What kind of job did you have at 17?
I posed that question to the grown-ups I encountered recently while exploring Whateverlife.com. The teen-girl site and company was started by Ashley Qualls, an entrepreneur from a working-class neighborhood outside Detroit, who happens to be 17 herself. At that age, LeeAnn Prescott, the research director at Hitwise, was working at an amusement park, fashioning faux Civil War shots of people. Robb Lippitt, the former COO of ePrize who consults for Qualls, had worked his way up from dishwasher to prep cook to manager of Buddy's BBQ. Ceca Mijatovic, the founder of the girls portal dayZloop, didn't have a job yet; she was a foreign-exchange student from Yugoslavia. Me? I was delivering pizza for Domino's.
"Of course, this," says Ian Moray of ValueClick Media, referring to Whateverlife, "is something we all wish we'd done when we were 17."
If only the Internet had been around then. One of the many fascinating things about Whateverlife is that Ashley didn't set out to start a business. The Internet practically did it for her. Web design was a hobby, something she'd been learning online since she was 9. As a high-school sophomore, she figured out how to create layouts for MySpace pages, and her friends at Lincoln Park High School were keen to customize theirs, much like school lockers. As word spread throughout the MySpace universe, the 15-year-old couldn't afford the servers to support her exploding online audience. A friend suggested using Google AdSense, which generates ad revenue based on a site's traffic. Ka-ching. Whateverlife was off and running. Ashley has created nearly 3,000 layouts, her monthly audience is around 7 million, and revenue has grown from a couple of thousand bucks a month to as much as $70,000 - more than $1 million in less than two years.
The Accidental Business has become a burgeoning byproduct of the Web. Just look at the collectors-turned-entrepreneurs on eBay alone. By providing a cheap and instantaneous distribution or publishing platform, the Internet democratizes entrepreneurship. It's a beautiful and powerful thing. Ashley, whose divorced parents didn't attend college and knew little about the Web themselves, didn't have the resources and connections that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, My Start-Up Life's Ben Casnocha, and myYearbook's Catherine Cook have drawn on so effectively. But Ashley did have a bright idea and the technology to share it.
On the Web, much to the delight of a new generation of entrepreneurs, it's often enough.