Young entrepreneurs to watch in the tech sector

June 1, 2009

Bill Gates was 19 when he came up with the idea for Microsoft. Michael Dell was the same age when he started selling computers out of his dorm room. Who are the teenagers and 20-somethings trying to hatch the big tech and media ideas of tomorrow?

paidContent.org has compiled a list of likely candidates under the age of 21, from web design impresarios to “pimp my MySpace” tycoons.  Taking advantage of the Web’s low barriers to entry means that you often only need a really good idea.

catherinecook_woCatherine Cook

Age: 19
Company: myYearbook

Some great ideas come from analysis and introspection. For siblings Catherine and David Cook, it was the result of a snarky comment. “My brother David and I were flipping through our high-school yearbook during my freshman year,” Catherine recalls. “We were looking for a girl in his class—I think he liked her—and he was trying to show me who she was. Once we finally got to the picture he was like, ‘She looks nothing like that.’”

The problem, they realized, was that the yearbook photo was a year old. The conclusion: “Yearbooks suck.” The Cooks figured they could make a better yearbook online, one that allowed people to choose and update their own pictures. They got $250,000 from their older brother, Geoff, who had started and sold the web sites EssayEdge and ResumeEdge when he was a student at Harvard.

In less than two months, they finished myYearbook (outsourcing the programming), and launched it in April 2005. By the fall, it was bringing in some 3,000 new members a day. Today, it has more than 9.8 million unique visitors a month from students all around the world, according to comScore.

MyYearbook had more than $10 million in sales last year, according to Cook and First Round Capital, an early investor in myYearbook. Besides advertising revenue, the site has built interest around its “lunch money” program. Users pay $10 to get $1 million in myYearbook money to buy virtual gifts for friends or finance assorted acts of do-goodery, such as sending books to Africa, saving the rainforest or buying carbon offsets. Says First Round Capital partner Chris Fralic: “There are a number of sites that have gotten to their size, but not many that have been able to build aa business around it like they have.”

More:

  • Teen entrepreneur Catherine Cook says myYearbook’s Lunch Money adds up (VentureBeat)
  • MyYearbook makes Mashable’s list of The Top 10 Social Networks for Generation-Y (Mashable)
  • Teen’s social-networking site a hit with high schoolers (San Francisco Chronicle)

clarktwins_wo1Ashton and Ryan Clark

Age: Both 20
Company: Dynamik Duo

Entrepreneurs are lucky if they can turn one idea into a viable enterprise. Ryan and Ashton Clark, twin brothers at the University of Illinois, are now into double digits.

Since launching their first web site in 1999, the siblings have created nearly a dozen web businesses that sell everything from consumer electronics to shoes to tickets—even parking spaces. Never mind that the Internet was supposed to usher in an age of disintermediation. The Clarks have found their calling serving as intermediaries between online consumers and manufacturers and wholesalers.

Their first web site, Circuitbreakers.com, was conceived after the twins—then just 11 years old—saw an opportunity to sell affordable electronic products online. They persuaded a Chicago-area electronics wholesaler to let them sell its merchandise online under their Circuitbreakers moniker. They sold it less than two years later, on eBay, and the proceeds helped finance their future web sites.

Today, the twins preside over Dynamik Duo, their holding company, which operates half-a-dozen web operations. Among them: Hostivo, a site that serves as a one-stop shop for companies looking to build their own web sites; 247mixtapes, a paid music service that lets music listeners make their own music compilations (both brothers are pianists); and We Park Chicago, a site where drivers can reserve parking spaces in the metro Chicago area. They get commissions on sales from shoes and parking.

While they often divvy up duties on a business-by-business basis, the brothers consider every business a joint venture. “We both have our own respective ideas,” says Ashton. “But at the end of the day, they’re both of ours.”

More:

ashleyqualls_woAshley Qualls

Age: 18
Company:
Whateverlife.com

What began with a 14-year-old noodling around with HTML code to create brightly colored web pages has turned into a company worth more than a million dollars. Ashley Qualls’s web site, Whateverlife.com, is a favorite destination for young girls looking to “pimp” their MySpace page with awareness ribbons, buttons, quotes, and glitter—all of which can be pasted on top of more than 5,000 layout designs.

Initially, the site didn’t garner much attention outside Qualls’ coterie of gal pals. But within a year after she began designing customized MySpace pages, the site was generating 60 million pages views a month. Even better, it was generating more than $50,000 a month in sales. Qualls has since landed a couple of big marketing deals.

The extent of Whateverlife’s popularity was made clear three years ago when Columbia Records decided to bypass radio and promote the Jonas Brothers—then a barely known pop act—exclusively online. The company placed a three-part video on Whateverlife, and within two months some 60,000 JoBro fans uploaded the video to their MySpace pages.

Ashley ultimately dropped out of high school to run the business, which she manages today from a four-bedroom house she bought just outside Detroit. In 2007, she turned down an offer from MySpace for $1.5 million (plus the car of her choosing). It’s a decision she may live to regret: Whateverlife traffic has dropped precipitously, from 7 million visitors a month to around 550,000, according to the web-measurement firm Quantcast.

More:

  • Girl Power: Ashley Qualls has built a million-dollar web site (Fast Company)
  • Check out Qualls’s own colorful layouts on Twitter and MySpace

kayvonbeykpour_woKayvon Beykpour

Age: 20
Company:
MobilEdu

Kayvon Beykpour’s various business ventures have a theme: helping big institutions get hip to the web. His epiphany came during an internship at the ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners after his freshman year at Stanford. He had been helping many of the firm’s big clients develop their web presence. “It occurred to me that there was a whole lot more opportunity if I was working on my own,” he says. So Beykpour and his childhood friend, Joe Bernstein, started Terribly Clever Design, and began reaching out to the very same companies.

Around the same time, Facebook had become big, and so they also started creating web applications. “We went around to companies like Sprint and Comcast and said, ‘Look, we’re college kids. We know how kids use Facebook. Let us implement your brand campaigns on this new medium.” In just a few months, the pair was managing the Facebook presence for Sprint, Best Buy, Comcast, Doritos and others.

Beykpour and Bernstein, both iPhone fanatics, also pitched their school on iStanford, a mobile application that would allow students and faculty to access all university services, from a course catalog to the athletic department schedule, on their iPhones. If a friend recommends a class, the application would give you a course description and tell you when and where the classes are being held the next semester, as well as a brief bio of the professor.

iStanford launched last fall, and the partners quickly began offering it to other schools. In March, Duke University introduced its version, called DukeMobile. Another five schools are set to go live in the next month, says Beykpour, who is also into filmmaking—he won two student Emmys for documentaries in high school. A venture source familiar with the company said that by the end of the year, mobilEdu will have brought in upwards of $1 million in revenue.

More:

  • Can iStanford Take On Facebook Mobile? (Time)
  • TerriblyClever launches iPhone applications targeting universities (The Industry Standard)

jenny-kevinJenny Liu and
Kevin Modzelewski

Age: Both 20
Company: Eclectyk

At MIT, Prof. Hal Abelson’s classes have gained cult-like status because of his award-winning work in computation. One of the requirements in his mobile-applications class is that students come up with a viable business plan. The idea that rose to the top of the heap this year: a pitch by Jenny Liu and Kevin Modzelewski for a mobile wallet.

“We see replacing a user’s wallet with a phone,” Liu explains. “We want to take the wallet out of the picture entirely so you don’t have to deal with the hassle of taking out all your cards and looking for the right one.”

It sounded easy enough—all consumers had to do was place their phone over an RFID reader at the cash register—but their idea presented some challenges. Namely, how do you consolidate and organize all the different cards that people carry into one application that works on the phone? And what sort of security do you guarantee the user? The partners spent the better part of two semesters coming up with solutions, and were asked to demonstrate their application—called Eclectyk—at the NFC Developers Summit in Monaco in April. (NFC stands for Near Field Communication, a technology that Nokia among others is trying to promote.)

But as important as it was to develop the software, much of Eclectyk’s future will depend on whether RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) takes off. Not widely prevalent, it is slowly gaining wider acceptance at retail shops. Commercial outlets such as 7-Eleven, CVS, Petco, and McDonald’s are beginning to use RFID scanners at their cash registers.

For now, they don’t yet have any funding or revenues. Liu and Modzelewski are trying to build business relationships, as getting companies to use Eclectyk will determine the success or failure of the application. “If I knew how complicated it would be to navigate a business in a space dominated by large network operators and banks, I probably would never have attempted to take this further than a class project,” says Modzelewski.

(Photo credit: Jenny Liu and Kevin Modzelewski)

More:

  • MIT students’ system puts card data on your phone (The Boston Globe)
  • Watch Jenny and Kevin’s Eclectyk presentation at MIT (YouTube)

Read more at paidContent.org.

14 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Korea\Japan has been using cell phone to pay for things for a minute.

Posted by thomas | Report as abusive

they are so young and stuff …
i feel old and stupid …
why didnt i have that idea before …
may be i did … but i cudnt find the angel investor …
:)

We will know that the global economy is on a better path when people will begin to realize what a ridiculous waste of time and resources most of these “businesses” are and what a negative social impact they can have. “Big tech and media ideas”??? Sinkholes that consume young people’s lives: their time, their energy, their money. Like banking and insurance lately, this type of “tech and media” is nothing but a drain on society: they take a lot from society but give nothing of real value in return. When we understand the real social and economic costs of young people spending enormous amounts of time just staring at their computer or cellphone screens, pimping their “my space” page or buying virtual gifts, we will cease regarding such “entrepreneurs” as respectable.

Posted by Andre | Report as abusive

what a horrible list..spend more than 5 minutes doing research next time

Posted by mike | Report as abusive

Andre, I totally agree with what you say!
Thumbs up!

Posted by kelvi | Report as abusive

I really enjoy stories like this. To all commenters: it takes more that just an idea, but some capital (for sure), and more creativity and perseverance than some of the commenters can appreciate. The market place votes with their interest (and $$$’s) or lack thereof (your negative votes are counted too), so in this free economy, we need to learn from these creative approaches to business problems by entrepreneurs young and old. Keep ‘em coming!

Posted by Entreperennial | Report as abusive

negative social impacts? sinkholes? I think large scale industrial pollution is a lot more harmful than simple service business. The internet provides a new realm of communication that is and will continue to revolutionize the world.

Posted by Tyson | Report as abusive

These guys are really inspiring and this is a great article for fellow young entrepreneurs.

I agree with Mark. It’s so easy to be cynical about the products/services offered by these young Entrepreneurs yet I give them all credit for doing something worthwhile with their lives. Perhaps some of you would prefer these youngsters to take up a life of crime instead?

good luck

i totally agree with what andre said these guys haven’t really created anything useful

Can’t state enough how important the entrepreneurial spirit is.

Curious if anyone has caught this book yet? “The Richest Man in Town” by W Randall Jones. I’ve read half of it so far and let me tell you it is well worth it. Would like to hear what everyone else thought of it?

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0446537 837?ie=UTF8&tag=richestmanint-20&linkCod e=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeAS IN=0446537837

Thanks for providing a great resource. your site is one of the best, and i will definitely refer it to my site visitors.
Regards,
Judy

Great, inspirational, motivational, there are so many great people on this blog becoming entrepreneurs.

Great ideas are being passed, which are motivational.

Seems like I have to get to work and come up with some great ideas.