From College Dropouts to Y-Combinator Darlings
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Last year, 20-year-old college dropouts Ajay Mehta (New York University) and Wesley Zhao (University of Pennsylvania) started cracking 140-character-long jokes about Y Combinator and Silicon Valley in general. Eventually the accelerator took notice and the joksters were accepted into the prestigious seed program.
While immersed in the three-month program and searching for a winning business idea, the duo, along with 18-year-old Henry Liu, recognized a problem: After moving away from home, it was very difficult to stay in touch with family members.
“My mom would call to check up on me, but I felt very disconnected to my extended family,” Mehta says.
So the San Francisco-based FamilyLeaf.com concept was born, and, in less than a month, the co-founders launched a beta version of the site. The private-social network, which exited beta in September, aims to serve as a secure place where family members who are scattered across the world can easily share photos, keep loved-ones updated and start family-appropriate conversations without confusion or worry.
The site helps families stay connected, while, Mehta says, “the younger folks don’t have to stress out about their Facebook privacy settings to ensure mom doesn’t see the tagged photos from the weekend party.”
After securing an initial $177,000 in seed money from Y Combinator, the trio is now negotiating a seven-figure capital investment to grow the site further. We’re eager to see what they come up with. So for the month of December, FamilyLeaf.com is officially YE’s Startup of the Month.
With that moniker comes bragging rights for life, of course. Though, in addition, the co-founders will win a copy of Entrepreneur Press’ latest book: Ultimate Guide to LinkedIn for Business and a digital subscription toEntrepreneur magazine.
We chatted with the Mehta about startup life, challenges and their decision to drop out of college.
Q: Was dropping out a tough decision?
A: We loved college, and we never really intended to leave. But this was just such a fantastic opportunity with Y Combinator. We knew we wanted to run an internet company, and notable investors were offering us funding to give it a shot. It was almost too good to be true.
Q: How did your parents react?
A: My parents, who are doctors, were surprisingly chill about the whole situation. They barely understood what we were doing, but we seemed enthusiastic enough that they just went along with it. Wesley’s parents required a bit more convincing, but were supportive as well. Of course, the cost of private-college tuition didn’t hurt our case.
Q: What was your ‘Aha’ moment?
A: When Wesley’s family in China was able to see his photos and updates on FamilyLeaf. This is a big deal because sites like Facebook are blocked over there, and, for the first time in years, they were seeing updates from the American branch of their family.
Q: How do you make money?
A: We’re much more focused on building a delightful product than making money at this point, but we are starting our first experiment with revenue by helping families print and send their holiday cards to friends and loved ones. In the future we hope we can offer printed photo albums and newsletters for those families sharing much of their lives and memories on FamilyLeaf.
Q: What’s been your biggest challenge?
A: Since we’ve only worked on smaller apps in the past, building a website with many features used by families all around the world has been a challenge for us. After all, none of us are academically trained engineers.
Q: What has been your biggest start-up asset?
A: The support network for entrepreneurs here in Silicon Valley is really an amazing thing. And it’s helped to tune into other inspiring start-up stories. For instance, Pinterest really fascinates us. The fact that they were able to grow so quickly from a nontraditional user base is amazing. It wasn’t San Francisco techies using Pinterest at first, it was suburban moms. We have a lot to learn from their example.