Lots of recent college graduates have goals. Find a job tops many lists. Move out of mom’s house is also popular. Catherine Cook’s goal is a tad more focused. Asked about her five-year plan, the 2011 Georgetown University graduate and co-founder of New Hope-based MeetMe.com, says “our goal is to sign up 1.5 billion people.”
Her brother Dave (University of Colorado, Class of 2011) agrees.
The pair were students at Montgomery High School when they founded social media website myYearbook in 2005 with advice and financial backing from their brother Geoff, then a Harvard student and now COO of MeetMe, which was launched in June as a rebranding of myYearbook.
The company, which grew quickly from its inception, made a giant leap last November when it merged with Quepasa, a publicly traded company with a big following in the Latin American social media space, in a deal that brought MeetMe $100 million in cash and stock.
Catherine and Dave Cook give the keynote talk at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Young Professionals Conference on Friday, November 9, at 8 a.m. at the National Conference Center in East Windsor. Other speakers include Glen Gabe of G-Squared Interactive, author Dale Caldwell, and attorney Michael Powers. Cost: $60. Call 609-924-1776.
“There will be just one winner in the meeting category,” Catherine says, explaining the reasoning behind last year’s merger with Quepasa. (The combined company trades as MEET on the NYSE.) “My brothers and I were talking about what the future held for our company, the fact that there would be just one global brand in the meeting category,” she says. “We knew that 86 percent of our base was in the U.S.”
Just as Facebook is far and away the most popular site for people to exchange news with people they know, the Cooks want MeetMe to be the go-to place for young people who want to meet new people, no matter where in the world they live. Quepasa had legions of members in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries where MeetMe had little penetration, so the siblings saw it as a good fit. “MeetMe will soon be in six languages,” says Dave.
The company has just launched a new product, Photoboard, which goes live in 500 bars in 11 major U.S. cities this month. “Everyone likes to be in the spotlight,” says Catherine. “Everyone likes to be on the Jumbotron at ball games.”
Photoboard is to bars what a Jumbotron is to basketball arenas — sort of. MeetMe users socializing at a bar can take pictures of themselves and post them to a giant television screen for all to see. “Everyone likes to be a star,” Catherine says of the appeal. Posting is also a signal that the people up on the screen are open to meeting new people.
The target age of MeetMe users is 15 through 25, but anyone posting a photo in a bar must be 21. “There’s a delay before pictures go up,” says Catherine. They are first screened by the company’s customer service employees, some based in New Hope, but most based in India.
MeetMe has grown quickly from its origins as a three-person enterprise operating from the Cooks’ Montgomery home. “We got our first office in 2006,” says Dave. During that year, after big brother Geoff obtained $4.1 million in venture funding, the company grew to 16 people in offices in New Hope.
“We were only 15 and 16,” says Catherine of herself and Dave, her slightly older brother. They knew they were too young to be approaching investors asking for millions of dollars.
Dave describes the company’s early growth as truly organic. The young company outgrew office suite after office suite in their building, at one point occupying two offices separated by someone else’s office and a third downstairs. “After a while, it got uncomfortable having to go outside to go from office to office in winter,” Catherine recalls.
By 2008, the company had pulled in another $13 million in venture funding and was up to nearly 80 employees. The merger with Quepasa in 2011 brought about 40 more, many from Los Angeles and a few from Mexico.
The company, now up to nearly 150 employees, has moved to still larger offices, across the parking lot from the first office. There is also a sales office in New York City.
Catherine says that no one asks her about what she is doing with the money that came with her company’s recent merger, but she does say that she and Dave get lots of questions from people who want to know how to go about starting their own companies. Their advice includes:
Consider going to college. Deciding whether to go to college was hard. “We already had a company,” says Catherine. Leaving it wasn’t easy, but she says that she and Dave felt pressure from their peers. “On the East Coast, there’s a lot of pressure to go to college,” she says. “At Montgomery High most people went on to four-year colleges,” Dave adds.
On the West Coast, however, it’s a different story. “People on the West Coast said I was crazy to go to college,” says Catherine. Nonetheless, she’s glad that she did. “You meet so many people,” she says. “It’s great for networking.”
Going to college might not be the right choice for every successful teen entrepreneur, but Catherine says it made sense for her and for Dave because their brother Geoff was staying behind to anchor the fledgling company and, she says, “we trusted him completely.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to juggle course work with the demands of a new business. “I traveled to New Jersey about every two weeks,” says Catherine. “And we did a lot of work by E-mail and phone.” She and Dave both say that it was a relief to be able to “stop leading a double life” and just concentrate on their company.
Go for it. “If you have an idea, and you don’t pursue it, someone else will,” says Dave.
Be frugal. Asked if the siblings had splurged on luxuries or exotic travel after the Quepasa merger, Catherine and Dave were hard-pressed to think of anything. “Well, I did finish furnishing my apartment,” says Catherine, “but it’s mostly Ikea.” She advises that sort of restrained spending for all start-up entrepreneurs.
“You have to be frugal,” she says. “Start small. Make yourself stretch.” And ignore temptations to overspend. When people hear that you have gotten a new round of funding, she says, they often suggest that you go right out and spend it, saying `hey, you have access to capital!’ Don’t do it, is her advice or “you might not do things the smartest way.”
“We worked out of our house for the first year,” she says. “We weren’t sure if we needed an office. We knew it’s great to have a vision and to dream, but you need the revenue to support it.”
Narrow your focus. Think carefully about just what niche your company is aiming for and don’t make it too broad or too nebulous. “Be about one thing,” says Catherine. “We’re all about meeting people. We brand around just one thing. Focus is important.”
Watch your numbers. “We’re very metric focused,” says Catherine. She and her brothers are constantly monitoring the success of all of their company’s products.
For example, they are eager to work on their mobile products, at least in part because they know that users are more likely to buy the company’s virtual currency from smartphones than from stationary computers. When any product is introduced, they quickly know how it is doing and if it is a success into which they should pour more resources.
Dave and Catherine both say that their parents have been supportive of all of their choices. Happy that the pair decided to go to college, they would have been fine with their decision if it had gone the other way. Their mother, Linda Magnacca, has retired to Florida. Their father, William Cook, is an electrical engineer who works for Home Depot.
Dave lives in Doylestown with his girlfriend, Kate Levin, a consultant. Catherine also lives in Doylestown. Her boyfriend, Reilly Hart, is a computer developer. While Dave and Catherine both use MeetMe every day, they met their girlfriend and boyfriend through real-life networking at college.
Uncommonly agreeable, Dave and Catherine say that there is absolutely no sibling rivalry in the family — and no in-family squabbles at work. And this despite the fact that roles at the company are pretty loosely defined. The company doesn’t put a lot of stock in titles, they say. Duties overlap, a common pattern in start-ups. But when pressed, Catherine says that she is v.p. of brand strategy, while Dave is consumer marketing manager. The two rarely disagree with their older bother, Geoff, but says Catherine, when they do, “Geoff wins.”
Catherine and Dave are both devoted to the company and expect to remain part of it indefinitely. “There’s nowhere I would rather work,” says Catherine.
Neither, of course, knows what the future will bring. And that’s all right. In a final bit of advice to anyone else who wants to start a company, Catherine says, “You can’t be afraid of failure. When you’re an entrepreneur you’re living in uncertainty.”