There are not many 19 year olds who drop out of college with the blessing of their parents. Some famous college dropouts who turned out pretty well are Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. And Wesley Zhao, the co-founder of Familyleaf, the social network for families, could one day be in this elite class of successful college dropouts. Zhao recently took a “leave of absence” from Wharton College to take charge of a full-time career as an entrepreneur leading Familyleaf with fellow 19-year-old co-founder and friend Ajay Mehta.
I think it is natural to learn more about a young man who had the courage to leave a good school for a potentially more promising future as an entrepreneur. I’m not surprised since Familyleaf has seen itself grow tremendously since coming out of Y Combinator incubator. As part of its growth, they have been profiled in TechCrunch, The New York Times, and of course, TigerStartups. Given the success of two 19-year-old Asian American entrepreneurs, I was thrilled when I found out that Wesley wanted to be part of our Hot Seat interview segment.
Wesley, you and Ajay Mehta are only 19 years old, college-aged kids. What made you guys decide to build a site like Familyleaf, connecting families, instead of a social network say for connecting college kids who want to get high?
Great question, and easy answer. We've always loved our families, and our families have always shown a lot of love towards us. Young people usually take family for granted, and admittedly we still do it to an extent, but we're at a point now in our lives where we see how important family is and how much it means to our parents and grandparents when we stay in touch with them. ... Plus when we left for College about a year ago our Moms started calling us every night and friended us on Facebook... we knew we had to build a solution for that :).
Recently you visited China. What were you there for? How long was the visit? What were your impressions of China?
I was there to visit my family actually! I hadn't been back in over 5 years so that's why my Dad and I made a trip back. I was only there for about 2 weeks but they were a great 2 weeks. I actually was really able to connect with my family and understand how much my grandparents had sacrificed for my parents, and how much they've sacrificed for me. Going back as more of an adult, I gained a little perspective and it was a wonderful trip back.
Is Familyleaf available in China? Is it affected by the Great Firewall?
FamilyLeaf is available in China! I do not forsee it being affected by the Great Firewall. The Great Firewall exists to help keep control over protests. Facebook/Twitter are great for organizing protests and marches which is why they are blocked. Just photos won't help people organize protests, which is why Instagram was never blocked. Many other social networks which do not help organize protests are also no blocked - e.g. LinkedIn, Quora, etc. So we are not worried.
I hear you took a leave of absence from Wharton. How did you pull that off? I didn’t know an Asian parent would be okay with their son dropping out of college? :)
I started the conversation with my parents in January 2011. At first they were very shocked to even think of such a thing. But slowly I was able to reason with them and they began to understand the decision. So in August of 2011 they allowed it :).
In all seriousness, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs, whether they are full time college students or have full time jobs, to quit and go “all in”? I am sure the funding you received from the Y Combinator and after helped. Would you have dropped out of college without funding?
My advice is: do what you love and be disciplined enough to persist. Whether you love building great products or acting in plays, I think that piece of advice works well. I actually left Wharton before I got funding. I left in August of 2011 and only got Y Combinator in November of 2011.
Tell me how you guys got into the Y Combinator program? What experience did you guys take out of it?
We had interviewed with them in the Summer of 2011 so we already knew them a little bit. We also left sort of a mark the first time after creating a parody twitter account @YC_Y_U_NO that got us some press. Then for the Winter we just followed their application process. We got an interview, interviewed, and they let us know they decided to fund us! It was awesome. The experience was great. We learned a lot as first time entrepreneurs about how to get a company started, how to build a great product, how to stay focused, and how to raise money. We also got a lot of great advice from some really experienced speakers.
Do you have any advice for people who didn’t make it to incubator programs?
You should really love what you're doing so much that you keep going! If you don't then it's probably best you didn't get into an incubator program. Since companies are meant to be several year long journeys, if you don't love,it then it won't work out. So if you truly love what you're doing, just keep your head up, know you'll succeed anyways, and keep going!
In your perfect world, how do you see people using Familyleaf in 3 years?
People will be more connected with their families as a result of FamilyLeaf. All interactions that are happening nowadays with families will happen on FamilyLeaf. And because the product is so great, families will interact more!
Tell me some conflicts you have as a 19 year old "kid" vs a serious entrepreneur? Like, do you wish you were playing PS3 instead of meeting with billionaire venture capitalists?
We still consider ourselves serious entrepreneurs. Luckily in the Valley people see us that way as well. If anything it's only been beneficial as we have more energy and less risk! Maybe in certain parts of the country being our age would be bad, but in the Valley it's all about how smart you are and how great of a product you can build.
Ok, in ten years will they make a movie about Familyleaf? Who will play Wesley Zhao and Ajay Mehta?!
Haha I hope they don't make a movie! There would be too many embarrassing moments :)
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