The next Mark Zuckerberg might have sat next to you in class at Georgetown McDonough.

When Catherine Cook (BSBA ’11) donned her cap and gown last May for commencement ceremonies at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, one thing she didn’t share with many of her fellow graduates was the anxiety of finding a job. She already had a pretty good one, which she landed as a 16-year-old in 2005.

During her sophomore year at Montgomery High School in Skillman, N.J., Cook and her older brother David, then a junior, launched myYearbook. To say the business has flourished would be an understatement. In July, the teen-oriented social networking service, which boasts 32.7 million members, announced its sale to Quepasa, a social network aimed at Latinos, for $100 million in cash and stock.

Cook, now 21, takes it as a compliment when people inevitably liken her to Mark Zuckerberg, who was 19 when he founded Facebook in 2004. “Being compared to Zuckerberg, who’s insanely successful, it’s hard to be anything but flattered — even after seeing The Social Network,” she says. Cook relishes the comparison to the wunderkind billionaire whose phenomenal startup has a reported 750 million users worldwide, though she quickly points out a difference: “I have fewer enemies.”

Indeed, the affable Cook is admired by the other 85 employees at myYearbook’s New Hope, Pa., headquarters, plus another 15 at its New York City sales office. She also likely has the admiration of at least four fellow Georgetown McDonough graduates who have made entrepreneurial forays into the vast social networking space. Although Cook is the youngest of the group and yet has the oldest of the companies, they all share the same verve and vision about the power of social networking and new Web tools.

Cook was not yet old enough to drive, much less pursue a Georgetown degree, but like her four kindred alumni, she seized an opportunity presented by a confluence of her personal interests and fledgling market conditions. “Dave and I were new to our high school, and we weren’t making friends as quickly as we wanted to,” she recalls. “We were flipping through the yearbook — he wanted to show me a girl he liked — but her picture didn’t look anything like her. We decided that yearbooks stink and that we could make a better one online, and it would be a much greater tool for meeting new people.”

Cook says neither she nor David had heard of the year-old Facebook at the time, although she admits they both were typical teens into instant messaging and LiveJournal, an online blogging community started in 1999. They were not savvy enough to program a website, though, which is where older brother Geoff entered the scene. He had founded and flipped two successful Web ventures, and in addition to providing $250,000 in seed money, he connected his ambitious siblings with a development team in Mumbai, India.

“My parents were a little concerned about how late I was staying up communicating with Mumbai about Web code, but I was able to maintain my grades,” says Cook, the daughter of a pair of electrical engineers. Those good grades led her to Georgetown McDonough, where courses as an operations and information management (OPIM) major came in handy while moonlighting at myYearbook, and continue to pay benefits. “My coursework has definitely helped me, and the professors I’ve talked to [about myYearbook] have been wonderful,” says Cook, who singles out Betsy Sigman, distinguished teaching professor, not only for her ongoing support but also for her database class. “I knew how such information affected the website, but I didn’t know where it came from, so the course was great.”

The territory myYearbook has staked out is designed to appeal to teenagers’ and young adults’ online sensibilities and behaviors, with an approach different from Facebook’s. “If you think about Facebook as the place you go to connect with people you know, myYearbook is the place you go to connect with people you want to know,” Cook says. “It’s for meeting new people.”

With the sale of the company to Quepasa, Cook’s full-time responsibility of attracting new members will remain the same. She conceives alluring new applications for the site, especially apps for smartphones and other devices as the company zeroes in on the mobile market. David’s role in developing new features for the site won’t change, either, and Geoff has been named chief operating officer of Quepasa and president of the Consumer Internet Division of both entities. myYearbook will reportedly continue to function as a separate operation after the acquisition by Quepasa is completed in the fourth quarter of this year.

Catherine Cook was the brains behind several of myYearbook’s most popular interactive features, including Battles and Causes. Battles invites users to challenge each other in one-on-one photo and video competitions, such as who is best-looking, funniest, or dorkiest. Causes ties into myYearbook’s Lunch Money program, which allows users to earn and spend virtual currency — that converts into real dollars — in different ways on the site, such as playing games, winning Battles, or simply logging onto and browsing the site. Lunch Money is an especially attractive tool for a demographic often lacking access to credit cards. Causes lets them donate Lunch Money to more than a dozen charities, ranging from natural-disaster relief and cancer research to animal welfare and support for U.S. troops. “We’ve donated $450,000 to date,” Cook reports.

Spending real money wisely is the driver of one of the latest, and fastest-growing, platforms in social networking. Two Georgetown McDonough graduates have developed separate, if competitive, businesses based on this idea. LivingSocial and Shooger each enlist bargain-hunting consumers in individual cities to purchase deeply discounted daily deals; in turn, local merchants get the chance to attract new customers and build loyalty. The social element kicks in when deals are shared with family and friends, often with a monetary incentive to the sharer. The so-called daily-deal concept was forged in 2008 by Groupon, a company valued today at an estimated $20 billion. In June, Groupon, in which Georgetown alumnus Ted Leonsis (C ’77) is an investor, according to The Washington Post, filed with the SEC to raise up to $750 million in an initial public offering after turning down a $6 billion investment from Google. The company has attracted dozens of competitors.

Groupon commands around 50 percent of the U.S. market; LivingSocial has almost half as much share and is nipping fast at the leader’s virtual heels. “I don’t view what we do as a daily deals business. I view it as a local commerce business, and daily deals is just one of those products,” says LivingSocial co-founder and CEO Tim O’Shaughnessy (BSBA ’04) from the company’s offices in Washington, D.C. O’Shaughnessy’s differentiating precept relies on strategically built relationships with merchants and consumers.

“We take an approach that there are three parties involved in every deal or transaction: the consumer, the merchant, and LivingSocial,” the 29-year-old explains. “We focus on trying to make sure it’s a win-win-win relationship for all three. We spend a lot of time understanding what’s going to fill the consumer’s need and what’s going to solve the problem for local businesses, meaning, ‘How can I get customers through the door?’ which is the hardest thing they have to accomplish.”

O’Shaughnessy double-majored in OPIM and marketing at Georgetown McDonough. “I wanted to do the closest thing related to business and technology, and the collaboration of those two majors was the way to do it,” he says. Using that classroom experience, he then nurtured his knowledge of consumer behavior by leading the consumer products team at Revolution Health and managing product launches at AOL. O’Shaughnessy has shown appreciation for his education by returning to share his knowledge with Georgetown McDonough students on multiple occasions.

LivingSocial has deployed a field force of salespeople to call on local businesses in a growing number of markets across the U.S. and several foreign countries. Besides daily deals with individual merchants, LivingSocial offers discounted vacation packages and produces its own local events. “We’ve started to build up a lot of different ways for our members to interact within their cities via all these relationships established with merchants,” O’Shaughnessy says. Proof that LivingSocial’s formula is working came in early July when CNBC reported that the company is planning its own IPO that may coincide with Groupon’s this year — and possibly value LivingSocial at $10 billion to $15 billion.

That news certainly piqued the interest of Matt Myers (MBA ’95), the co-founder and chief financial officer of Shooger, a daily-deal newcomer that launched this summer and is based in Coral Gables, Fla. While Groupon, LivingSocial, and most other deal websites have migrated onto the smartphone platform, as well, Shooger has made mobile devices its exclusive territory by providing free downloadable apps for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

Myers already had nearly 15 years of marketing and website experience when his inner entrepreneur started speaking to him. “I had aspirations to build my own business, and that led me back to Georgetown McDonough to take an entrepreneurship class,” he says. That’s when he reconnected with a Georgetown McDonough classmate, Alex Stancioff (MBA ’95), and three other entrepreneurs in search of a leading-edge enterprise.

“We looked at what was coming down the pike and what we thought was going to be big,” says Myers, 43. “We felt the future is going to be in mobile technology, in terms of solutions people want, with the smartphone being the key device that will ultimately be tethered to people wherever they go. We looked at the ability for consumers at the community level to share opportunities by using an application to take advantage of deals. That’s how Shooger began.” That and the creative spelling of a word that brings to mind “sweet deals.”

Besides its clever name, Myers says the “relevance factor” of the deals it offers may help set Shooger apart. For example, where he lives, outside of Annapolis, Md., other sites offer him deals in Baltimore or Washington. “What would be really great,” he suggests, “are deals within my real city. I get hit with offers for manicures, pedicures, and massages, which aren’t relevant to me. I would rather have two highly relevant offers rather than 50 that tangentially meet my needs based on geography.”

The geolocation function of smartphones to pinpoint exactly where users are is a major component in the daily-deal strategy. It allows Shooger and similar services to alert members about deals when they are in specific neighborhoods, and it entices merchants with the technology to reach them. Shooger, LivingSocial, and other deal sites also are recruiting their own networks of local experts to hunt for deals and instantly upload them to the site for sharing. “The goal is to bring consumers into places they like to go, find deals, and share them,” Myers says.

Using the smartphone to ease the way consumers pay for their purchases, discounted or not, is the idea behind Wipit, an Irvine, Calif., business co-founded by Georgetown-ESADE Global Executive MBA ’09 alumnus Job Tucker and launched in March. Mobile payment is another rapidly growing and highly competitive field. A recent report from industry analysts Juniper Research predicts that the total value of mobile payments for digital and physical goods, money transfers, and NFC (near-field communication, which enables the exchange of data between mobile devices over about a 4-inch distance) transactions will reach $670 billion by 2015, up from $240 billion in 2001.

Tucker, 36, recently served as director of national sales and distribution at Boost Mobile, a subsidiary of Sprint Nextel that offers consumers prepaid services. Such consumers are among millions of “cash-preferred” Americans who either cannot or choose not to use credit cards. Tucker and a group of other entrepreneurs experienced in the prepaid telecommunications sector and mobile technology are targeting those consumers with Wipit.

“We are trying to carve out our own niche in the mobile payment space,” Tucker says. “We believe this community is not getting enough consideration.” Eventually Wipit plans to apply its business model in overseas markets, where Tucker’s internationally focused MBA should pay off. “We are negotiating with a couple of companies that have global presences, so my MBA experience should be especially applicable as Wipit grows outside the U.S.,” he says.

Wipit — a spelling play on “whippet,” the speedy Greyhound-like dog that connotes the service’s speed — allows consumers to set up an account on its website or with a proprietary mobile application. Next, they go to one of Wipit’s nationwide network of 20,000 “reload” retailers and add money to their account. Then they can use their smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device to make what is essentially a cash purchase while shopping in their favorite mobile apps.

“We know the players, and we know the replenishment community,” says Tucker, referring to both the prepaid telecommunications industry and companies that specialize in funding consumers’ accounts. “More importantly, we know how these consumers think, how to touch them, where they shop, et cetera. We thought there was a prime opportunity for us to establish a market position as a payment method for this community of people.”

 

Instead of focusing on the commercial aspects of social networking, Dan Berger (MBA ’10) is aiming purely at a very social tradition: where guests sit at weddings and other occasions. Armed with a Georgetown McDonough MBA and an entrepreneurial background as a Web developer and organizer of dozens of events, Berger was looking for a novel business opportunity when he met Matt Tendler last December. They were walking their respective dogs and talking about the coincidence that both were attending upcoming weddings, which prompted Berger to disclose his idea for an event–seating application he called Social Tables.

“Matt is also into technology and Web 2.0,” Berger says, “We said, ‘Let’s do it,’” and Social Tables launched in May.

Marketed initially as a tool for wedding planners, the drag-and-drop application seats guests at tables, based on whatever criteria the couple wants. A social integration feature can send the seating assignments to guests and invite them to contact one another by email, Facebook, or other online means before the event — theoretically getting a virtual jump on the introductory small talk. “We talked to dozens of event planners, who confirmed that our hunch was right: Seating is a pain in the neck,” Berger says.

Berger, 29, envisions Social Tables as a high-tech solution that facilitates relationships and avoids missing the off chance of meeting your future spouse, business partner, or best friend. “I’ve always looked at ways of beating the system,” he says, “and this is a way to hack your way into a better social experience. We need tools to help us not miss out on opportunities.”

Within the first 50 days of operation, Social Tables had signed up almost 850 users and more than 200 events. Eschewing outside investors for the time being, Berger is employing guerilla marketing techniques, such as passing out fliers at wedding expos and even approaching women wearing engagement rings. He foresees revenue coming from a combination of licensing fees for the application and advertising. Phase two will feature a complete suite of event-planning tools, from invitation management to meal planning.

These five distinct businesses seize on the meteoric surge in social networking, but each of the Georgetown McDonough alumni behind them is applying academic knowledge and connections, too. Berger, for example, has two Georgetown McDonough School of Business faculty members — Robert Thomas, professor of marketing, and Korok Ray, assistant professor of accounting — among Social Tables’ advisers and hired Sabrina Hu (MBA ’11) as a summer intern. Tucker also sought advice from Senior Associate Dean of Executive Education Paul Almeida, who impressed upon him the tactic of establishing a niche within the highly competitive mobile payment space. Myers is partnering with a Georgetown classmate at Shooger, while D.C.-based O’Shaughnessy speaks at school events and participates in classes a couple of times each year.

Newly graduated Cook, of course, has the freshest connections. “My coursework will definitely help me, and the professors I’ve talked to [about myYearbook] have been wonderful,” says the operations and information management major. “I’m living in Excel sheets right now, so one course, Decision Support Systems, has been very helpful.” she says. The digital realm of social networking, it turns out, still has some analog life to it as well.

By Bob Woods

Bob Woods is a freelance writer based in Madison, Conn. He has covered business, sports, health, travel, and other topics for publications including Sports Illustrated, Fortune, and Newsweek International.

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