17 Year Old Girl Starts Million Dollar Website WhateverLife.com
Ashley Qualls started building her empire at the young age became a self made millionaire by 17 with her online business Whateverlife.com. Ashley started her business when she was 14 with $8 to buy a domain name.
Ashley is certainly an Internet professional. In the less than two years since Whateverlife started, she dropped out of high school, bought a new house, helped launch artists, and rejected offers to buy her young startup company. Although Ashley was flattered to be offered $1.5 million and a car of her choice for up to $100,000 – she responded, Whatever, “I don’t even have my license yet”.
Whatever Life .com – Created by a 17 year old girl
Ashley is evidence of the meritocracy on the Internet that allows even companies run by teenage entrepreneurs to compete, regardless of funding, location, size, or experience– a reminder that ingenuity is ageless. Whateverlife’s creator has taken in more than $1 million, thanks to a quickly familiar Web-friendly business model. Her MySpace page offers basic layouts available for… free! Ashley’s major source of revenue so far is advertising.
According to Google Analytics, Whateverlife attracts more than 7 million visitors and 60 million page views every month. That’s a larger audience than the circulations of Teen Vogue, Seventeen, and CosmoGirl! magazines combined. Although Website rankings vary with the methodology, Quantcast, a popular source among advertisers, ranked Whateverlife.com a staggering No. 349 in mid-July out of more than 20 million sites. Among the sites in its rearview mirror: CBS.com, Britannica.com, AmericanIdol.com, and FDA .gov.
Young women spend lots of time decorating their social network profile pages and making slide shows. Popular sites such as Whateverlife.com facilitate this trend by offering and catering MySpace layouts to young women.
Ashley can’t either quite believe herself: “WhateverLife .com is ahead of Oprah!” (Oprah.com: No. 469.) Sure, Ashley is a long way from having Oprah’s clout, but she is establishing a platform of her own.
The MySpace teenager came along with the right idea at the right time. Eager to customize their MySpace profiles, girls cut and paste the HTML code for Whatever Life .Com layouts featuring hearts, flowers, celebrities, and so on onto their personal page and a brand new look. Think of it as MySpace clothes; some kids change their layouts nearly as frequently. “It’s all about giving girls what they want,” Ashley says.Nowadays, she and her young company are experiencing growing pains. She’s learning how to be the boss – managing her mother, her friends, developers-for-hire in India. And Whateverlife, one of the first sites offering MySpace layouts specifically for girls, needs to mature as well. “MySpace layouts” was among the top 30 search terms on Google in June. Ashley knows that she needs new content–not just more layouts, but more features, to distinguish Whateverlife from the thousands of sites in the expanding MySpace ecosystem. Earlier this year, the website included an online magazine. Cell-phone wallpaper, a new source of revenue at 99 cents to $1.99 a download, is in the works.
MySpace Basics to a million dollar business
Running a growing company without an MBA, not to mention a high-school diploma, is hard enough, but Ashley confronts another extraordinary complication. Business associates may forget that she is 17, but Detroit’s Wayne County Probate Court has not. She’s a minor with considerable assets–”business affairs that may be jeopardized,” the law reads–that need protection in light of the rift her sudden success has caused in an already fractious family. In January, a probate judge ruled that neither Ashley nor her parents could adequately manage her finances. Until she turns 18, next June, a court-appointed conservator is controlling Whateverlife’s assets; Ashley must request funds for any expense outside the agreed-upon monthly budget.
The arrangement, she says, affects her ability to react in a volatile industry. “It’s not like I’m selling lemonade,” she says. Besides, it’s her company. If she wants to contract developers or employ her mother, Ashley says, why shouldn’t she be able to do it without the conservator’s approval?
So the teenager has hired a lawyer. She wants to emancipate herself and be declared an adult. Now. At 17. Why not just sit tight until June? The girl trying to grow up fast can’t wait that long.
WhateverLife Girl Million Dollar Website Ashley is different from the recent crop of high-profile teen entrepreneurs. True, her eighth-grade class did vote her “most likely to succeed,” but it’s safe to say they were predicting 20 or 30 years out, not three years removed from middle school. She created her company almost by accident and without the resources that typically give young novices a leg up. Catherine Cook, 17, started myYearbook.com by teaming up with her older brother, a Harvard grad and Internet entrepreneur. Ben Casnocha, the 19-year-old founder of software company Comcate and author of the new memoir My Start-Up Life, is the son of a San Francisco lawyer and has tapped Silicon Valley brains and bank accounts.
But Ashley had no connections. No business professionals in the family. No rich aunt or uncle. In the working-class community of downriver Detroit, south of downtown and the sprawling Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, she bounced back and forth between her divorced parents, neither of whom attended college. Her father is a machinist, her mother, until recently, a retail data collector for ACNielsen. “My mom still doesn’t understand how I do it,” Ashley says. To be fair, she did go to her mother for the initial investment: $8 to register the domain name. Ashley still hasn’t spent a dime on advertising.
It all started as a hobby. She began dabbling in Web-site design eight years ago, when she was 9, hogging the family’s Gateway computer in the kitchen all day. When she wasn’t playing games, she was teaching herself the basics of Web design. To which her mother, Linda LaBrecque, responded, “Get off that computer. Now!” For Ashley’s 12th birthday, her mother splurged on an above-ground swimming pool–”just so she’d go outside,” LaBrecque says.
Whateverlife just sort of happened, another accidental Web business. Originally, Ashley created the site in late 2004 when she was 14 as a way to show off her design work. “I was the dorky girl who was into HTML,” she says. It attracted zero interest beyond her circle of friends until she figured out how to customize MySpace pages. So many classmates asked her to design theirs that she began posting layouts on her site daily, several at first, then dozens.
By 2005, her traffic had exploded; she needed her own dedicated web server. Ashley, who had bartered site designs for free Web hosting, couldn’t afford the monthly rental, not on her babysitting income. Her Web host suggested Google AdSense, a service that supplies ads to a site and shares the revenue. The greater the traffic, the more money she’d earn.
She would look up how much she had made,” says Jen Carey, 17, one of her closest friends. “It was $50. She thought that was the coolest.”
The first check, her first paycheck of any kind, was even cooler: $2,790. “It was more than I made in a month,” her mother says.
“It made me want to do even more designs,” Ashley says. But first, she went on a shopping spree at a nearby mall with Bre Newby, her best friend since third grade. Ashley walked out with eight pairs of jeans from J.C. Penney and an armful of other clothes. Without a credit card or a bank account, the 15-year-old paid $600 in cash–the most she’d ever spent.
“Before, I would ask my mom, “Can I have $10?’ and she’d say, “No, you have to wait a few weeks,’” Ashley recalls. She hasn’t asked since.
In January 2006, a few months after that first payday and six months before her 16th birthday, she withdrew from school. Instead of taking AP English, French, and algebra II, instead of being a straight-A sophomore at Lincoln Park High School, Ashley stayed home to nurture her budding business and take classes through an online high school. “Everybody was shocked,” she says. “They asked, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ But I had this crazy opportunity to do something different.” That “something different” was Whateverlife. The name came to Ashley in a moment of frustration. After losing a video game to Bre, she dropped the controller and blurted out, “Whatever, life.” She liked it instantly. She thought it would be a great name for a Web site, for “whatever life you lead.”
Now her life is centered around working in the basement of the brand new two-story, four-bedroom house that she bought last September for $250,000. It’s located in a fenced-off subdivision in the community of Southgate, a couple of blocks removed from Dix Highway, a thoroughfare dotted with body shops and convenience stores, not online stores.
Ashley’s home office is the physical embodiment of her Web site. The business brings in as much as $70,000 a month, but there’s not a whiff of corporate convention. It’s fun, whimsical, and unabashedly pink. Pink walls. Pink rug. Pink chairs, pillows, and lamp. Even the blue, green, and silver stick-on robots dancing on the wall have tiny pink hearts. It’s a teenager’s version of the workplace, which earned raves when she posted pictures on MySpace.