Beau Jessup is just like any other British teenager, except for one thing — she's making hundreds of thousands of dollars and funding her way through college by naming Chinese babies.
The 19-year-old has made a name for herself as founder and CEO of Special Name, a website designed to provide Chinese parents with culturally appropriate English names for their babies.
Jessup was inspired to start the business in 2015, when she was just 15. Six months later, she had made more than $60,000 naming 200,000 babies. Since then, she has named a total of 677,900 (and counting) and racked up estimated revenues of over $400,000.
But the whole thing was the result of a "chance encounter," the young entrepreneur told CNBC Make It.
A total name changer
At the time, Jessup was traveling with her father in China, when one of his business associates, a Mrs. Wang, asked for help in naming her three-year-old daughter.
"I was honored and surprised," said Jessup. "It seemed like a really important thing to do."
Wanting to choose an "appropriate" name, Jessup asked Wang to share a little more about her hopes for her daughter. Most of all, said Wang, she wanted people to be surprised by the things her daughter could achieve. So, after careful thought, Jessup suggested "Eliza," inspired by the fictionalized heroine from "My Fair Lady," Eliza Doolittle.
Wang was "delighted," said Jessup, and went on to explain the significance for Chinese people of having an English name.
In China, all babies are given a Chinese name consisting of two to three characters with a carefully constructed meaning. However, many Chinese people find it easier to interact with native English-speakers if they also have a Western name.
Traditionally, those names would be self-assigned or given by teachers. But, due to language barriers and internet censorship in China, the ability to research them can be limited, often resulting in unfortunate and sometimes comical selections, Jessup noted, highlighting examples like "Rolex Wang" and "Gandalf Wu" in a 2017 Ted Talk.
"It occurred to me that if Mrs. Wang needed this service, then maybe other parents would as well," said Jessup.
2015 marked the end of China's decades-long "one-child policy," which limited many families to just one child. By 2016, the country's birthrate rose 7.9 percent to 17.86 million, according to China's National Health and Family Planning Commission.
"I thought it might be profitable to help," said Jessup.
And so, Special Name was born.
The birth of a business
To scale up her idea, Jessup decided to launch a Chinese-language website that could replicate her selection process for numerous people simultaneously.
So, on returning to the U.K. to start her A-levels, Jessup borrowed £1,500 (around $1,980) from her father and hired a freelance web developer to build the website. Meanwhile, she, in her spare time, set to work filling its database with more than 4,000 boys and girls names, attributing to each five characteristics she felt best represent that name, such as honest and optimistic.
Jessup said that process was "labor-intensive" initially, but algorithms have taken away much of the heavy lifting of baby naming.
"A lot of people ask me how I have time to name all these babies," said Jessup. "Much like Google has time to find everything for everyone all at once, I use an algorithm."
The website works by asking users to choose five characteristics from a list of 12 that they would most like their child to embody. An algorithm then selects three gender-specific names matched to those five characteristics. Users are then encouraged to share the three suggestions with their friends and family — there's a direct link to Chinese messaging app WeChat on the site — to help them settle on their favorite and avoid any "cultural mistakes."
The process takes just three minutes.
"I provide three appropriate names for the parent to choose from and I encourage them to involve their friends and family in this decision," said Jessup.
Initially, Jessup provided the service for free. But after naming 162,000 babies, she introduced a fee of 60 pence (79 cents).
At the time of writing, the site has named 677,929 babies. By CNBC Make It's estimations, that amounts to revenues of £309,557.40 (around $407,443).
Jessup noted in an interview with news.com.au that those earnings have gone toward paying her university fees, investing in property and, of course, paying back her father's loan — with interest.
As for the website, it is largely self-sufficient, requiring just a small team in China to manage its technical operations.
"I still update the database each month, but the business is fully automated, allowing me to focus full-time on my studies," said Jessup, who is studying social anthropology at the London School of Economics.
Beau said she is currently in negotiations with a company who "shares my vision for Special Name" and wishes to purchase the business. Meanwhile, she plans to use the experience for future business endeavors.
"I hope to use what I have learned from Special Name so that I can add value to other businesses," said Jessup.
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