I always thought it was fun to discover ways to make money.
In 1999, during my sophomore year in high school, the air conditioning went out. While students were sweating going from class to class, I saw an opportunity. I had my mom drive me to Walgreens where I purchased five miniature fans for $2 each. The next day, I sold those fans to my classmates for $5 each, making $25 in revenue, covering my costs of $10, and making $15 in profit. Not bad for a high school student.
Later, when I started learning about building websites in computer science class, I saw more opportunities. As a very amateaur magican, I thought there was an opportunity to build an ecommerce site to source, sell, and teach magic tricks with videos. I purchased RabbitHat.com and started sending old-school faxes to magic trick manufacturers around the world. But when we found that we needed $5,000 to purchase inventory from one manufacturer, I decided to move on.
The “AHA!” Moment
In 2001, during my junior year, after being assigned a paper, a high school friend and I started talking about how frustrating bibliographies can be with all their formatting rules. With our knowledge of building websites, a light bulb went off. What if we automate the process of creating citations by finding and formatting all the information needed to cite a book, website, or any other source.
We spent two months after school working at each other’s houses and introduced EasyBib.com. To get the word out, we put flyers around the school and promoted it on AOL chat rooms. Our fellow students loved the product because it saved them hours while writing a paper and our teachers promoted it because students would cite more, helping them avoid plagiarism.
Growing and Never Looking Back
Soon, word was spreading, and hundreds of students across the Chicago-land area, where we were high school students, were using it. Then the Chicago Tribune covered our website, and thousands of students began using EasyBib.
In college, my friend and I would work on the site in our spare time, and did our internship in the same city so we could build out EasyBib and explore more ideas. By the time we graduated, millions of students were using the site.
In 2008, after two years of having corporate jobs, my friend and I decided we wanted to be entrepreneurs and turn EasyBib into a great education technology company. We learned how to monetize the site with ads and subscriptions, and sold a premium version to schools and universities. We expanded our features to cover plagiarism checking and grammar checking. We went from one employee to sixty. We acquired all our competition.
By 2016, we were doing $20M in revenue and decided to become a big business, we should join a larger one. We sold our business for $60M to Chegg, where we continued to grow the business.
How to Start a Business in High School
While we were always entrepreneurial, we never anticipated that a product we started in high school could lead us on such a journey. If you want to start a business and explore entrepreneurship as a student, here my advice:
Identify a problem or find something you can do better
If you pay attention, there are all sorts of problems around you. Perhaps the bus takes too long to get to school and the ride is incredibly boring. Can you solve this problem?
Alternatively, are there solutions that you think you can significantly improve? Is there a way you can improve SAT test preparation by ten fold?
If you can solve the problem, or do something better, ask yourself these questions?
Is it something others would pay for? Are there enough people who would use the service?Is it a nice to have or a must have?Would people be extremely disappointed without your solution?
For us, creating citations was a major pain point. We knew if we created an elegant solution, it would solve our own problem, and likely for millions of students.
Recently, we launched a new business called Solitaired. We saw there there was a large audience who wanted brain training, and we thought there was a better way of offering brain training by connecting it to classic games like solitaire. Now over a million games have been played on our platform.
Get user feedback
While you think you may have identified a problem, make sure other people also have the same issues. Do other students also have a long and boring bus commute? Talk to as many people as you can to understand if this is a problem, and what their ideal solutions are.
You might find that time again students want a service where they can go to school safely with their friends. You might even find that their parents are willing to spend money on that service. This will give you conviction that if you build something, it will get adoption.
With EasyBib, we asked dozens of fellow students if they also disliked citations like us, and they did!
When getting feedback, really listen to the issues at hand. By deeply understanding the problem, you can then think of ways to build the right solution.
You might find that students don’t necessarily hate riding the bus, but just want a way to play games together on the bus.
Based on what you hear, brainstorm ways to address the problem. We drew out what a website would look like that could automate citations, and heard positive feedback. Use powerpoint or Google Presentations to show people your solution, and gauge if it’s something they would use.
Lastly, keep your solutions simple, and focus on one key feature that will satisfy your user. It’s easy to dream and overcomplicate. The challenge is to stay focused on the features that matter. For us, we stayed focused on creating the mechanisms to automate citations, and nothing else.
Build quickly and validate
Fortunately today, it’s easier than ever to build products, especially online ones. Platforms like Shopify allow you to launch online stores, no-code platforms allow you to easily build apps, and marketplaces like Upwork can connect you with developers.
When I was in high school, my friend and I were learning how to build websites ourselves, and we managed to build EasyBib on our own. If you spend the time, pick up skills that allow you to build on your own, whether it be coding or 3D printing. It will be invaluable to you down the road.
More importantly, when you start building, keep it simple. Get a workable product out there to see if people really want to use it. I’ve built many products where I received positive feedback, only to find that the market reception was poor. The most important feedback you can get is if people actually use and benefit from your product, so build your product in a way where you can get that answer as fast as possible.
If you have a product that people not only use, but one where they’ll gladly recommend it to others, then you’re on to something. You have a product with organic growth potential. With EasyBib, we found that students liked it so much they would tell their friends about it.
Now you have to tell the world about your product.
There are all sorts of marketing channels you can use to reach your target audience: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, search engines, TV, press, radio etc. Some are free and some require capital. Methodically test which one of these channels allow you to reach your target audience. If something works, double down on it.
For us, we tried everything under the sun. The Chicago Tribune covered us because I emailed every Chicagoland newspaper to explain we were students helping other students. As we learned more about digital marketing, we found that search engines and teacher-influencer marketing were one of our best channels to find users.
Just do it, and embrace failure
Many people have ideas, but few try to turn them into reality. It’s what distinguishes those with ideas, and those who become entrepreneurs.
The truth is it's very challenging to come up with an idea, build a product, and get people to buy it. However, the process of trying comes with incredible learnings. Every failure comes with learning and insights that will help you further down the road.
The best time to start a business is when you’re young. You don’t have the same responsibilities of paying off debt or taking care of family. Take the risk. It’s well worth it.