He has $1 million in the bank, a promising new company and a rolodex that makes Silicon Valley swoon.
“Hang on, I’ve got to take this,” says 19 year-old Cory Levy. “Hi, Mom.”
I’m interviewing Levy in our office when he takes the call. As I wait, I cannot shake his eerie resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg. It’s not just his curly hair, the hoodie, the strangely similar necks and chins. It’s the fact that this teenager is wicked smart with serious ambition. He wants to change the world.
“Worried parents,” he sighs as he hangs up the phone. “They live in Houston. They always like to know where I am and what I am doing.”
What he’s doing is remarkable for someone his age. He is co-founding a startup called One, which has created a mobile app that notifies you when people around you share your interests. You create a profile, and when someone with similar interests is right next to you, you get a notification. Levy and his co-founder, 28 year old Michael Callahan, have the ambitious goal of making missed connections history.
“How do we meet the important people in our lives?” asks Levy. “It’s all about situations. I like tennis, and met my best friend because he was carrying a racket. We started talking because of that racket. What if he hadn’t been carrying it that day? We want to prevent people from walking past each other and missing a chance to know each other.”
The app makes its initial debut at the end of this month at UC Berkeley, when students get back to school. He’s timed the launch carefully, so it will be available after the noise of signing up for classes and extracurricular activities has quieted.
“You need a large number of users in a small geographic area, so we’re focusing on college campuses,” explains Levy. “We’re going from campus to campus. We are emulating what Facebook did. Why did Color launch to everyone? Why are all of these companies trying to build a network by launching publicly? Exclusivity is key.”
Color is a good analogy. Like One, the startup is focused on making connections between people based on physical proximity. The fuse was lit when Color raised $41 million earlier this year. The result was more of a fizzle than a ka-boom. Early reviews indicated users weren’t as excited as a $41 million company should make them. It still hasn’t taken off. One will also face competition from apps like WhosHere and Skout.
After Berkeley, One will launch at University of Texas and University of Illinois. One tracked invite requests on its site to see which schools got picked.
The company raised $1 million from SV Angel, True Ventures, Charles River Ventures, General Catalyst, Square COO Keith Rabois, wine guru and marketing consultant Gary Vaynerchuk, serial entrepreneur Naval Ravikant and Harrison Metal founder Michael Dearing.
Dearing doesn’t talk to the press very often. A current Stanford professor and former senior vice president at eBay, Dearing has quietly backed innovative and successful startups. His greatest hits include AdMob (Google acquired for $750 million), Xoopit (Yahoo bought for $20 million), Mixer Labs (Twitter acquired) along with other startups like Widgetbox, CafePress, Polyvore and BloomSpot. You’ll be hard-pressed to find him talk publically about himself or these companies.
In this case, he was happy to talk.
“Three people in the same week told me to meet him,” says Dearing with a chuckle, recalling how he met Levy. “He’s got charisma and the courage to use it. He reaches out to people and is self confident in the best way. He finds interesting people and interesting things to talk about. He can connect with people and that deep desire is reflected in his product.”
I ask if he can find something negative to say about Levy.
“He’s the real thing,” says Dearing. This validation from Dearing is one of the best you can get in Silicon Valley. “You can’t do what he’s done at his age without intense focus and discipline. The reason you haven’t been able to find red flags is he hasn’t had much time to accumulate them.”
Levy spent one year at University of Illinois studying computer science, where the university had recruited him for his entrepreneur talents, he says, “just like an athlete.” But what he was really studying was how to sell himself and his ideas. He did an independent study with Paul Magelli, the senior director of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at U of I. Magelli is also scholar in residence at Kauffman Foundation, advising on entrepreneurship initiatives.
“Cory is ‘the’ mythical example we use in class, except he’s for real,” says Magelli, as he puts down his Chicago-style hot dog to do an interview. He’s just landed in Chicago, and called as soon as this interview was requested. “I’ve been teaching for 57 years and you wonder when in your career you’ll get a Cory. He makes you rethink the proposition as to whether entrepreneurs are born or made. He’s so young. How did he absorb it in 19 years? He’s an enigma.”
Levy says he’s taking a break from school to work on One. He’s not sure how long that break will last.
One Headquarters: Remove your shoes and mind the rabbit
I meet the rest of the One team when I visit their live/work loft in downtown San Francisco, right above the famous Powell Street cable car turnaround. The team members can look out their window and see crowds of people gathering by the cable cars, most of them not interacting with each other.
Upon entering the loft, I am asked to take off my shoes. The loft is immaculate. Their mothers would be proud. It isn’t just for show, either. These guys are focused, and they won’t let clutter get in the way. They sleep in two bunk beds upstairs, tucked behind a movable wall. Downstairs, where the dining room table should be, is a massive desk they crowd around and work on.
Levy and cofounder Michael Callahan work with two other guys on the project: Dan Glazer, founder of eatcu.com, and 20 year-old Ethan Berl, a software engineer from Princeton. He tells me he’s headed back to school in the fall, but will continue to work on One remotely. The guys are sweet and intelligent. You instantly like them. They aren’t partying, like you would expect them to. Callahan doesn’t drink alcohol, and two are underage. I laugh out loud when they talk about how Berl, who looks like a 16 year-old, is the group’s party animal. Then I realize I’m the only one laughing.
“We try to hire competent people because we want to be able to sell them,” says Levy.
A brown rabbit, Peek-A-Boo, hops around asking for a head scratch. She’s Callahan’s rabbit, but the whole team adores her. But their affection isn’t just reserved for the pet: The guys all respect each other, too, and they aren’t afraid to show it. Since Levy had the spotlight earlier in the day, he lets Callahan do most of the talking at the headquarters.
Callahan started mulling over the concept of One in 2006 during a visit to San Francisco. He was in town for meetings for his first company Audeo (creator of the first voiceless cell phone call, named one of Popular Science’s Inventions of the Year in 2009), and on the downtime, he walked around Market Street.
“I felt alone. That feeling is very irrational but very real,” says Callahan. “It doesn’t make sense to feel that way when you are surrounded by a million people. I thought, I can fix this.”
So he started studying people. He watched people in a mall and saw every person sitting alone in the food court had a device in their hand. Those devices provided a retreat to ward off the social stigma of being alone. They needed something to focus their attention on. People are looking for content to keep them company.
Callahan met Levy at University of Illinois in 2009. The then-17-year-old Levy had been invited, as a high school student, to speak to a group of college students about entrepreneurship. Callahan was there on a panel. They met afterwards and talked for hours. Later that year they would meet at another conference (Levy’s NextGen conference, more on that later.). That’s when the handshake happened that would start the two down a path to One.
They started testing One at University of Illinois by inviting students into a waiting area, telling them to wait for 20 minutes so they could “set things up” and then watching the strangers interact. They would tell each other their names, majors and hometowns. But that was as far as it would go. Then Callahan would bring in devices with the One app.
“Within five minutes of using the device, everyone was engaged in conversation,” says Callahan. “They moved to sit closer together. They were happy to connect. They just needed the catalyst to get going and connect relevantly.”
When asked about One’s competition, Callahan replies that “If it has been done to the level I want it to, I would be using it. Every one would be.”
What about Google Latitude?
“That shit drove me nuts,” says Callahan. As he curses, Levy squirms in his chair (a hoodie drapes over the back). “We’re introducing microlocalization. You shouldn’t just have a rough idea of people that are miles from you, but be able to introduce you to the person seated right next to you.”
One also offers a discovery platform to expose users to new things based on their preferences. The goal is to help users discover and go deeper into the areas they are interested in.
With all of this personal information and accessibility floating about, privacy could become an issue. The company says it is obsessed with privacy.
“It is not possible to do this without being extremely stringent on privacy,” says Callahan. “Everything we are doing is not possible without it. If you don’t have the thing in common with the other person, you won’t know it. In other words, the only things people will know about you are the things you share in common.”
He adds that One will be a tool to find people who like obscure things.
“This is something the world doesn’t cater to,” Callahan says. “We’re addressing the long tail of the things other people like.”
How is One going to make money? When I ask this question to the group, Levy nods to Callahan.
“It’s not our primary concern at this moment,” says Callahan, as he looks me dead in the eye. “Our goal is to address our audience’s problem. We have the triple-positive standard. We create something valuable that is good for you and good for the 3rd party. Most business models hit two of those, at best.”
Then he says “no monetization of ads is ever good for the consumer.” I ask him to repeat that, and he does. They mean it.
“There’s something special about this kid.”
Levy says he plans to go back to school in his home state at University of Texas. He’s not sure when that will be, but getting his degree is important to him. He wants to study business, but plans on creating his own major.
“They’ll let me back in, hopefully,” he says. “I just need to write a letter.”
Levy is good at writing letters. He is also persistent, to say the least. This is how he came to know some of the biggest players in venture capital. At 14 he wanted to be an entrepreneur before he knew what the word meant. He started cold messaging everyone on social platforms. By everyone, he means everyone from professors to VCs to CEOs. These cold messages would be the conversations that carried him to where he is today.
“I would ask, ‘Can I hang out in your office?’ and they would say, ‘send your resume,’ “ says Levy. “I didn’t have a resume. I was 14.”
Union Square Ventures and TechStars were interested, and a UC Berkeley professor Levy had cold messaged helped him write a resume. For four weeks during the summer of 2008, Levy “hung out” with the VCs. He sat next to them as they took calls and sorted through pitch decks. He stayed with their families, played tennis with them and commuted with them.
“Some people thought I was a partner,” Levy says with a grin.
In 2009 he spent the summer with the Founders Fund and started his own companies, including an educational startup, a t-shirt printing company and a sports memorabilia company. He was introduced and became friends with some of the most famous CEOs and founders in Silicon Valley. At 17, some members of the Founders Fund encouraged Levy to create a platform that would make his experience available to other young entrepreneurs.
“They told me that if I don’t use these connections, I was going to lose them,” explains Levy. He created the Nextgen Conference in November 2009. It was held at Stanford, where the University thought Levy was attending. He wasn’t, but he didn’t bother clarifying. That first show was quite a learning experience for a 17 year old.
Today the events run smoothly and successfully. The most recent was Nextgen Hollywood, during which Silicon Valley and Los Angeles met to rub shoulders. Levy lights up when he mentions that Ashton Kutcher attended the conference. Levy is very social and likes to network.
“When I was 14, I wanted to find the next step after Facebook,” says Levy, a comment which snaps me back into thinking I’m sitting across from Zuckerberg Jr. Others who know Levy hesitate to make that connection. They say he’s different. Perhaps better.
“One of the benefits of being an 80-year old is your predictive powers are honed,” says Paul Magelli, Levy’s U of I professor. “He will be a success but in a multi dimensional way. He is savvy but he is sweet. He is subtle. He seduces you in a very positive way. There’s something special about this kid.”
“He’s an exceptional person in a community of exceptional people,” says Dearing. “He stands out. I’ve only met one of him in the world.”
Get ready, world.