Startups

Friday Q&A: Catherine Cook of myYearbook.com

Cook has been loved by media since she and brothers Dave and Geoff launched the high school-focused social media site in 2005 - when she was was barely old enough to drive - after deciding that traditional yearbooks weren't making the cut in the age of new media.

Earlier this month, New Hope-based myYearbook.com founder Catherine Cook was honored as the number one young entrepreneur in the country by paidContent, according to a press release.

Cook has been loved by media since she and brothers Dave and Geoff launched the high school-focused social media site in 2005 – when she was was barely old enough to drive – after deciding that traditional yearbooks weren’t making the cut in the age of new media.

The award was accepted with pride, we’re sure, but we wondered when one becomes a regular, old “entrepreneur.” After all, Cook isn’t sixteen anymore. Could it be $10 million in sales and 9.8 million unique hits? Maybe being noticed as the third largest and only growing social media portal aside from Facebook would do the trick. Does a title even matter?

“I am 19, I do like having that added honor to it, but I feel like sometimes it’s glam’d up a little too much. When some people hear it they get some kind of skewed perception that you’re a millionaire and a big spender,” Cook told Technically Philly in a telephone interview. “I drive a 1996 Mitsubishi Galant.”

We’d like to think that Cook might be considering an upgrade since the company recently decided to monetize its Lunch Money feature, a virtual currency with which users can purchase gifts for friends or donate to noble causes. One million fake dollars cost $9.99 real cash. Six months in, Lunch Money is making eight figures in sales, Cook tells us. Virtual gifts have become one-third of the company’s revenue.

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We caught up with Cook to see what her and her brothers have been up to since launching the site almost four years ago, what’s happening with $13 million in venture funding raised last year, and whether the Cooks are rooting for the Phillies or the Yankees, after the jump.

cookInterview edited for length and clarity.

Since launching the site, you and Dave have both graduated from high school. What have you guys been up to?
I go to Georgetown University and Dave goes to University of Colorado at Boulder.

And you guys still run the business? How does that affect college life?
My R.A. has been completely annoyed at me. He kept writing notes on my room’s whiteboard, yelling at me because I’m never around. I go home every single weekend to check in at the office and do some things here. My professors are incredibly lenient. I had four mid-terms re-scheduled because I would be speaking at a conference or couldn’t make it for another reason.

After $13 million in Series B funding last year, where has the money been invested?
We’ve really been using funding to expand our office. This has allowed us to drastically expand our marketing department. Before, we didn’t even have a marketing department. We’re also hiring developers and developing new features.

And you have about 60 employees based in New Hope? How’d you end up there?
Most of us are based in New Hope, but we also have an office in New York. We thought New Hope was cuter and less expensive than Princeton and it was close enough to drive to after school from Sullivan, New Jersey, [our home town].

Last year HitWise said you were the third largest and fastest growing social networking site. In February, Hitwise said that myYearbook’s growth had slowed and Tagged.com took some of myYearbook’s market share. To what do you attribute the slow-down?
We have a variety of different ways to pull members. A major one was the MySpace ecosystem, so naturally [when they experienced a slow-down in members], we did too. We’re launching a few new features that will completely change that pattern. Though growth has slowed in terms of new members, cohort analysis has gotten stronger. Our members are very engaged.

Your Story page talks about connecting everyone: high school students, college students, employers, everyone. Is that a move you’re still hoping to make, or will you continue to target high school students?
We do attract all ages, but we skew very heavily to the teenage demo. We also want to appeal to different groups of people as much as possible. There’s no reason that someone from college can’t come, so we want to make the site grow with them.

Do you ever get sick of being called a young entrepreneur?
I am 19, I do like having that added honor to it, but i feel like sometimes it’s glam’d up a little too much. We’re just incredibly busy. We have absolutely no social life. Running a site this big, you honestly can’t. I don’t mind the title, but when some people hear it they get some kind of skewed perception that you’re a millionaire and a big spender. I drive a 1996 Mitsubishi Galant.

We’re wondering about that Yankees hat that Dave has on in your About page’do you guys identify more with New York than Philly?
Sorry Philadelphia, we grew up in North New Jersey, so we’ve always been more about New York City. Last year, we had everyone in the office come to a Phillies game. It was exciting. The Yankees have been sucking recently.
Every Friday, Technically Philly brings an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia’s technology community. See others here.

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