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Teenage startups---they don't even have Furlough Fridays !!!

Whenever I worry about innovation in America or when I hear silicon Valley is dead....


Teenage Entrepreneurs

by Geoffrey A. Flower
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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Cupertino High School senior Diane Keng pitches MyWeboo.com, her third start-up, at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

Here is one indicator of the allure of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial culture: Diane Keng just launched her third start-up -- and she is still in high school.

In March, the 18-year-old launched Internet company MyWeboo.com to help teens manage their digital lives and social-network identities in one place. She is now pitching the company to venture capitalists, and earlier this week presented at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

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Yet each morning, Ms. Keng also heads to Cupertino's Monta Vista High School for a schedule of classes that includes Advanced Placement economics and government. In the afternoons, the high-school senior squeezes in varsity badminton practice.

"My age, my gender and my lack of experience don't deter me from going after what I want for the company," says Ms. Keng, who runs marketing for MyWeboo.com from home and co-founded the venture with her 25-year-old brother, Steven.

Ms. Keng has several advantages in pursuing her entrepreneurial ambitions, including her father, a venture capitalist who splits his time between Beijing and Cupertino and gave her $100,000 in seed money.

Another big advantage is that Ms. Keng is here in Silicon Valley and can tap the region's unique ecosystem of tech resources and experience -- not to mention supportive parents and teachers. Her high school alone is home to about 10 entrepreneurs, including a student who buys and flips websites that he thinks have potential.

The Valley is filled with teen-entrepreneur legends: Gurbaksh Chahal started online ad company Click Agents in San Jose when he was 16, and sold it for $40 million two years later. He then founded ad network BlueLithium, which he sold for $300 million when he was 25.

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Kristopher Tate, who five years ago finished high school early and drove his parents' car from San Diego to Cupertino at the age of 16 to launch photo-sharing site Zooomr, says Silicon Valley is a great place for budding entrepreneurs. "Everybody is there, and when you want to step up or feel like your idea is worth a grain of salt, there are people who will take it seriously." Today, Mr. Tate is 22 and runs a portfolio of Internet companies from Tokyo, but isn't involved in Zooomr's day-to-day operation.

Despite the encouraging business environment, teen entrepreneurs have their own set of work-life balance issues.

"For the first two years that it took me from starting Click Agents to selling it, I basically sacrificed my youth," says Mr. Chahal, who dropped out of high school to focus on his start-ups. "I slept and worked in the office."

In addition, many start-ups don't succeed, which can bring some particularly harsh lessons for young entrepreneurs. They are, as a set, more inclined to overvalue their own ideas, according to YouNoodle Inc., which tracks start-ups. In a recent survey, YouNoodle found that founders under the age of 25 expected their companies would be worth about 27% more after three years than other founders (who are, on average, 35 years old).

Ms. Keng co-founded the venture with her 25-year-old brother, Steven.

Other young entrepreneurs end up putting school first. Virtual goods marketplace PlaySpan Inc. was founded in 2006 in the garage of San Jose sixth-grader Arjun Mehta, who wanted a better way to sell items he had won in online games. He created a mock-up of his ideal website, then passed the baton to his dad, who now runs the company while Arjun attends eighth grade.

"In my free time, I test out the commerce side of the site," says Arjun. He says he doesn't demand a salary, but has kept the title of co-founder.

Ms. Keng launched her first venture at age 15, when she started a T-shirt screen-printing business and later began a teen marketing-consulting firm. She says she ended up dropping the T-shirt company because it wasn't making enough money, and the second business because she felt she was spreading herself too thin amid activities, and needed to devote time to prepare for the ACT.

With MyWeboo.com, it helps that Ms. Keng's school encourages entrepreneurial activity and makes allowances for an enterprise's demands. Fiercely competitive Monta Vista offers business classes that include marketing and finance, and brings groups like the Silicon Valley Private Equity Roundtable to workshops on how to write a business plan. Teachers allow Ms. Keng to miss class and make up tests as needed.

"If they're going to fail, they might as well fail when they are young," says Carl Schmidt, Ms. Keng's business teacher at Monta Vista. He teaches students that 90% to 95% of all new products fail, so they must focus on doing their research and solving a real consumer need.

Still, balancing so much requires focus. Ms. Keng, who says she gets As and Bs and will attend Santa Clara University beginning in the fall with a full scholarship, turns off her cellphone and email while at school or doing homework. "If it's a business call, that's what voicemail is for. I will call you back," she says.

And her father, Brian Keng, says he insists academics remain his daughter's top priority. Ms. Keng's parents also ask that she communicate with them about all her business activities.

"She is just in high school," says Mr. Keng, "and sometimes it is very difficult for her to make a judgment."

Even with those boundaries, developing a business is a far cry from traditional high-school diversions like glee club or yearbook. Those activities are still around, but "there needs to be a place for those kids who are entrepreneurs and are a little bit eccentric and are willing to push the envelope," says Mr. Schmidt.

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Fiercely competitive Monta Vista offers business classes that include marketing and finance, and brings groups like the Silicon Valley Private Equity Roundtable to workshops on how to write a business plan.

...and our students are locked out of school on Fridays. Sigh...
Yup.....well our kids can find jobs working for those kids...if they decide not to work for the government
Barry Weinman: Whenever I worry about innovation in America or when I hear silicon Valley is dead.

Its very fashionable to declare Silicon Valley dead. I generally respond with - Totally, and like, Facebook and iPhone are sooo 2009. :-)

Barry Weinman: Yup.....well our kids can find jobs working for those kids...if they decide not to work for the government

Sad, but true if we don't make radical changes.
You know what else helps? When your dad is a VC:

"Ms. Keng has several advantages in pursuing her entrepreneurial ambitions, including her father, a venture capitalist who splits his time between Beijing and Cupertino and gave her $100,000 in seed money."

Is this an example of innovation or nepotism???
I never felt so inadequate.
I think its important to note that you don't have to be from a wealthy neighborhood in the valley to have a decent public education. I grew up in Iowa. My public high school offered seven foreign languages including Russian, Japanese and Latin. The year I graduated, Iowa's public high schools' standardized test scores were the second highest in the country despite the fact they spent thousands less per student than Hawaii. Regular families in places like Iowa and Michigan don't worry about saving $15K/year/child. The public education system puts their children toe to toe with private schools elsewhere.

Hawai'i ranks 49th in standardized test scores for high school students and 50th in terms of school days per year despite the fact we rank 13th for spending per student. Something is horribly, horribly wrong.
Brian, I think it's even worse than simply wealthy kids who go to great schools and get great jobs. Look at their startup - MyWeboo.

It's a team of 3 people - the brother and sister handle, respectively, UI and marketing. And in unbelievably stereotypical style, a semi-anonymous Indian person does the software development (because coding is a commodity and the 'real' skills are in marketing/UI). Is there a better anti-pattern to technology development than this? Is this what we should aim to be like?

Here's a classic news article on this company. Money quote, "After several rounds of questioning and his satisfaction, [the dad] put in $100,000. ... They had to work hard to satisfy their dad, so his money gets proper return"

This is the Silicon Valley equivalent of hiring a rapper to perform at your kid's Sweet 16. Good for them but I don't think it's anything Hawaii should emulate or praise.
John said:
Good for them but I don't think it's anything Hawaii should emulate or praise.

I think what can be praised and emulated is the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley. I think we can emulate a high school curriculum that encourages entrepreneurial activity, offers business classes that include marketing and finance, and connects students with business leaders.

Daniel Leuck said:
Hawai'i ranks 49th in standardized test scores for high school students and 50th in terms of school days per year despite the fact we rank 13th for spending per student. Something is horribly, horribly wrong.

Like many of us TecHuians, it's been a while since I was in public high or even elementary school. Last night, while having a conversation at the Moiliili Matters Social, another attendee and I discussed what we recalled our education to be like. I never thought about it much before last night, but the person I conversed with helped me to remember that much of what I learned in school was "how to be a worker." Now, generally, there is nothing wrong with that, but I think there is something wrong with that message not being tempered with how to be a CEO, leader, or entrepreneur.

My public school experience is in sharp contrast to that of my private school friends, especially those who went to Punahou. At Punahou, my friends claim that the message they frequently got was that they "can do anything, be anything and accomplish anything." Those messages are complemented with other activities, curricula, etc., and I can see a difference between that experience and those of others including myself.

I realize that not everyone can be a CEO, leader or entrepreneur and that we need our schools to provide an education for a good work-force. But if there is no balance, indeed something is horribly, horribly wrong.

Sure, Diane Keng's father is a VC. Sure, we can't ignore the school she attends and the community she lives in, but I'm not ready yet to negate or invalidate Diane Keng's own innate drive, ambition, and perseverance which led her to launch two other short-lived start-ups (t-shirt screen printing and teen-marketing) before seeking funding from her father for her third start-up. Nor am I ready yet to ignore the surrounding culture that has nurtured her innate drive.

Do we have a culture and public school "system" here that inspires and encourages this?
Given that you acknowledge the impact of the region's culture and school system, why do you stress that this person has an 'innate' drive and ambition?

Having lived in both places, a lot of the individual success is accidental. Many Silicon Valley execs would be club promoters or real estate agents in Honolulu (and vice versa). Being born in Mountain View rather than Moiliili tends to be more important than one's innate abilities.

That being said, I definitely acknowledge the stronger environment for entrepreneurship in the Valley. However, the person in the article is an example of decay or excess in the valley. Please, let's encourage people in Hawaii to become real technologists - not marketing people getting hand-outs from dad.
Derek - Those are very interesting insights with regard to how students in Hawaii are steered. I agree that there is nothing wrong with being a worker. There is honor in doing any job that is beneficial to society well, but I don't think high schools should be steering kids to be anything other than strong on the fundamentals. Their ambition, ability and the market will dictate the path they follow after high school. What I'm concerned about is what even an ambitious student can do with only 163 days of instruction. The very ambitious will rise regardless of circumstance (we all know successful people who came out of Hawaii's public schools), but the middle will suffer.

John: Given that you acknowledge the impact of the region's culture and school system, why do you stress that this person has an 'innate' drive and ambition?
I agree with most of your comments (as I usually do), but I'm with Derek on this one. There are many more wealthy kids that take dad's money and waste it on fancy cars and parties than there are those who take $100,000 and turn it into a viable company or, in the case of Gurbaksh Chahal, a $40M company. Even with access to capital, the overwhelming majority of tech companies fail.

John: Please, let's encourage people in Hawaii to become real technologists - not marketing people.
I agree with you, and I think in the software space your model will become favored over the VC model for many types of businesses. That being said, every technologist can't do what you are doing. We've had enough conversations for me to know you are adept at tech and marketing.
In the Valley, being a founder is a status symbol, just like having a fancy car is in Hawaii. From what I see, it's two rich kids hiring a programmer to do the work for them while the VC kids get covered on tech blogs and conferences. Well worth $100k for that social circle.

Dan, do you think this is likely to be a 'viable company'? Do you really think that this application needs $100k in funding at such an early stage? I have a lot of respect for the Valley but it's for their many real developers, not people playing 'entrepreneur'.
WOW!!! I am blown away by John's criticism of a high school that encourages innovation and entrepreneurial behavior and a young student who tries to be entrepreneurial. I love Hawaii but the K-12system is focused on benefiting the bureaucrats at DOE and union leaders---students come last. Ask any parent....

Silicon Valley has very few private schools---most high achievers go to public schools. The private sector is the engine of wealth creation---it should be revered---especially by those in the public sector which are wealth consumers and wealth destroyers.

If John is happy with Hawaii K-1, 2 well it is what is...good luck.

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