Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Teenage Entrepreneurs

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.

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.

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.