Why You're Never Too Young to Start a Business

Last Updated May 2, 2011 3:34 PM EDT

As inspirational stories for aspiring young entrepreneurs go, Catherine Cook has one of the best. The 21-year-old senior at Georgetown University may look like your average college student, but despite her youthful appearance, she's already a seasoned entrepreneur.

Together with her brothers David and Geoff, Cook started social networking site myYearbook.com when she was just 15. Now the site has 25 million users and $24 million in revenue in 2010. How does it feel to be a successful entrepreneur at such a tender age and how can others emulate her success?

Cooke spoke to ELR about the ups and downs of being a baby-faced entrepreneur, why she chose to take time out for college and why for aspiring business owners there's no time like the present -- no matter how young you are.

Was starting a company something you thought about for a long time or was it something you just jumped into?
It was something I always wanted to do. My oldest brother Geoff is 11 years older than me, and when he was in college he started his own website. My mom would send Dave and I to visit him -- we would stay at his house for three months every summer. We were only like 8 or 9 when he started this site and so we were only about 10 when we saw what it had become and that it was just so exciting.

We definitely saw entrepreneurship as something we wanted to go into, especially after going to our parents 'bring your child to work day' and seeing electrical engineering wasn't for us. So when we had the idea it was just, like, now we have to go for it because we know it can be done.

Were you surprised when you started your own business or did the experience match up with your expectations?
It pretty much matched up. We were warned that it would be insanely stressful and a giant time commitment. When we were working on building the site, we were working until 3am each night and then high school had to start at 7:30, so it was insane. We expected it to be a ton of work but not as much fun in the beginning. It was exciting. It was always exciting.

I wasn't expecting it to be that big that early on. That was a little bit unexpected because when we first started, we got 400 members in just my high school in the first week.

What do you think is the key to being a good entrepreneur -- do you need a certain personality type?
The main thing is the idea and the ability to persevere to actually make your idea become reality because there are tons of roadblocks. For instance my age came up a lot, and then just being in the market in general. It's incredibly competitive, so you have to be able to have an idea and see it through but also to realize that market changes and to stay very, very flexible with your thinking and think creatively.
How did you deal with skepticism about your age?
When we first started the site even people in my own class were very skeptical, but once we started adding members and once people realized how passionate I was about the idea, and how much I clearly believed in it and could talk about, they started becoming believers in it too. My passion about the site was contagious.

Then, raising our first investment, when we were first going to VC meetings, I was 16 and it was just clear when I walked into the room that they were like, 'oh, we don't want to give millions of dollars to someone with that kind of a face' because I was pretty much a baby face. So that's when our older brother Geoff got very involved because it was clear the series A would be very hard to raise with people just our age. I don't think it would have been impossible but it definitely helped to have an older, experienced person come in and say 'hey, I'm backing these guys too.'

You're a senior at Georgetown this year. There's been a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about whether getting a degree is necessary for entrepreneurship or whether it's better just to get started. You chose to go and get a degree even though you had a business that was already off the ground. Why did you think college would be valuable for you?
I always wanted to go to college. Since I was little that was always my dream. I love learning. But I think it really helps me to be open-minded. There are a ton of classes at Georgetown that I don't necessarily want to take but that I take -- things like 'Tibetan Buddhism' that even if you were interested in the subject, you wouldn't dive so deep into if you were just starting a business.

If you're just going with what you already know, I feel like you might become too focused on the one thing without out experiencing things from other concentrations that you haven't explored yet, and I think that's one of the reasons that I love Georgetown. It helps me think broadly about the site and learn different things that I probably wouldn't have learned otherwise. For instance, I'm in class called 'Decision Support Systems,' and even some of the tools in that class are helping me on myYearbook because it's teaching a skill that I wouldn't have learned. There are things I never would have learned or would never have been able to master that easily without instruction.

And it helps with your network too.

You site is really successful with a young demographic. When you look around at other people's efforts to sell to young people, what mistakes do you see businesses making when they try to target this demographic?
I feel like a lot of times they just assume what the younger demographic wants. Even with lots of market research you really need to get in there and ask 'what do you want?' At myYearbook people at all levels of the company, from member support and top executives to developers, everyone reads what the members want in the future, what the members are talking about on the site -- just to get everyone an idea of what they're using, what they like, what don't they like and what they think we can make better. I think especially after you launch a lot of people don't necessarily pay attention to as much feedback as they should.

Do you have any other advice for young people who are thinking of starting their own company?
Just go for it. When you start a company at a young age, it's the least risky time to do so, because if it fails -- and that is the worst thing that can happen -- you're still living at home like you were before, you're still going to school. If you're in high school it can become a good college admission essay. If not, it can just become an interesting point on your resume. I really don't think there's a downside to starting a company at a young age.
So do you think you might start another company in the future?
I think so. I love it. I don't think I could be in a normal job.

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(Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user rachelvoorhees, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.