How I Built a $100 Million Company by the Time I Was 17 Years Old
Most 10-to-12-year olds aren't thinking about starting a business. But in my case, I felt that I had no choice in the matter. Getting permanently blocked from Facebook by my parents -- due to their concern about inappropriate content -- lit a roaring fire inside me.
That blaze was born not out of frustration, but opportunity. My stubborn preteen mind couldn't comprehend that I wasn't allowed to participate in the growing trend of social media just because I was "too young." And since my tough but fair parents had taught me to think my way around obstacles, I solved my Facebook predicament by creating an alternative social media network "by kids for kids," where members could chat, make friends, watch original content and play games in a safe, online environment.
Since then, every day has provided a new lesson:
Think about your brand before you build it.
Grom Social started as a family project with my brothers and sister around the kitchen table. I knew I had to identify clear differentiators between Grom and the other social media platforms out there, like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. With this in mind, I'd suggest to any budding entrepreneur to build a company that represents something that's more than just a product -- and is something you believe in.
To build your brand, build something that you draw inspiration from, and that -- as Simon Sinek says in this TED talk, you believe will inspire others. For example, during this time, my sister Caroline was being bullied in school, so I immediately recognized the importance of online safety and social responsibility.
The same lesson applies to content. Popular social media platforms are crowded with memes, gifs and constant bickering. If you're serious about building a social media network, or really any platform driven by content, put an emphasis on community; don't make the mistake of thinking that any engagement is good engagement. It's not, and social media entrepreneurs learn this the hard way when users stop returning to their platform.
Know your target audience, too. Grom's users are between 5 and 16. So, it would have been wrong for me to think we could be safe with limited monitoring. Instead, addressing that issue up-front was critical, and a step any social media network innovator must grasp.
By committing to your audience's needs, as this Social Media Today article outlines, you build a platform its members (and those around them) can trust. This transfer of trust is critical and leads to network referrals and general word-of-mouth buzz that results in additional opportunities, many of which come to you from offline.
Expand your vision.
As you can imagine, deciding to build a social network for kids was a big task. I was only 12, and while my family and I were convinced we had a winning brand formula, there were very real challenges that I needed support for. Because I was so young, it never occurred to me that we would fail. Innocence is bliss!
The first key step to expansion starts with finding investors who believe in your project. Technology funding is usually a challenge for those building a social network, and unless you've got deep pockets, you're going to need investors. Bring in good people who don't just believe in the market opportunity but believe in you and the company's purpose.
Our Grom team spoke with many investors who had dollar signs in their eyes, but also a certain few who believed that young people need and deserve a healthy social media experience; they believed that Grom could be that stepping stone. Any entrepreneur will struggle if he or she is surrounded by the wrong people.
To grow your community, think outside the box. It's tempting to pour money into advertising and convince yourself that user-registrations are the ultimate metric. Instead, focus on scalability and credibility. When Grom launched, teachers were just beginning to build out lesson plans that included social media as part of the regular curriculum.
Now our site is in over 3,000 schools! This widespread adoption and overall endorsement from a group that so heavily influenced our target audience was critical for growth. Guess what? Your credible, referral driving source is out there, too. Go find it!
Stay true to yourself.
In 2017, my family and I took the company public. Trust me, it was a controversial decision. Yes, we could have taken serious money from high-profile investors, but we knew that this was a product for the public, and we wanted complete alignment between our investors and users.
The truth is, many people are drawn to the site because of our vision and because they see it as a very necessary solution. The need for internet safety education that kids can relate to is undeniable, and that focus resonates in the public markets, resulting in what was once my little idea growing into a $100 million market cap company!
These challenges are ones that all entrepreneurs face at one point or another. Do you maintain the status quo, or do you see the window of opportunity and just go through it? I suggest the latter, but be sure to first trust yourself and those around you. Understand that as something grows, you have to give a little piece of it away almost every day.
The decisions that have brought our site to where it is today have not been easy. Building the brand, adding new products to enhance our portfolio and working with my parents on something that significantly impacts many people's lives has been a personal education in resilience and perseverance.
The challenges I have faced could have stopped me from proceeding but instead made me more determined than ever. The biggest lesson I have learned is to surround yourself with good people who are trustworthy and committed and share the vision of your brand and your goals.