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Fast Talk: How This 17-Year-Old's Breakup Inspired His Startup

Meet Michael Moore-Jones, ambitious entrepreneur, nostalgic ex-boyfriend, teenager.

Michael Moore-Jones is a 17-year-old entrepreneur from New Zealand, and already the founder of two websites, They Don’t Teach You This In School and Duo. Fast Company caught up with Moore-Jones to talk about data security, ex-girlfriends, and why he can’t wait to get out of high school.

Last May, I wrote about how at 16, you were the first inductee to the "Digital Life Academy," a think tank for young folk funded by MyCube. MyCube was being billed as a kind of Facebook where users had more control over their data.

There were 34 of us total, from 20 or so different countries. It was quite interesting for us, but while we were there, the company was changing strategy and vision, and it turned out to be a strategy and vision that a lot of us didn’t agree with. We thought it was about privacy and control, whereas MyCube moved more to a focus on monetizing content. It was rather frustrating for a lot of us.

What was it like being the youngest one there? Most of the others were in their 20s.

Mainly I was just jealous they were a bit further along than I was. I’m enormously frustrated with high school. I just want to be done with it. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I’m not brave enough to drop out, and I see the value in getting a diploma. I really want to get to Silicon Valley. Stanford University is my aim.

Should Peter Thiel be paying kids to drop out of high school?

We need people funding those alternative routes. If we don’t have these different routes for some people, that wastes their creativity, or wastes the time that they’re most creative. I think every person on the planet will be most creative at a different point in their lives. Some people are most creative when they’re 12 or 13.

Do people call you precocious?

Can you define it a bit more? I’ve heard the word...

Someone who’s unusually mature, who gets ahead of themselves a little.

When I got into the Digital Life Academy, there was a Wellington newspaper article on what I was doing, and people at school gave me a lot of shit. Everyone was calling me the next Mark Zuckerberg, just like, thinking I’m a huge show off, that I think I’m better than other people. In some ways I wish people would look at the things I’m doing, the value I’m bringing to the world, rather than the value I’m bringing because of my age.

Is it true, as you lamented in a blog post last year, that you’ve never written or received a handwritten letter in your life?

At that point I had never received or sent handwritten letters. Since writing that post, I can say I have. There was one from my girlfriend, and my mum and dad also both read that blog post and wrote me letters. My mum just popped it in the letterbox.

What’s your hang-up over letters?

I was talking to my grandparents, and I realized they had letters their grandparents had sent to each other. I’m kind of a nostalgic person, but I believe most human beings are. I had a relationship a few years ago, a typical high school teenage relationship, and a few months later, I wanted to go back a bit and see what it was like at the time, where we were going, trips in the city. I sorted through all the different communication platforms we’d used, and found that much of it had been lost forever, including all the text messages. My grandparents had letters from their grandparents, and I couldn’t even look back on a relationship from a couple of months ago. While at the Digital Life Academy, I started a company with one of the developers there called Duo. It’s basically meant to act as a digital place where you can put all the communications you have with another person.

Don’t you know that after a bad breakup, you’re supposed to erase all traces of your ex?

I guess it depends how you look at it. Me and the other person were both fine with it. With Duo, we had a hard time deciding whether individual users could delete something, or whether it has to be mutual. In the end we decided on that mutual deleting option. So far we haven’t had any problems. We have a few hundred beta users. In all honesty, it probably wasn’t a great idea forming another startup. I was finding towards the end of the year, I was having to neglect one of my projects to do well in exams. I focused on They Don’t Teach You This In School, because I need that solution more than I need the solution to Duo.

Tell me about They Don’t Teach You This In School.

It’s a website containing one-minute videos asking leaders and thinkers the question, What’s one thing they didn’t teach you in school that you wish you’d known when you were younger? Videos include the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Dennis Crowley of Foursquare.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand? Did you just knock on his door?

The Prime Minister does live down the street. I didn’t knock on his door, but I did email him. It’s partly because this is New Zealand. There’s only 4 million people here. I guess he has a bit more time than Obama.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here.

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[Image: Tim Bilbrough]