MeetMe Creator Catherine Cook Dishes on How to Make Friends
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 14.2 percent of Americans move each year. This means every twelve months approximately 40 million people are faced with questions of how to transport furniture, how to set up wifi, and most importantly how to make friends.
For many people the latter question is the most abstract and the scariest to pursue. But for Catherine Cook, this question spurred the idea for a multi-million dollar business.
When she was 14 years old her family moved to Skillman, New Jersey. “I didn’t know anyone. My brother Dave and I were flipping through the school’s yearbook to see if we recognized anyone, and we were shocked at how useless the information was” she said.
She wasn’t sure how to make friends. But instead of hiding away in her bedroom to write in her journal and woefully listen to Radiohead, Cook decided to be proactive and innovate a way to meet new friends. She thought, “Instead of friending people you already know, a la Facebook, why not develop a way to find and link up with new people in your area who have similar interests?”
So in 2004, Cook and her older brother Dave set out to bring the art of friendship making to the digital realm.
No, she wasn’t a computing wunderkind. In fact, neither she nor her brother even knew how to code. But she did know how to use Google. After finding web developers in Mumbai, she and Dave provided a hand-drawn wireframe for their idea and IM’d with programmers halfway across the globe. It only took one month for them to launch a bare-bones version of MyYearbook.com, which they rebranded to meetme.com in 2012.
Cook did have one big leg-up: $250,000 in seed money—something her other older brother earned by starting an online business of his own while a sophomore in college. Lucky for Cook, her brother was looking to invest in new ideas and he knew meetme.com was going to be big. (Side note: Don’t worry, you don’t need a family member with a quarter million to spare to start your business. There’s plenty of money out there for budding female entrepreneurs.)
While, this initial investment definitely helped get My off the ground, one of Cook’s greatest assets was her drive to turn her idea into a reality, no matter the intensity of the workload. This not only required discipline but also some major social and academic sacrifices.
“[We] would get home from school at 4:00 PM and then be up chatting online [with the developers] until 4:00 AM because of the time difference,” she explained. “It made being on time for 7:30AM homeroom difficult. My grades suffered. By my senior year, I was skipping classes to go to work. One of my teachers actually pulled me aside because my grade had dropped to a 78 percent, and I had always been an A student.”
By putting in 60-hour work weeks, Cook was able to pull up her grades and make time for her business. While many internet-moguls-in-the-making skip college to work exclusively on their startups Cook enrolled at Georgetown University to study business. To balance her academic and professional work she clustered all of her classes into a two-days-per-week schedule, and telecommuted the rest of the time so she could continue to work on MyYearbook.
“I had no social life. There was no time for parties or extracurricular stuff. I felt bad about missing things,” she admits.
But the sacrifice paid off; within two years the company received $4.1 million in funding to expand the site. From there it merged with Zenhex.com and boosted membership to 22 million plus.
With a company worth $20 million and an exploding app called Charm, Cook’s brainchild continued to grow. Now a seasoned entrepreneur who had proven herself a competent, creative and savvy businesswoman she no longer had to deal with people questioning her authority because of her age. But she did still occasionally face a gender bias. As a finalist in the 2010 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, she received the same prize as the other finalists: a plaque, a men’s watch and a bottle of cologne. (Currently, the organization not only awards gender and globally-neutral prize packages, but checks for $20,000.)
Cook’s online friend making forum has turned into The Meet Group, an enterprise composed of a variety of apps that “satisfy the universal human need for connection.”
Aside from being one of the wealthiest self-made businesspeople under 30, founding meetme.com also led Cook to meet some of her own friends along the way.
“I met my best friend through the site,” Cook says. “She sent me a message saying, ‘I think you’re my neighbor’ and we’ve been best friends ever since.”