How to Make Money

How This 16-Year-Old Turned a School Project into a $20K Business

Updated April 18, 2016
by Jamie Cattanach
Staff Writer
young entrepreneurs

Confession time: I have never gone camping.

Not really. When I told my parents I wanted to as a kid, they said, “For sure!”

… and then rented an RV. That’s about as close to roughing it as they wanted to get.

I predictably grew into an adult too attached to air conditioning and Wi-Fi to get any closer to the real deal than renting a KOA cabin.

But this sweet card game — and the inspiring story behind it — might just make me change my ways.

How a Class Project Sparked the Entrepreneurial Spirit

In the winter of 2015, 16-year-old Maya Gay was faced with a challenge.

She and her entrepreneurship classmates were asked to come up with business ideas, which would then compete in a Dragons’ Den-style competition. Incentives included both cash prizes and considerable bragging rights.

Gay partnered up with her friend Rachel Birrell and worked on a business idea revolving around the pair’s passion: the outdoors.

“I’ve grown up skiing, hiking and backpacking,” Maya says. Her whole family loves to explore the great outdoors, and she plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year.  

But at 16, Gay and Birrell didn’t have the resources to create the material-intensive revised camp shoe they initially invented — at least not if they wanted to stand a chance against their competitors.

So they started thinking about people, rather than products, and reminiscing about some of their best outdoor experiences.

“I’d met some really interesting people on the trails before,” Gay explains. “Rachel and I realized the importance of human connections in this technology-focused society.”

And suddenly, Basecamp Cards was born.

How These 16-Year-Olds Started a Business

Basecamp Cards are regular playing cards that feature icebreaker questions to encourage the kind of lengthy conversations that unravel best around a campfire.

“We were brainstorming the process of camp life and realized that everyone brings a deck of cards with them!” Gay says.

Lightweight and versatile, playing cards hold an important place in most backpackers’ kits. But the pair took advantage of the perfect way to improve them: emblazoning them with great conversation prompts.

The cards are designed with beautiful watercolor backgrounds, painted by a friend of Gay’s family. Questions range “from thought-provoking to goofy.” Some samples include:

  • Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
  • Win the lottery or find your perfect job?
  • What is a skill that you want to learn?

The pair focused on questions requiring a more-than-one-word answer — the kind that might move players to put down the cards and start chatting instead.

To make sure they had great conversation starters, the pair surveyed their fellow classmates during brainstorming sessions — which got a little tricky at times.

“Our classmates got really sick of us asking them whether they wanted to change gender every time they sneezed or not be able to tell the difference between a muffin and a baby,” Gay says.

It took the pair about a month to solidify the questions and design the cards on Adobe Photoshop — neither of the girls had any prior experience.

By the time they received the initial run of 36 prototype decks to submit to the judges, they had already sold out.

They quickly submitted another order — this time for 500 decks.

Basecamp Cards didn’t just win the First Prize of $1,500 and Best Trade Show prize of $500.

It became a real business.

How Basecamp Cards Went from Project to Profit

As sales expanded, Gay tweaked the cards and the business, adding the colorful background and improving the quality of the materials.

And last summer, she bought out Birrell and partnered with her 19-year-old brother, Aidan, instead.

So far, she’s spent $11,000 creating and selling Basecamp Cards… and earned $20,000. She says the cards will only improve in quality… and go down in price.

We love Gay’s entrepreneurial spirit, which she says she owes in part to her parents — both are entrepreneurs themselves and contributed funds for the first run of cards.

And what’s best, she’s used her prowess and creativity to make an affordable, fun product to bring people together in what has become the old-fashioned way: face to face, surrounded by nature, away from screens.

Your Turn: What business would YOU have thought to start while you were in high school?

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She also writes other stuff, like wine reviews and poems.

by Jamie Cattanach
Contributor for The Penny Hoarder

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