How a 20 Year Old Female Entrepreneur Raises a Million Dollars and Gets Sh*t Done

September 2, 2010

6:49 pm

I first got a chance to meet Jessica Mah at a post conference event in San Francisco in 2007. She was a bright eyed, young entrepreneur who had just moved to San Francisco to pursue her dreams of starting her own company and living the dream. No average teenager, Jessica was only 16 or 17 years old at the time and had already completed high school and college. She’s been programming since age 10, building businesses since age 13, and finished high school at age 15. It was exciting to see the news this week that she had just raised $1 million dollars for her second startup, inDinero as she just completed the Y Combinator 2010 summer accelerator. We got a chance to catch up with Jessica, asking her a few questions about the exciting news.

Tech Cocktail (TC): How was your experience at Y Combinator? Can you describe the process?
Jessica Mah (JM):  We had a great time bringing inDinero through Y Combinator.  We knew what we were building, we had some paying customers, so getting accepted was the least of our worries.  We just didn’t realize how intense our summer would be, and how incredible the network was.  YC is one of those phenomenons where you don’t quite grasp how helpful it’ll be for your company until you go through the program yourself.

TC:  How did you come up with the idea of inDinero? Were you influenced by what happened with Mint?
JM:  I first thought about the problem we’re solving when I was selling things through eBay:  I didn’t know how much the business was making!  It seemed like a simple problem to solve, but accounting software isn’t the answer.  It isn’t only complex, but it’s built with accountants in mind.  So we decided to build a company around serving other business owners, but without making an accounting application.

We were definitely influenced by Mint, and we’ve been working with a lot of people from the Mint team to help craft our product and company.  We wouldn’t be where we are if it hadn’t been for help from some ex-Mint people.

TC:  How did you find your co-founder? With the recent funding, what will your approach be to building out your team? (how will you find the right people?)
JM:  I met my co-founder Andy Su while we were attending UC Berkeley.  We were taking discrete mathematics our first year there, and were paired up to do homework with each other.  The rest is history. We’re probably going to build out our team by hiring within our personal networks.  UC Berkeley creates a lot of great coders. 🙂

TC:  This is your first time raising this type of funding – is there anything you would share with other entrepreneurs based on what you learned from the experience?
JM:  I wouldn’t know where to start.  Three things:

  1. Focus on building a product and signing up paying customers.  We tried raising money without either, and not a single person would give us money.  Fast forward 12 months later with product traction and thousands of businesses using us, we were the ones turning investors away.  (we’ve turned away 20+ investors the past weekend)
  2. Bringing on investors should be treated as if you’re hiring employees:  do reference checks, make sure the investor will be value-add for your company, and interview them equally as much as they interview you.
  3. Set a deadline.  We wanted to raise our money in a jiffy, then get back to building the company.  It’s served us well (most of the money was committed in a 2 week timeframe).

TC:  As a young female who has already accomplished so much, what would you say to other young women with similar aspirations? Who do you look to for guidance or mentorship?
JM:  Back in elementary school, I had an incredible fascination for Benjamin Franklin.  His wide-array of technical abilities, imagination, and political influence, inspire me every day.  Regardless of who you are, age/gender/background should be the last thing you think about.

Image courtesy of Anne Helmond

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Frank Gruber is the cofounder, CEO and Executive Editor of Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail). He is the author of the book, Startup Mixology, Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success. He is also a startup advisor and investor to startups. Find Frank Gruber online and follow him on Twitter at @FrankGruber.

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