MeetMe Creator Catherine Cook Dishes on Making Friends and Money

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, each year about 14.2 percent of Americans move. That means every twelve months approximately 40 million people have to leave their friends, relocate and make new BFFs.

Probably not all of them launch a multi-million dollar business doing so.

But Catherine Cook did. 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.

Instead of hiding away in her bedroom to write in her journal and woefully listen to Radiohead, Cook decided to do something about it. She thought, “What if you could meet people online?” Instead of friending people you already knew, a la Facebook, why not develop a way to find and link up with people in your area that have similar interests, but don’t already know?

So in 2004, Cook and her older brother Dave set out to create a site that would let people do just that.

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 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 meetme.com in 2012.

Cook did have one big leg-up: $250,000 in seed money—something her brother Dave 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. (Don’t worry, you don’t need a family member with a quarter million on hand to lend. There’s money out there for budding female entrepreneurs.)

But the biggest thing Cook had going for her was a drive to make her idea a reality, no matter how intense the work involved. That required some serious sacrifices.

“[We] would get home from school at 4:00 PM and then be up chatting online 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, she was able to get her grades together. She also surprised some people by not following the path of other internet-moguls-in-the-making, who skipped college to work exclusively on their startups. She enrolled at Georgetown, clustered all of her classes into a two-days-per-week schedule, and telecommuted the rest of the time so she could continue working 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 new app called Charm, Cook’s brainchild continues to grow. Now a seasoned entrepreneur, no one can challenge Cook’s authority, something that happened when she was younger. But she does 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. (Nowadays, the organization not only awards gender and globally-neutral prize packages, but checks for $20,000.)

Aside of being one of the wealthiest self-made businesspeople under 30, founding meetme.com has a less tangible benefit too: making a lot of 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.”

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