The secrets of a teen's Internet success

MyYearbook.com, co-founded by 17-year-old Catherine Cook, is making millions in annual revenue after just two years.

Internet start-ups have a legacy of twenty-something founders. Just look at Microsoft, Yahoo and Google.

But that esteemed age limit is lowering.

Catherine Cook, the 17-year-old co-founder of MyYearbook.com, hatched the idea for her now-thriving online yearbook site when she was a sophomore in high school. Now, in little less than two years, the site is making millions in annual revenue from advertising, Cook said, and attracts more than 3 million monthly visitors, according to research firm ComScore. (In 2006, it raised $4.1 million in venture funding from U.S. Venture Partners and First Round Capital.)

It's also in a sweet spot for online marketing. Its audience is primarily between the ages of 13 and 22, and nearly all are from the United States.

By next year, Cook hopes to turn MyYearbook into the largest teen media company online, buoyed by a new user-generated magazine and tools that let high schoolers challenge each other to voting duels on topics like best-looking senior. While she's plotting online domination, she will also be studying international business and marketing at Georgetown University this fall.

CNET News.com talked to Cook about skipping school, raising venture capital and the future of online publishing.

Best-looking is the most popular category. We launched video battles about a month ago, and now best music video is also very popular.

Q: So how did you get the idea for MyYearbook?
Cook: Basically, Dave (my brother) and I were pretty new in our school. We had just moved to Montgomery the year before, so none of us really knew that many people in our grades, and we turned to the (yearbook) as a way to get to know other people in our classes better at the time. David was showing me a picture of some girl...and we thought it would be much cooler if you could make your own, maybe post a picture online and have a profile. This was even before we had even heard of Facebook. So we started brainstorming this idea, and a few days later we approached Geoff at dinner.

This was your other, older brother?
Cook: Yes, my oldest brother, Geoff, and he invested $250,000. He has the money from a Web site he started in college. And from there, we started working on all of our templates, which were actually made in India because our programming team is there. My brother had worked with programmers in India before so it just seemed like a good option for us, too.

So the whole site was developed in India?
Cook: Yeah, the original. It kind of came around in phases. The first phase was just launched in our high school, so it was like a testing one. The original site we launched didn't have any of our most popular features. All the core features of the site all came from my friends' ideas--they were telling me during lunch, all the break-the-ice features and secret admirer stuff.

That's interesting. All of the popular features were your friends' ideas?
Cook: Actually, the most popular feature right now, Battles, which has like made our page views go up by 500 percent since this February, was someone on the site's idea. That person said that he wanted a new way of doing superlatives, so I came up with Battles--a one-on-one image contest, instead of just being against everyone in your class. Best-looking is the most popular category. We launched video battles about a month ago, and now best music video is also very popular.

How do you think your site compares to MySpace.com and Facebook?
Cook: We're actually really different than those sites. Comparatively in page views, MyYearbook is third in the United States after MySpace and Facebook, but we're bigger than Bebo, Hi5, Tagged.

But compared to MySpace and Facebook, MyYearbook is a lot younger, so 80 percent of our users are between 13 and 22, whereas MySpace reports they only have 12 percent of teen users and Facebook is now going mass-market. So we definitely stay to our niche.

Another big difference is unlike MySpace and Facebook, on those sites what you really do is to click on profiles and go into the groups, but on MyYearbook only 10 percent of the page views come from clicking around profiles. The other clicks are for our other features like Battles, MyMag and quizzes. That's where almost all of the traffic comes from.

That's something that is very unique about MyYearbook. There are a lot of sites that let you make a profile, but we are the only one that really has very competitive Battles, online magazines that users make themselves, and I think we have more than 100,000 quizzes.

You came up with My Mag--a user-written teen magazine. Why do you think it's resonating with your visitors?
Cook: My Mag is really for people who want to be on the site but who aren't necessarily into Battles or feel the need to challenge people. I think it's so popular because all of the new articles are things that our users write. We do have professional editors--otherwise the articles wouldn't be as good as they are.

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