SDForum TeenTech/MyYearbook, PlaySpan, Tim Draper
Quintessentially quixotic was this Silicon Valley scene of dreamy kids pitching VCs to the tune of Tim Draper’s Riskmaster anthem, and as the day waxed on, the youth got younger and younger, regressing from college kids to high schoolers to multimillionaire middleschoolers, until at one point Tim Draper got a big laugh for addressing preschoolers. Kudos to SDForum for creating this unique happening where kids, big and small, find mentors to vet business plans, define market strategies, refine pitches, drill down asks, and secure advisory board members. In return, the kids offer keen insights into consumption trends and there is fantastic networking all around.
The most impressive kids at the conference were Catherine Cook and Arjun Mehta, who at 15 and 9 followed a vision that is now becoming the basis for our new economy. Of course, they didn’t do it alone. Much credit goes to Catherine’s brothers and Arjun’s dad for backing them. But it is this partnership of family that allows very young children, while still in their wonder years, to come up with these incredible solutions for us all. It also should be noted that Catherine and Arjun, now 19 and 11, are fantastic at making eye contact and speaking clearly, concisely, persuasively, with a smile and at a decibel level that can be heard by humans. Warm and accessible, they are great role models for their generation.
Catherine Cook, MyYearbook – Virtual $ for the Greater Good
Having launched her company at age 15 with $250,000 seed capital from her brother, series A $4.1mm from USVP, First Round Capital, and now series B $13mm from Norwest Venture Partners, MyYearbook with 10mm members, turned a profit this year with revenue in the tens of millions, thanks in part to Lunch Money, their virtual currency, launched 6 months ago, which kids can buy or earn completing activities to spend on virtual goods and charities. Doing good and making money, MyYearbook’s causes application has already sent off 40,000 pounds of rice to the hungry, 22,000 books to Africa and saved 3 million square feet of rainforest. Now 19 and a full-time sophomore at Georgetown, Catherine Cook is so passionate about MyYearbook, she is driven to work round the clock to take it to the next level. I had a chance to talk with Catherine over lunch and was thrilled to hear of the steps her site has taken to go beyond COPPA, with a no tweens policy and closed apps market that enable them to control the content and user experience. Plus free Cliff Notes for members, MyYearbook seems like a great place for teens to hang out. Its virtual economy so vibrant that Facebook and MySpace, taking note, will be following in its footsteps.
Arjun & Karl Mehta, PlaySpan – Brains Behind Big Money
At 9 years old, Arjun was a high scorer at RuneScape, an enormously popular MMORPG, when someone offered him $50 for his ID. That sparked a passion to launch PlaySpan, an RMT that would become the game industry’s first publisher-sponsored in-game commerce network. His devoted dad, Karl, a serial entrepreneur and software engineer, saw the potential and backed him, and today PlaySpan has 95 employees, $24mm in venture capital, has won numerous industry awards and is serving over 100mm gamers worldwide. Virtual economies with their microtransactions and peer-to-peer trading are big money thanks to RMTs, and thanks to this little kid and his dad, there is now a safe RMT with a thriving indie marketplace, free from spimmers, cheaters and unsavory types peddling hot goods.
Throughout the day, many took the stage to reflect on consumption trends:
- Mirjana Spasojevic of Nokia’s Palo Alto Research Center spoke on family as the missing demographic, and perhaps the most important to understanding tween consumption. “Kids are getting phones earlier, as young as 7 in Europe.” The under 10y market is growing, and who is buying? The same Mom and Dad who picked up the Wii, DS and Mac. So Nokia is looking at families as a segment, their safety concerns, what it means to be a young explorer, defining personal brand.
- As for teens, permission-based advertising is welcome as long as their is value in the trade, but ads must be contextual regarding place and space, e.g. tampax ad is more effective on a private space like the mobile rather than a public space like TV; a call to remedy a banking mishap is more effective than serving up a checking account promo on the rant
- For the CollegeKids panel, Cisco asked whether making money matters and how important is it to be green. One clever kid replied, “Hey, money is green and the greater good must be sustainable so the two go hand in hand.” Also interesting were the CollegeKids comments about phone calls being intrusive, noting some have only data. I asked whether mobile tweeting or email replaces the need for texting, since it costs money to text. The answer was noooo because SMS is more immediate and reliable than 3G or wireless (then Twitter froze on me). Kids don’t think Twitter is for them, at least not until their friends are on. And most kids have the free phone, although 40% of Stanford kids do have the iPhone, and the rest want one.
- For the HSKids panel, noone is on MySpace, all are on Facebook, one sophisticated kid from Lick Wilmerding, Max Marmer, is on Twitter. Very well-spoken. When asked what products he recommends, it was the LiveScribe pen which allows him to audiorecord lectures when notetaking is impossible…”they go so fast, who can keep up.” He also said the pen is great for business meetings between classes. Loves StumbleUpon too. Feels San Francisco needs ubiquitous WiFi. Follows O’Reilly and TechCrunch on Twitter. Urges people to invest in the businesses of youth because even if the business fails, and most do, valuable lessons are learned for the next one. What mom wouldn’t be proud. The other kids on the panel said their biggest challenge is in getting their 501C3. When I asked who is signing contracts on their behalf (since minors can’t sign a binding contract), all faces went to slacker face – totally vacant, blank, silence. These panelists were not huge PC gamers either, spending all their spare time on their businesses.
Opportunity Knocking: Microsoft, HP, Google, IBM
This panel of industry executives might have simply said “We only want them little” as they went on and on with a mouthwatering list of internship goodies available only to college kids. Even the panel moderator, a Silicon Valley Bank executive, at one point remarked, “I wish I was still in school.” Will post later with program offerings.
Pitching the VCs
But now onto the real reason why everyone was there. To gleen tips from the Riskmaster himself, Tim Draper, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and pitch to VCs. Tim Draper is such a star he rivals David Pogue in entertainment value alone, and yet delivered gold in terms of advice. He started by asking “Why was everyone rich, now everyone is poor.” He answered, “The news will make you afraid to leave the house. Turn it off. Adversity creates opportunity. Look at all of these companies started in recessions: GE, ATT, Chevron, Coke, Polaroid, Westinghouse, Skype, Adobe, HP, Microsoft. In bad times you get good people for less money. Even if you’re in preschool, its a great time to start a business. Here are some of the world’s problems waiting for you to solve: genetic disease prediction, a cure for cancer / aids / malaria / heart disease, infinite energy supply, faster internet to the home, new life forms, food drop … what you create is limited only by the human imagination. He talked about his business simulation curriculum, BizWorld, that enable 9 year olds to experiment with business models. He said trade good, protectionism bad. Deals make everyone better off. By contrast without China, no chips, no flatscreen, no memory, no PC, no software, no media – all we are left with are etchings on a wall, and then he showed us a slide of hieroglyphics, some started to cry….he talked about the genius of zeroed business models, Amazon eliminating inventory and A/R, Hotmail and Skype eliminating marketing expense, he said, “Don’t cling to the past. Embrace change. Crisis = Opportunity, same word in Taiwanese. This is your time. You have an obligation to make it happen. Chaos is the perfect environment for an entrepreneur to shine. He said, just look at what was invented in the last 50 years: nuclear power, jet airplanes, the pill, microwave, visa, integrated circuits, satellites, photocopier, personal computer, email, fiber optics, biotech, MRIs, nanotech, voice mail, internet, digital cameras, web browsers, DVRs, search. Now project what will the world look like in 5 years considering computing power now doubles every year. What are the future inventions: abundant cheap water, noninvasive surgery, energy efficient buildings, long last batteries, self-navigating electric cars, interactive education, cloud computing, holograms on demand, storable instant fresh meals. Then he switched gears and talked about teen trends as seen through the eyes of his 4 kids: teens like social networking, video/chat, games, sports, inconspicuous communication, Facebook, YouTube, Meebo, Meez, Skype, ESPN, iPhone, free entertainment, exploration, play, dictionary, wikipedia, sex, drugs, and rap. Teens don’t like big audiences, controls, Twitter, Blogger, PCs and the word no. Then he turned on the music and invited us all to singalong as he put the lyrics to the Riskmaster on the screen. Wow!
The day concluded with the kids pitches. There was Sunbeam Rider from Latino College Prep Academy backed by NASA and IBM, a solar powered car that uses mirrors instead of solar panels for reduced production cost, MyNutrometer from Anika Radiya-Dixit, an iPhone app that calculates the health value of the food you eat, Skip-a-Birthday from Anika Ayyar who developed her idea at Camp BizSmart, CampusKiwi, student website for high schools and universities, and others. After the pitches, Sanjiv Parik, Managing Director of Corporate Ventures at HP upped the ante and had the audience vote on best pitch. I voted for CampusKiwi because they are in beta in several schools with advertising revenue and partnerships, but it was the Sunbeam Rider that won. The grand prize, mentoring by Tim Chang, Norwest Venture Partners, Rick Lewis, USVP, Lara Druyan, Allegis Capital, Ben Narasin, Triple Point Capital and Sanjiv Parikh, HP, was then offered to all the kids that attended and it felt like an absolute love fest. “Link up with me, friend me on Facebook, see if there is someone in my network I can introduce you to” the VCs called out to the audience. Phenomenally generous offers. They then concluded with this last piece of advice, “You’re not going to be this cute forever. Best take advantage of this offer now :)”
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Tags: Allegis Capital, Arjun Mehta, BizWorld, Catherine Cook, Cliff Notes, David Pogue, Drpaer Fisher Jurvetson, Facebook, Google, HP, IBM, Karl Mehta, Lick Wilmerding, Microsoft, MyYearbook, Nokia, Norwest Venture Partners, PlaySpan, RMT, RuneScape, SDForum, Silicon Valley Bank, StumbleUpon, Tim Draper, Triple Point Capital, USVP