For Wesley Zhao, a startup dream fulfilled

Zhao took a leave of absence from Wharton to pursue a career in entrepreneurship

· April 2, 2012, 10:41 pm   ·  Updated April 4, 2012, 12:04 am

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Determination goes a long way.

For Wesley Zhao, it has led to managing hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, pitching his business to well-known venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and running a popular international business.

Welcome to the life of 19-year-old Zhao — college dropout and successful self-made entrepreneur. Zhao taught himself how to code in his spare time as a student and a Division I athlete for Penn’s sprint football and track and field teams.

Zhao would be a Wharton sophomore had he not decided to take a leave of absence from Penn last semester, move to the Silicon Valley with nothing more than abnormal amounts of dedication and a dream of entrepreneurship.

“Penn would always be there for me, but this opportunity would not,” Zhao said, describing himself as impatient.

He is now the co-founder of FamilyLeaf, a technology startup that aims to bring families around the world closer together. FamilyLeaf and Zhao are backed by the prestigious Y Combinator , a three-month program that provides funding, mentorship and a network for budding entrepreneurs. Past Y Combinator-backed companies include billion-dollar sharing company DropBox and internet community Reddit.

As with most entrepreneur stories, Zhao’s tale includes sweat, determination and a lack of sleep.

Zhao came into Wharton expecting to enter the investment banking field.

During winter break, his childhood friend Ajay Mehta, then a freshman at New York University, convinced Zhao to read “How to Make Wealth,” an essay by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham. The essay turned him away from Wall Street and toward startups.

And that is exactly what Mehta and Zhao have been doing ever since. The duo would go on to spend their entire winter break during freshman year vigorously teaching themselves code, in hopes of creating their own wealth.

Over the next few months, the duo would meet one of their best friends and collaborators — College sophomore Dan Shipper — receive thousands of hits on their website “wheremyfriends.be” and be featured on websites such as CNN, Mashable and TechCrunch.

Shipper said he saw some of Zhao’s determination during an incident when the wheremyfriends.be servers crashed.

“We all spent two days without sleep and classes trying to get them back up,” Shipper said, noting that Zhao was there every step of the way for the business.

After a summer of building businesses and almost getting into the summer session of Y Combinator and TechStars, another startup accelerator, Zhao knew that entrepreneurship was for him.

Mehta and Zhao both took a leave of absence from their respective schools and moved to the Bay Area in California, determined to learn.

During the month of September 2011, they worked on multiple startup projects in hopes of fine-tuning their skills. When October rolled around, the duo applied once again to Y Combinator.

“Ajay convinced me the weekend before, and we just applied on a whim,” Zhao said.

Y Combinator entrepreneurs usually have years of experience with programming and startups. Though the duo each had only one year of coding experience, they were accepted into the program.

They initially started building AthleteNet, a network for college athletes, but soon realized that the market was too small.

So in one month before the end of the Y Combinator program, Mehta and Zhao began working on FamilyLeaf, a site that allows family members to create private networks and confidentially share messages, photos and contact information.

The idea for the new business first came from Mehta who had difficulties maintaining close ties with his family while working far away in California.

Facebook did not do an apt job of creating a bond because it is often “awkward for students to have family members on Facebook,” and it was difficult for users to find family members on the social network, Zhao said.

They had their “moms calling us every night and trying to find us,” and so the idea grew on them as they also realized how much they themselves needed the product, Zhao added.

Y Combinator ends with a final demo day, during which the companies in the program publicly launch and pitch to some of the most prominent venture capital firms in the Silicon Valley.

At last week’s demo day, Zhao and Mehta pitched their idea to over 400 top investors in the Silicon Valley.

Mehta and Zhao successfully poised their product as fulfilling the third pillar of people’s lives.

“There are three important things in life: work, friends, and finally family. LinkedIn fulfills work, Facebook for friends and now FamilyLeaf for family,” Zhao said.

The pair is among the youngest of entrepreneurs in the current Y Combinator round. Other entrepreneurs in Zhao’s program had MBA’s and were well into their thirties.

“People aren’t too age biased in the Valley,” and it is more about what you do, Zhao said.

FamilyLeaf has already received $177,000 in funding from Y Combinator in addition to venture capital firms, but Zhao is still talking with investors for more funding.

But even with such success, Zhao said he and Mehta “want to go to back to school at some point,” because they both “love learning.”

Zhao’s friends and past collaborators weighed in on his success.

Shipper said “Zhao can talk the talk, but he can also walk the walk,” citing his determination and humility as the reason for how he got so far in just one year.

Operations and Information Management professor Kartik Hosanagar, who taught Zhao in his “Enabling Technologies” course, wrote in an email that Zhao’s “commitment to learning was unprecedented” and “the drive and hard work is the number one factor” for his success.

“You have to figure out something you want to pursue, and then pursue it as hard as you can,” he said.

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