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Jun 3, 2009

Meet Future Bills Gates

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.

Catherine 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” programme. 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 a business around it like they have.”

Ashton 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 website, 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.”

Ashley Qualls
Age: 18
Company: Whateverlife.com

What began with a 14-year-old noodling around with HTML code to create brightly coloured 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 customised 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.

Kayvon 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.

Jenny Liu and Kevin Modzelewski
Age: 20

Company: Eclectyk

At MIT, Professor 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.

Courtesy: Reuters
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