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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.

But about 2 percent of the articles (submitted) get posted to the site, and they're all very relevant to teens, not just about celebrities--things like managing popularity in high school.

There seems to be an absence of that kind of material.
Cook: All the teen magazines like Teen People and Elle Girl, for instance, even stopped doing their print publications because there was no longer a market. Their online publications aren't really going through because very established print media companies aren't used to doing it in online, and so we are actually ahead of those. Personally, I find a lot of the teen magazines only focus on celebrities, which kind of bothers me because I don't care what Angelina Jolie is doing this week. That doesn't affect me in any way.

The (most popular) articles that are on My Mag get about 3,000 comments a day. The other ones average around 1,000.

So from that perspective, what do you think the future of media is?
Cook: I think that people will realize that user-generated content doesn't have to be like, bad. A lot of older companies and print publications hear "user-generated content" and they're kind of like scared because they don't trust what people will come up with. But I think that's the only way you can really stay in tune with what your members want, with what your readers want. So I think other media companies will realize that that's kind of the key to staying relevant. You have to post what your members want by actually seeing what they write.

I don't think I'll able to settle down and work a normal job. I've gotten rather used to being the boss. It's very fun running your own company.

Does that mean you plan to start publishing original content alongside your user-generated content?
Cook: Yeah, like once in a while, I'll write a feature article.

What was the last one you wrote?
Cook: It was about why popularity doesn't matter in terms of high school, knowing that I've not been very popular in high school myself.

What about MyYearbook? That had to boost your image.
Cook: I was very well-known, but I wasn't necessarily in the popular group. I was the class entrepreneur, so I was mentioned in the class president speech, valedictorian speech and all the class advisory speeches so everyone knows who I am, but I'm not that popular. I have a few close friends, but I don't have much time for parties and stuff because I'm always working.

How much time do you spend working on MyYearbook?
Cook: Forty hours a week or more sometimes. In the summer, I work about 60 hours a week. During the school year, it ranges between 25 to 40 hours depending on the week. In college, I plan to still be working pretty much as I had been in high school because I think I actually can miss a lot more college classes than I could high school classes.

Aren't you tempted to skip college?
Cook: I could, because I do have a very solid job. But the thing is, I don't want to quit something before I even see what it's like.

Is MyYearbook the first of many companies you want to start?
Cook: I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn't necessarily know it would be an Internet company, but I definitely don't think that MyYearbook is the last thing I'll start. Say in 10 years, I don't think I'll able to settle down and work a normal job. I've gotten rather used to being the boss. It's very fun running your own company.

I saw you speak at the Mashup 2007 conference with several other teen Internet entrepreneurs on stage and I was wondering how you thought you were different from your peers?
Cook: Well, obviously we're all driven. But I noticed one of the questions, I remember I made everyone laugh, they asked me how I balanced school and working. I said I spent a lot less time on school, and I noticed other kids on the panel would (sacrifice their work for school). I always put MyYearbook first, no matter what. I didn't study for any of finals this year or midterms, Also MyYearbook is bigger, so I have 30 employees working in the office.

So did your grades suffer at all?
Cook: I think they turned out pretty well. I had a 4.0 when I graduated. Junior-senior year my grades dropped, but not by that much. I never found school that difficult, and I would just find ways to multitask so I didn't have to do certain things. For instance, all senior year, I never asked for or picked up my government policy books. Instead I just downloaded the chapters, because they had them on podcast, onto my iPod and listened to them in the car on the way to the office.


What was it like when you first raised money for MyYearbook? Did you go to those meetings?

Cook: Geoff, because he is the CEO, he went to those meetings. Even though I thought of the company I still had to graduate high school. We had a PowerPoint I put together with the business plan. It's almost a blur because it was so stressful and time-consuming. Seriously, I seldom got three hours of sleep per night, but when we finally presented, it was a relief.

How many days did you miss from school, and did your parents support you with writing notes?
Cook: My mom did yell at me every time I got a note from the school saying that if I miss one more class I would lose credit. So I kept having to go into my vice principal's office and argue that it should be an excused absence, every time I was absent. So that was kind of annoying because I did almost lose credit. But my mom was very supportive. All she really cared about was that I graduated high school.

I don't think in my freshman year I could've ever seen myself owning such a giant company by my senior year.

So I wrote this story that teens aren't using e-mail anymore, and you were the lone person in the story who still used e-mail. Do you think e-mail will die out in favor of text messaging and other modes of communication?
Cook: Personally, I don't think so. One of the reasons e-mail could never fully die out is just because it is a lot easier when you're crunched for time to write e-mail rather than to make a phone call, or even sending text messages can get really expensive and e-mail is free. I send so many e-mails to my friends and all of them send e-mails back, so I know I'm not crazy.

The only thing that's definitely dying is snail mail. When I was doing my college admissions, I couldn't even remember how to address an envelope. I had to look it up. I couldn't remember where the ZIP code went.

But weren't your college applications online?
Cook: I did all my applications online except for Georgetown, which didn't offer it to be done online. But I always had to mail my high school transcripts and SAT scores.

Apart from MyYearbook, what other sites do you visit? And what do you do for fun?
Cook: I really like Gamehouse.com. I like the little gaming sites that are all over. Other than that I do have a Facebook (page) because I like to check what all the Georgetown people are doing. And I'm into blogs. I read Mashable, TechCrunch and GigaOm.

Also I love the Scooby-Doo PSP games, and I'm pretty good at ultimate Frisbee, soccer, gymnastics. I like to basically do any sport.

So here's the classic college admission question: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Cook: I don't know. I can actually see myself working in a different country, so that's why (I'm majoring in) international business. I don't think in my freshman year I could've ever seen myself owning such a giant company by my senior year, so it's really hard to say.  

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