For Catherine Cook, one good idea, hatched with her brother Dave around the dinner table at her Skillman home, has gone a long way toward transforming the high school yearbook into a website. MyYearbook.com, launched in August, 2005, is today reaching seven figures in sales, most of it profit, according to Cook.
The company, based in New Hope, has just pulled in $4.1 million from two venture capital firms, U.S. Venture Partners and First Round Capital. This money is being used to purchase new servers, change the site’s infrastructure, and launch new features.
Cook, whose title is founder and president, has 17 employees in New Hope and five in Romania, many of them programmers, and is looking for ad sales people. She spends about 30 hours a week on the business. “I go to the office right after school,” says Cook, a senior at Montgomery High School.
Cook speaks at the “Young Entrepreneurs” panel at “Women Entrepreneurs: Inspirations and Innovations, Making Ideas Happen” on Thursday, March 1, at 8 a.m. at the Princeton University School of Engineering’s Friend Center. The event is jointly sponsored by Integra LifeSciences Holdings Corporation, the National Association of Women Business Owners-North Central Jersey Chapter, Association Business Solutions Inc., and Princeton University’s Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. To register go to http://commons.princeton.edu/ciee/2007/03/women_entrepreneurs_inspirations_and_innovations.html.
Other young entrepreneurs speaking at the event include Rebecca Davis of Rebecca Davis Dance Company and Kristin Hrabar, inventor of the Illuminated Nutdriver. Also speaking are a number of their elders, including Karen Jezierny, Princeton University’s director of public affairs, Susan Bass Levin, commissioner of New Jersey’s department of community affairs, Saki Dodelson, CEO of Achieve3000, Jessica Durrie, owner of Small World Coffee, which has just opened its second location, at 254 Nassau Street, and Charmaine Jones, founder of Cakediva, whose elaborate cake creations have been centerpieces at celebrity weddings and television soap operas (page 12).
From the banquet hall to the basement, proving that inspiration can strike anywhere — at any age, Kristin Hrabar invented the Illuminated Nutdriver, a handtool with its own built-in light source, when she was just nine years old. The tool, which contains two LCD lamps, does away with the need to hold a flashlight while trying to work in dark spaces. Her father, Frank Hrabar, whose day job is operating engineer for a large corporate facility in Neptune, says that the invention was his daughter’s third grade science project.
When it failed to win top prize in a state-wide competition, he recounts, “the judges, two men from Lucent, asked if we were going to patent it. They said that if we didn’t, they would.” The family was already busy. Kristin’s mother, Donna, is a guidance counselor in the Edison Township school system, and she has an older sister. They thought about the pros and cons of obtaining a patent for months, and decided to spend the $10,000 to have the tool evaluated and the patent papers filed at just about the time that Kristin turned 10.
Attention followed soon after, as Kristin was given a series of awards, including the top prize at the 1998 “United States Patent Office Inventors Expo,” the title of ambassador from the “Walt Disney and McDonald’s Millennium Dreamer” program, a spot as “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” from Partnership for America’s Future, MIT’s “Inventor of the Month” in June, 2004, and a finalist in the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” last year.
Frank Hrabar says that the honors have been particularly helpful to Kristin because she was diagnosed with diabetes the fall after she introduced the Illuminated Nutdriver at her science fair.
Kristin, who has taken courses at Middlesex Community College, is now working for L.A. Weight Loss, where she is being trained in management. She tends her invention with the help of her whole family. Now called the Laser Driver, it is mainly sold through a website, www.laserdriverstore.com. It was manufactured in China by a factory with a minimum run of 10,000 units, and the company is working through its inventory at the rate of about 1,000 units a year. Frank Hrabar says that the family has hired a marketer and is making in-roads in retail stores, but that their long-range goal is to license the tool.
While Kristin Hrabar is in the process of moving beyond her first triumph, Rebecca Davis, founder of Philadelphia-based Rebecca Davis Dance Company, is still in the early stages of building her performing arts company. In 2004 she won the Temple University Business Plan Competition, and then invested the prize, $6,000, along with $20,000 of her savings. Her dance company now has a $250,000 operating budget and a studio in Center City.
A graduate of the Fox School of Business at Temple, Davis studied choreography and classical ballet in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her company has pioneered a pre-professional dance-theater program that imparts literary works and historical events to both student and adult audiences. It premiered Antigone at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts one year ago.
Out in cyberspace, Catherine Cook is re-inventing the year book while, at the same time, trying to decide on college. She has an early action admission letter for Georgetown, and will hear from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in April. She hasn’t had a lot of time to research the schools, but says that each has positives. For Princeton that would be easy access to her office in New Hope. But being farther away wouldn’t be too much of a problem. She now stays connected by phone and computer, and could do that from New England.
Getting a start in entrepreneurship has been a relatively smooth process for this young woman, whose parents, Linda Cook and Bill Cook, are both electrical engineers. Linda Cook is a senior project manager for Wakefern in Edison and Bill Cook works for Home Depot. Cook’s family also includes two brothers. Her oldest brother, Geoff, had already founded and sold EssayEdge.com and ResumeEdge.com while a Harvard undergraduate, and he made the initial investment of $250,000 for the site that Catherine and her other brother, Dave, now a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder, dreamed up.
The work of helping to run a company — her brother Geoff is now the chief executive officer — has not limited Catherine’s active involvement in school activities, including varsity gymnastics, ultimate frisbee, National Honor Society, student council, international club, and maintaining “a pretty big circle of friends.” Or maybe her daily life is just marketing research, since 80 percent of the site’s members are 13 to 22 years old.
Cook is a bit disdainful of her purported competition — print yearbooks. “What I’m doing is completely free,” she says, “and yearbooks are 80 bucks.” And, of course, all you really get from them is “a tiny picture of you and your friends and pictures of clubs.”
Her own goal is actually much grander than providing a new and better yearbook experience. Her mission is “to help people better know their classmates — to bring social life online and then back to school and then from school back online.”
To do this, she and her two brothers actually bring selected and somewhat edgy elements of the high school experience online: flirting, secret admirers, favorite music and movies, Cliff’s Notes, and even lockers. And, of course, she makes available yearbook standards such as the students’ club affiliations and honors.
As an entrepreneur, the most important task that Cook has had to master is listening, which has been critical to the site’s success. In fact, conversations with members have generated almost all new features on the site.
One popular feature, called a “battle,” echoes the perennial “I’m better than you are” that characterizes much high school, and probably adult, interaction. It works like this: Cook, say, would challenge a friend about which of the two of them was “best looking.” The friend would receive a message saying, Catherine has challenged you for “best looking” — will you accept the challenge? If her friend accepts, then she has to take a picture of herself and submit it to the site. Then anyone on the site can vote on which of them is indeed better looking.
The site offers 15 standard battles, including categories like best pet, cutest couple, who parties harder, nicest ride (best car), nicest eyes, biggest dork, and most artistic. There’s also a custom category for unusual and idiosyncratic contests.
Another feature is ice-breaking tools. The person with the least personal risk is giving another person a “high five,” but members put themselves on the line a bit more when they choose to “flirt” with someone. The object of a flirtation receives an automated message something like “maybe you should give this person a shot, send them a message, and start a conversation.” On the schoolyard, this behavior might be called juvenile, but online it’s big business. Just this week MyYearbook.com introduced a new feature called “Match.” Cook says that in just one day page views doubled — to 816,000 — as users left secret admirer messages.
MyYearbook.com’s users pay nothing. Its business model calls for all revenue to come from advertising, so numbers like this are a big deal.
Beyond flirting, members can also share music with one other by uploading music to their lockers (which Cook says is legal as long as there is no way to download). By clicking on an iPod icon in their own profile, users can then select songs from a playlist while visiting a friend’s profile. The site allows members to control who has access to their profiles.
In addition to offering yearbooks to high school students, the site offers the same services to students in summer programs, and to college students, graduate students, and even professionals.
Through Cook’s own experience with the site, she has gotten to know kids in her school who previously she only “knew sort of in the halls.” One example is her neighbor. “I knew her, but not well,” she says. “When we started talking online, we found out we had a lot in common, and now we’re best friends.” She adds that boyfriends and girlfriends have met on the site, and there’s even been an engagement. “It’s cool to know you had a part in that,” she says.
The site has also given Cook a chance to make moral statements of a sort. Early on in the site’s history, there was an upcoming chemistry test. One teacher had given out a review sheet, but Cook’s class hadn’t gotten one. Cook solved that problem: “I was able to post it on the site, and everyone could download it, so it was fair.”
Cook also appreciates the notoriety the site has given her, and loves it when people recognize her. When she went to a retreat in Washington for a program in national affairs, for example, “some of the other kids knew who I was.”
In the process of developing this family business, Cook has recognized certain of her own strengths and developed new ones.
“I realize I am a lot more creative than I thought I was,” she says, having learned this largely through the trial-and-error process of selecting among different screen layouts and drawing new ones. Excited, she shared the changes in the site logo for Valentine’s Day. The words “you’ve got love” replaced “you’ve got friends”; hearts replaced the two o’s in the word “yearbook;” and the lettering was shaded from pink at the top to red at the bottom.
And Cook says that she has become a lot more outgoing: “I used to be sort of shy. Now I can probably talk to anyone without being nervous.” This skill came in handy when she had to skip classes to meet with venture capitalists. And as for advice to other potential teen entrepreneurs and, in fact, for wannabe business owners of any age, Cook offers this:
“If you have an idea, go forward and do it. Lots of people have good ideas, but actually taking that first step toward implementing the idea is the most important.”