Ava McDonald started a business to change the way companies market to teenagers. (Credit: Zfluence)
Ava McDonald started a business to change the way companies market to teenagers. (Credit: Zfluence)

Like many high schoolers, Ava McDonald grew up using Instagram. But when McDonald, an 18-year-old senior at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, disliked how “influencers” endorsed products simply for a payout, she decided to do something about it.

Her solution was to start Zfluence, a company that aims to inspire her generation to be more authentic on social media.

“For Generation Z more than ever, social media and technology is influential. We are the first generation to grow up not knowing a world without it,” said McDonald. “It is important for people our age to learn about how we use social media, and to use it in a positive way.”

McDonald launched Zfluence this past March as a platform for 16- to 23-year-old influencers who want to promote brands that they genuinely like and use. Zfluencers, which is what McDonald calls the company’s ambassadors, advertise for businesses by posting on social media, wearing merchandise, working events and advising on new product introductions.

“There is no cash exchange between brands and Zfluencers,” McDonald said. “Students, in general, love free stuff. That is a big incentive.” Also, about a third of her influencers want to pursue a marketing degree, which makes them interested in working with Zfluence, she said.

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Developing Her Company

Some might wonder how a high school student could open her own business. In order to start, McDonald took money out of her savings account from the previous jobs she had worked, and began contacting her favorite brands to see if they would be interested in paying for a service like hers. Soon local companies like Lucky Robot, August Morgan and Ride Cycling signed up. She now has 28 enterprises subscribed to Zfluence, and while most are based in Texas, some have services that extend beyond the state, including Earbuds, Mighty Swell and Il Makiage.

Subscribers pay $50 dollars per month for basic service, with that minimum rising for extra services. If you’re a beauty brand, for instance — you can either choose Plan Z and contact the influencers who are interested in your products, or you can pay a bit more and choose Plan A-to-Z and the Zfluence team finds your influencers for you. The company also recently added a discount for student-led enterprises.

To encourage authenticity, Zfluence allows its student ambassadors to pick the brands they work with, and ensures that brands can’t dictate what ambassadors say about their products.

Zfluence currently has over 400 influencers on 35 college campuses and 15 high school campuses. The only requirement for students to become Zfluencers is age — they must be between the ages of 16 and 23. The company doesn’t demand a certain amount of Instagram followers, although McDonald said most ambassadors have between 500 and 12,000 followers.

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The Struggles That Come with Being a CEO and High School Student

Running a business as a teenager has its challenges, McDonald said. “A lot of people wouldn’t take me seriously because of my age and looked at it as a school project or something that I just did on the weekends,” she said.

McDonald added that her parents are both entrepreneurs, and not only did they encourage her to start Zfluence, but they have provided advice along the way.  Her biggest struggle can be time management, as she participates in extracurricular activities such as dancing on her high school’s team, attending French Club and tutoring local refugee children. At lunchtime, McDonald is typically on her phone trying to answer emails.

But being a teenager with a start-up has led to self-discovery. “I didn’t really recognize this when I started, but there are a lot of similarities between teenagers and entrepreneurs — curiosity, a desire to learn, no fear of failure and a willingness to be crazy,” McDonald said.

It also helps that she is the same age as many of her Zfluencers. “I am able to connect with them in a way that adults can’t,” she said.

McDonald hopes to take the company with her to whatever college she decides upon (she wouldn’t say which ones she’s considering). Her current goals include having at least one college in every state be a part of Zfluence and getting up to 2,500 Zfluencers. And while the company is still young, McDonald said she has made enough to have five employees — herself, a manager and campus directors on three college campuses where Zfluence is popular: Baylor and Southern Methodist universities, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Running a startup, McDonald said, has taught her “that it’s important to believe in yourself and the ideas you have, even though that the circumstances might not be ideal to start.”

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