What's it like to be your own boss? Do you choose when and how long to work? Is it just the greatest thing ever? Well, I'll tell you: It's extremely exciting and fun but at times extremely stressful and time-consuming. During the last year or so of running Benelab, my little Web startup, I've experienced so much of what I would have never learned sitting down in a classroom. Also, I can safely say that my venture has engulfed a huge part of my life, and that I have discovered a new, lifelong passion for social entrepreneurship. However, before I start rambling on about my organization and my experiences, I'd like to point out what it really is that I'm trying to get across to you with my story: I want to encourage young people to go out and start new things, build new things, and do new things; there's never quite anything that will better provide you with experience and knowledge than going out and actually doing it. I hope the story of my experiences with Benelab will help make this point clearer.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was on a plane ride back from San Francisco to Seattle, returning from a summer business camp held at Stanford University. During the three weeks there I learned all sorts of different things about how companies operate and how to start my own business. The latter topic especially stood out to me, because I was really into Web development, branding, marketing, and entrepreneurship. After learning exactly how to start a company, I really wanted to go out and start my own to see what it's like. The only problem was that I had no idea what the company would do. I gave it some thought for a couple days, and then one day I realized that I could scale up a current personal project, a nonprofit, charitable search engine, to target a bigger market and to create bigger impact. And so I made up my mind to scale the website into a full-blown company and decided to make it a nonprofit organization itself, aiming to help other nonprofits with the incredibly simple idea of donating ad revenue collected from Web searches. I named the organization Benelab and set out to recruit about five of my diversely talented friends whom I wanted working on my Web startup. Within a week I had a treasurer, a Web developer, a graphic designer, and a public relations manager on my team.
The next few months were filled with hard work and great reward. Benelab proved to be very popular within my high school, and the school administrators even let us set the homepage of every computer in the school to Benelab.org. We got heavy press coverage, starting from the local Patch article to national news on Mashable. Media coverage was the only method we used to introduce Benelab to new people, and it worked out quite well; although we received a lot of attention for the idea of a charitable search engine itself, the fact that the startup was run entirely by 16-year-old highschoolers proved to be more interesting to some people. Around March we partnered with Yahoo! to provide better search results and further monetize our Web traffic, and so far we have been able to raise and donate more than $3,000. This summer we are working 40-plus hours a week on a completely new division of Benelab to allow any nonprofit organization to rebrand and launch its own crowdsourced fundraising campaigns. We have a goal of donating a total of $10,000 by the end of 2012, and we will be growing very fast to fulfill it.
However, beyond the donation numbers and the volunteer numbers was the immeasurable experience the team was able to get. I, as CEO, was able to learn how to manage people and keep a company innovating and motivated; McKayla, our VP of Marketing, was able to meet with dozens of other businesses and secure spots on national news and radio stations; Dalton, our Web developer and CTO, was able to gain experience building backend software for Benelab and learn how to work in a startup environment; and so on. We could have taken these types of classes in school, but I truly believe that the things we experienced with Benelab could not have been learned merely in a classroom setting.
A young age can sometimes be a disadvantage, but it can also be turned around and used as a huge advantage. Chances are, you have less to lose if you fail right now than if you fail 20 years from now, when you will actually have to feed yourself and have other major responsibilities. Basically, at an age like this, there really isn't much to lose, but there is much to gain. Whatever your passion is, whether it be business, engineering, singing, or anything, there is always a way to go out and indulge yourself in real-world experience. If it's business, start a company and make some money; if it's engineering, make a robotics team and win in a world competition; if it's singing, start recording and go to auditions. Just do it, take control of your passion, and be a boss, literally.
So that's my story. I hope you were able to get a glimpse of what an exciting lifestyle running a Web startup entails, and how it's not too early to start something big at this age.