 80” hours, and it was then that he realised he only ever met people to talk about work.

“I tend to be a pretty focused kind of person,” he says. “I initially focused on being successful and it was OK to date a bit. But when I felt I’d achieved my career goal, I figured I wanted somebody important to share it with.”

As well as the work obsession, there is a concern for wealth that rich Valley dwellers find troubling in a potential mate. Successful, available women like Hannah are in short supply. “People talk about the gold-diggers out here,” she says, “but not all of them are women.” She tells of phoning a friend of a friend to arrange a possible date. “He asked me exactly where I worked and how long I’d been there. We carried on chatting, but I could hear him clicking on his computer. A few minutes later, he told me exactly how much I must have made on my share options. We never met.”

An obsession with valuations can spill over into the personal sphere. Simon Levene, who is 29, says some of his peers take a very calculated approach to meeting women. “Lots of guys want to buy their convertible Porsches before they find a girlfriend. Look, many of these men weren’t necessarily successful with women at college. They weren’t head of the football team. They don’t mind putting that part of their lives on hold for a while in the hope that they’ll do well financially and at the end of the rainbow there’ll be a buxom blonde.”

Hannah rejects the suggestion that it is the geek factor alone that is to blame for the dearth of Valley relationships. “Listen, I’ve met some of the most intelligent, interesting dudes out here. But the thing that makes them those things, the thing that makes them chase dreams in the first place, also messes them up.”

In a report on the area, Business Week recently said: “It’s now 100% socially acceptable to sign up for on-line services.

Yet Randy felt the internet itself lowered the chances of meeting a partner. “What the internet has done is disenfranchise people by increasing electronic rather than physical communication. Most people don’t end up going to grocery stores any more. Silicon Valley isn’t that different from the rest of the world,” he concludes. “People everywhere are working hard and focusing on themselves. It just gets more and more difficult to meet the right people at the same time.”