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Online dating assistants help the lonely and busy

(Nathan Daniels for The Washington Post)

For Scott Valdez it worked, but the endeavor required just a little too much effort. He was working 70 or 80 hours a week in sales for a start-up technology company and traveling constantly. Every time he tried online dating, he met interesting women, but he found the process leading to the dates "really repetitive." So he decided to outsource it.

"Why not just teach my secretary to do it?" he thought.

She didn't have the time (or maybe the stomach?) to tend to his Internet love life, so Valdez hired a recent college grad who could write e-mails in English and Spanish. Soon he was going on five or six first dates a month.

"It worked for me," he says. "And I knew so many people that could use the service."

Last June, Valdez, now 25, founded Virtual Dating Assistants -- a company that "specializes in making the dating dreams of busy individuals come true."

Author Timothy Ferriss popularized the concept when he wrote about outsourcing his online dating accounts to teams of competing writers in his 2007 book, "The 4-Hour Work Week."

Valdez's Atlanta-based firm is hardly the only outfit to offer such services. Dozens of profile-writing shops such as Arlington County-based TargetLove have popped up in the past few years, and dating coaches are increasingly managing their clients' online pursuits. Not to mention the well-intentioned friends and relatives who have taken over the process for the hapless singles in their lives.

But Valdez and his team of 45 freelance writers, including Hartshorn, do it all: write a client's profile, pick out potential matches, send introductory e-mails and message back and forth until a date is confirmed. Then they turn over the correspondence and tell the lucky fellow where and when he's meeting Madame X. (And it's almost always that gender dynamic; 80 percent of the firm's clients are men.)

Richard, a 39-year-old marketing executive who uses the service, would like to say, for the record: "It's not like I really have a lot of problems dating people in the real world." It's just that he's busy, splitting time among four cities, including Washington and Miami, and he figures it's best to meet as many people as possible.

Online dating has worked for Richard, "but it's all time-consuming," so when he heard about Virtual Dating Assistants, it seemed like a convenient solution for an on-the-go guy. "Just from a cost-benefit analysis -- me spending all this time on doing things that are purely almost secretarial doesn't make any sense for me," says Richard, who asked that his last name not be used because he doesn't want colleagues or potential dates to know he uses the service.

After a lengthy phone interview three months ago, the company's writers drafted a profile, let Richard tweak it and then started fishing for potential dates. Richard says they soon zeroed in on his preferences in terms of a woman's looks, education and interests, and he feels satisfied that he's being represented authentically in e-mails written on his behalf. (This has not been the case for everyone: Valdez described one client who came back from a date saying that "we maybe made him look a little too cool online." From then on, prospective dates were given a heads-up that the man was shy.)

Richard doesn't usually tell the women he dates that he didn't write the e-mails they received. But when one woman wondered why he was constantly active on the site through which they met, he told her the truth: "Look, it's not exactly like that -- somebody's actually doing this stuff for me."

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