While college-age entrepreneurs are now as common as Natty Light at a frat party, teenagers are increasingly getting the startup bug. Daniil Kulchenko, 15, who has been programming since age 6, made news in June when he sold his cloud-based computing company to Seattle’s ActiveStat for an undisclosed sum.
Youngsters like Kulchenko have important advantages: comfort with new technology and a new generation of computing tools. Earlier this year, when Microsoft held a game design competition for young users (ages 9 to 17) of its introductory visual programming language, the grand-prize winner was 10 years old.
Other tools native to young people are social media. Tyler Simpson, a 13-year-old resident of Seattle, uses Twitter and YouTube to connect with potential customers of his startups. One of Simpson’s companies is The Intek (theintek.com), a social networking site for technology reviewers. Simpson got his start in online reviewing by writing about smartphone apps.
Some teenagers pursue invention for its own sake and create cost-saving technology in the process. Sponsored by the University of Washington’s BioEngineering Department, 13-year-old Gabriel See of Sammamish invented a way to build modular components from Lego Mindstorm kits. These components together can “help startups and small universities build their own, low-cost [biomedical] liquid handling systems for as low as $750,” explains See, who was featured in a recent issue of Popular Science. The price tag for normal commercial liquid handling systems is $10,000 to $50,000.
While exposure to technology is critical to the success of super-young entrepreneurs, other factors also help these kids transition from code writing to business building. Simple facility is one. “It’s much easier to start a company today and take it to profitability than it was 10 years back,” says Parakram Khandpur, one of the founders of Seattle’s TiE Young Entrepreneurs program, which exposes high school students to business concepts over the course of several months.
For others, like Simpson, it’s the simple joy of developing a product and sending it out into the world for others to use. Even if his companies don’t reach profitability, he keeps starting them because he enjoys doing it, says Simpson’s mother, Jean Hamilton. Role modeling may be another contributor: Both Simpson and Kulchenko have parents who are either businesspeople or engineers.
Sometimes the drive is just there. While Kulchenko talks more generally about his “entrepreneurial spirit,” Simpson says he is inspired by Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. “I really want to make a dent in the universe,” he says.