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Too young to start a business? Think again


This article was also published in Finweek on 19-Sep-13

Meet some of the world’s youngest entrepreneurs.

Back in the days before the Internet, when I was a high school teenager, child entrepreneurship meant running a lemonade stand on your street corner, or buying sweets in bulk from Makro and selling them to your schoolmates at a profit. These were diversions that we dabbled in on a small scale to earn extra cash. They couldn’t provide steady incomes, let alone enable our families to quit their day-jobs. The internet and social media has changed all that. Today it is possible for individuals to achieve things that once only huge corporations could do. Ordinary people like you and me can have an impact on a massive global scale, no matter how young or old we are. Age is now irrelevant. Even teenagers can invent world-changing products and services or become multimillionaire entrepreneurs. What’s key is the ability to conceive, create and implement an effective solution that solves a real problem.

In this exciting era where entrepreneurship isn’t constrained by age, here are some of the world’s youngest entrepreneurs and their remarkable businesses.

Nick D’Alosio and Summly
This London-based, Australian teenager has earned the title of the youngest person to successfully get a round of venture capital in technology. In 2011 he raised $1 million for his news summary app, Summly. And he was only 15 when he got his first piece of that funding.

So what pain was he solving and why did investors come knocking? In D’Alosio’s words: “I was using Twitter’s mobile app. The problem was, I noticed that I wasn’t clicking through to the full content – it took far too long to download and it just wasn’t optimized for mobile. So I thought, why not produce summaries?”

D’Alosio developed and launched his news-summarizing app (then called Trimit) in the Apple’s UK App store. How does its algorithm work? By choosing words from a given article to build a concise summary that fits perfectly onto the screen of your iPhone. So no more scrolling to read, or waiting ages for the article to load. After the summary, if you’d like to read the whole article, access to it is just one swipe away.

Li Ka Shing’s Horizons Ventures (the same Horizons Ventures that invested in both Facebook and Spotify) took notice. They gave D’Alosio the initial funding. He subsequently got more investment from big names like Ashton Kutcher, Mark Pincus, Yoko Ono and others. However his biggest achievement to-date has been the sale of Summly to Yahoo for a reported $30mil in 2013. This made D’Álosio one of the youngest self-made millionaires ever!

The teenager has been developing applications since he was 12 years old. Even though he now must grapple with entrepreneurial challenges like investors and business plans and he’s been labelled a “digital wunderkind”, D’Alosio hasn’t got carried away by the entrepreneurship whirlwind. Firmly grounded, his education is important to him, and he still wants to complete high school and go to university.

Marc Zuckerberg and Facebook
When Zuckerberg was only 20, angel investor Peter Thiel invested $500,000 in Facebook in 2004, making Thiel Facebook’s first significant outside investor. And the rest is history.

Brian Wong and Kiip
Before D’Alosio came on the scene, in 2010, at only 19 years of age, Brian Wong was hailed as one of the youngest entrepreneurs worldwide to raise VC funding. He co-founded Kiip, a mobile advertising start-up that lets brands and companies give real-world rewards to users for their in-game achievements. Wong skipped four grades in school, finished college at just 18 and a year later True Ventures invested $200,000 in Kiip.me. Fast-forward to mid-2012, by which time Kiip had raised over $15 million of venture capital from companies such as Relay Ventures, Hummer Winblad, True Ventures, Verizon Ventures, CrossLink Capital, and others. It’s not hard to see why Wong is often compared to Marc Zuckerberg.

Catherine Cook and MyYearbook.com
In 2005 Catherine Cook and her brother David were reading their school yearbook when they came up with an innovative idea for meeting new teens: a social media website built around an online yearbook. Catherine was only 15 at the time, and David 16. What is a yearbook, you’re probably asking? It is a yearly publication that highlights and celebrates the events that took place in a school in the last year. It often has photos of students from a certain class, with signed messages. At the time, David and Catherine had just begun school at Montgomery High, in New Jersey, USA. Faced with the challenge of making new friends in a new school, the siblings realised the traditional yearbook was a terrible tool for meeting new teens, but an online version would be the perfect platform for this. Their website MyYearbook.com went live in 2005. Touted as the Anti-Facebook, it allows users to meet new people, rather than simply connecting with old friends and family like Facebook. The site attracted large advertisers like Disney and ABC. By 2011, the site was generating 1 billion page views on mobile and 1.2 billion monthly page views on the web. It also had amassed over 32.7 million members worldwide and annual revenue of “seven figures.” In 2011, the Cooks sold myYearbook to Quepasa, a Latin-American social network, for $100 million. Thanks to the sale, the Cook siblings became part of the elite club of millennial multimillionaires. Not bad for a 21st birthday present for Catherine!

Fraser Doherty and SuperJam
At the tender age of 14, Fraser Doherty of Scotland began making 100% fruit jams from his gran’s recipes. As word spread, more and more orders started coming in, and he didn’t have enough time outside of school to fill them. Doherty dropped out of school and rented a 200-person factory for a few days per month. Then in 2007, a high-end U.K. supermarket approached Doherty – thanks to that deal, his jams were sold in 184 stores. By 2007, his company had amassed $750,000 in sales. Since then, Doherty’s company has grown throughout Europe. SuperJam now supplies more than 2,000 supermarkets worldwide, selling millions of jars on its journey to global success.

Caine Monroy and Caine’s Arcade
At only nine years old, Caine Monroy was already an entrepreneur. In Los Angeles, Monroy spent his summer holidays building an intricate DIY cardboard arcade inside his father’s used auto parts store. Despite doggedly asking every passerby to play, the entire summer passed by without Monroy getting a single customer. That all changed when a filmmaker by the name of Nirvan Mullick came into the store to buy a door handle for his car. Mullick’s film “Caine’s Arcade” was a powerful 11-minute video about Monroy and his makeshift cardboard arcade. It went viral on YouTube and led to the creation of the Imagination Foundation, a global movement aimed at nurturing imagination and creativity in children worldwide. Although it isn’t clear how much money Monroy’s arcade business made, he has already raised over $235,000 in donations alone to help children just like him go to college. The secret of Monroy’s success? A moving story that went viral thanks to the remarkable sharing power of the Internet.

Hart Main and ManCans
Hart Main was a 14-year old teenager just like any other. While teasing his sister about the feminine-smelling candles she was selling for a school fundraiser, he came up with an innovative idea for manly scented candles. She didn’t think he would bring the concept to life himself. But he did, and the idea became a national success story in the US. Main put in an initial investment of $100, his parents injected $200, and they all clubbed in to develop the candles as a family. The scents they created included: Campfire, Bacon, Sawdust, Fresh Cut Grass, Grandpa’s Pipe and more. Today, ManCans candles are in over 60 stores across the US, with roughly 9,000 units sold.
If these inspirational young entrepreneurs are anything to go by, it does not matter how young or old you are. It does not matter how big or small your idea is. If you believe in yourself, anyone of any age and any background can become a successful entrepreneur. So when it comes to pursuing your dreams of being an entrepreneur, no more excuses. As Nike says: “Just do it”.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

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