From Playing Video Games to Creating Them: How a 15-Year-Old Launched Her Own App

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When she decided she wanted to make apps for her autistic brother, Megan Holstein didn’t let major obstacles -- like her age and her lack of technical skills -- get in the way of making it happen.

By Megan Holstein (President, Pufferfish Software)

In early 2011, a 15-year-old girl decided she wanted to learn how to make apps for her autistic brother. The iPad had come out only six months beforehand, and iPad apps were scarce compared to the millions of iPhone apps -- apps for autism especially so.

That 15-year-old girl was me, three years ago. Having traded in the public schooling system for online school, I found myself with plenty of free time and nothing but video games to fill it with. My father told me to get a job, but the jobs available at the time were jobs at Wendy’s, McDonalds or other fast food places -- if they would even hire me at all.

I didn't want a job, so I declared "I'll make apps, Dad!" And he was thrilled. While he knew what I was getting into, I had no idea.

Easier Said Than Done

The next day, we went to the bookstore to pick up a book on how to make apps. We found an introductory guide to learning to code Objective-C for iOS 4. We got home, and immediately I ran upstairs with my book and my laptop to my room to get started. Three hours later I emerged with my laptop and the book, and one saddening realization -- I really hated programming.

Don't misunderstand, I like apps. But building them is not my cup of tea. At this point, a lot of people attempted to talk me out of app making. "If you can't program, how are you going to get an app made?" they would ask.

In the eyes of a high schooler, making an app was the sole domain of a self-taught programmer nerd, and if you weren't a programmer (read: friends with the pasty white world-of-warcraft gamers in the computer science class) you couldn't make an app.

But I was not to be swayed, and I knew that people other than programmers had to be involved in making apps somehow. Programmers don't know how to use photoshop, which means someone other than the programmer is also working on the app's graphics.

This means that people can team up and do the part they know how to do, meaning I didn't have to program anything. If I could find a programmer to help me make this app, we could make it together. I could give them money in exchange for them doing the code, just like someone would give me money in exchange for mowing their lawn.

Hiring My First Employee

So what I needed was money to hire a programmer. My father was supportive and willing to invest in my idea. This meant a programmer had to be found. But I couldn’t find anyone at my high school. This was a problem, since that meant anyone else I might hire to code my app would have to be older than me. And nobody wants to be hired by a 15-year-old.

I was dimly aware that you could, in the words of a 15-year-old, “pay people on the Internet” with services like oDesk.com. It is with these words that I approached my father and investor, and, bright eyed and unaware you had to be an adult, asked "You hire people on the Internet. Can I hire people on the Internet?" He said yes, and set up an account for me (with his legal information) on oDesk.com.

His stipulation was that he had to be involved with the whole thing: talking to the freelancers, setting up job requirements, paying them, etc. because we had set the account up as him. His photo, his information, everything.

At the time, I found all of these rules quite a pain and proceeded to do it completely on my own. I pretended to be a seasoned IT professional on oDesk.com for several months while I worked with a contractor twice my age. When my dad found out, he thought it was hilarious because I had ended up being very convincing. (Think about that the next time you work with someone over the Internet!)

Launching My App to the World

After that, Pufferfish Software had an iPad app out on the app store called Touch Talking. It is still out on the app store, but has changed a ton since that first version. Pufferfish Software began by bending rules and thinking outside the box, and every startup must do this to successfully grow and gain territory.

What's that crazy idea you had recently for your career or your business? What’s holding you back? Even though I didn’t have the technical skills to launch my app, I found the right people to make it happen.

Don't dismiss your idea because it seems to hard. Go for it, because it's always the crazy ideas that pay off big.

What's holding you back from going for it?


About the guest blogger: Megan Holstein is a freshman at the Ohio State University, from Columbus OH, 18 years old and the president of Pufferfish Software. Pufferfish Software makes apps for autistic children and their therapy, and Megan started this company when she was fifteen.  Her passion for entrepreneurship developed when she was 14, and began a business buying and selling broken laptops on eBay. Follow her on Twitter@MeganEHolstein.