In trying times, we tend to look to grizzled veterans for wisdom, perspective and, above all, hope. But few things fortify an entrepreneurial spirit more than preternatural success.
We found six whiz kids--four from the US and two from the U.K.--who managed to build million-dollar enterprises before the age of 20.
Some partnered with friends, siblings and mentors; others did the work on their own. All started their entrepreneurial careers by age 15, and one before he broke double digits. Their common thread: scary financial savvy and demon drive to transform ideas into reality.
Read it, learn it, live it
Ephren Taylor II couldn't afford a library of games for his Super Nintendo. So in 1994, Taylor, then age 12, decided to make his own. Everyday after school, he trekked to the local Borders in Overland Park, Kan., to read How To Make A Video Game In 21 Days, by Andre LaMothe. A few months later, he had coded his first game (the premise was to shoot bad guys who were trying to kidnap the president). He sold about 30 copies to his friends for $10 a pop.
That was just the beginning. At the seasoned age of 13, self-taught Taylor started designing Web sites. He hyped his services, under the banner Flame Software, on Internet chat boards. Tech brokers never questioned his age because he had the proper certifications and a rather deep phone voice.
Taylor initially charged just $200 per site, but he quickly upped the ante when he realized competitors were getting thousands for the same service. The contracts were typically handled by tech brokers, and customers sent Taylor checks in the mail. "When I got a $3,800 check [from an online retailer of vitamins and legal supplements], my parents thought I must be selling drugs," he recalls.
Taylor crossed into seven-figure territory at age 16 by teaming up with friend Michael Stahl to build a job-posting Web site for high school and college kids called GoFerretGo.com. The duo didn't have much to spare on advertising, so they spammed local and regional reporters with a press release announcing their new business. Word got out, and soon the site had attracted 30,000 visitors.
Again Taylor sold himself short, charging a paltry $38 per job posting, until he realized that Sprint, Citigroup and Pizza Hut were willing to pay nearly 100 times that amount to find young talent. The youngsters eventually rented office space and even hired their former history teacher. The company eventually dissolved in the 2001 tech bust but at its height was valued at $3.5 million.
Now a hoary 26, Taylor runs an eponymous holding company that invests in socially responsible businesses, such as low-cost housing in urban Cleveland and Kansas City. He also serves as chief executive of City Capital, which invests in urban revitalisation projects and oil wells. (His touch has been less than golden there: For the trailing 12 months ended last September, the company lost $2.9 million on sales of $305,000.) On top of all that, he delivers as many as 70 speeches a year, at $8,000 a pop. His rather ironic advice to entrepreneurs now: "Patience pays."
Go with the flow
While his fellow kid-preneurs were making a mint on the Internet, Fraser Doherty was doing things the old-fashioned way. In 2002, at the age of 14, Doherty started making jams from his grandmother's recipes in his parents' kitchen in Edinburgh, Scotland. Neighbors and church friends loved them. As word spread, Doherty started receiving orders faster than he could produce them at home, so he rented time at a 200-person food-processing factory several days a month.
By age 16, Doherty left school (with his parents' blessing) to work on his jams full time. In early 2007, Waitrose, a high-end supermarket in the U.K., approached Doherty, hoping to sell his SuperJam products in their stores. Within months, there were SuperJam jars on the shelves of 184 Waitrose stores, hoisting Doherty and his business to new heights.
Doherty borrowed pound 5,000 (about $9,000) from a bank to cover general expenses and more factory time to produce three flavors: Blueberry & Blackcurrant, Rhubarb & Ginger and Cranberry & Raspberry. (He has since added an Orange & Passion Fruit flavour, too.) Tesco followed, adding Doherty's products to 300 stores across the UK.
Last year, SuperJam hit $1.2 million in sales, a 60 per cent jump from 2007. Doherty's roster of retailers now includes Asda Wal-Mart in the UK, Morrisons and Tesco in Ireland. Doherty also launched a charitable project 2008 called the SuperJam Tea Parties. Since the program's inception, SuperJam has hosted over 100 tea parties--with live music, dancing and drinks--in Scotland, England and Wales for elderly people who live alone or in nursing homes.
This year, Doherty says SuperJam will hit the shelves of Sainsbury, one of the largest food retailers in the U.K. Based on a reasonable valuation multiple of one times revenue--jelly-maker J.M. Smucker trades between 1.0 and 1.4 times sales--Doherty's 100% stake (now debt-free) is worth in the neighborhood of $1 million to $2 million.
Not bad for a 20-year-old. Doherty's recommendation to other young entrepreneurs: "Have an attitude of adventure, and enjoy the journey."
Cameron Johnson truly took that perspective to heart, parlaying one hit into the next. Back in 1994, when he was just 9, Johnson launched his first business out of his home in Virginia, making invitations for his parents' holiday party. By the seasoned age of 11, Johnson had saved up several thousand dollars selling greeting cards. He called his company Cheers and Tears.
But the little guy didn't stop there. At age 12, Johnson offered his younger sister $100 for her collection of 30 Ty Beanie Babies, all the rage at that time. The young entrepreneur quickly earned 10 times that amount by selling the dolls on eBay. Smelling potential, he contacted Ty and began purchasing the dolls at wholesale with the aim of selling them on eBay and on his Cheers and Tears Web site.
In less than a year, Johnson banked $50,000--seed money for his next venture, My EZ Mail, a service that forwarded e-mails to a particular account without revealing the recipient's personal information. He hired a programmer to flesh out his idea, and within two years, My EZ Mail was generating up to $3,000 per month in advertising revenue.
Johnson still wasn't done. In 1997, he joined forces with two other teen entrepreneurs, Aaron Greenspan and Tom Kho, to create an online advertising company called Surfingprizes.com, which provided scrolling advertisements across the top of users' Web browsers. Those who downloaded the software received 20 cents per hour (a tiny fraction of the value to the advertiser) for the inconvenience of having ads splay across their computer screens.
The boys employed a classic pyramid strategy to spread the service. Users who managed to refer Surfingprizes.com to a new customer would nab 10 per cent of that new person's hourly revenue.
But Johnson and company didn't just sell software--they wanted a piece of that juicy ad revenue too. Their solution: partnering with companies such as DoubleClick, L90 and Advertising.com that could sell the ads for them. Under the agreements, the middlemen would collect 30 per cent of any ad revenue sold, while the three boys split the remaining 70 per cent, out of which they paid those referral fees.
"I was 15 years old and receiving checks between $300,000 and $400,000 per month," says Johnson. At 19, he sold the company name and software (but not the customer database) to an undisclosed buyer. Says Johnson, "Before my high school graduation, my combined assets were worth more than $1 million."
Now just 24, Johnson spends his time lecturing on entrepreneurship and making TV appearances as a finalist on ABC's Oprah's Big Give and as the host of BBC's Beat The Boss. He'll also be serving as a business expert on a new Animal Planet series beginning in May. "Put yourself out there," he advises. "Don't be afraid of rejection. Don't be afraid to ask anything."
Stick to a vision
At 15, Catherine Cook and her brother Dave, 17, were flipping through their high school yearbook and came up with the idea to develop a free interactive version online. In 2005, the two convinced their older brother Geoff, a budding Web entrepreneur himself, to invest $250,000 and his time to help them launch MyYearbook.com, a social-networking site based in Skillman, N.J.
Soon after, the Cooks merged with Zenhex.com, an ad-supported site where users post a variety of homemade quizzes, more than doubling the number of eyeballs taking in their site. But when they tried to expand even further, they hit some snags. Potential investors wanted to move the company's headquarters to New York (the Cooks wanted to stay put). They also wanted to have ads appear on users' personal profile pages (the Cooks didn't).
Good thing the Cooks stuck to their vision. By 2006, MyYearbook had raised $4.1 million from the likes of US Venture Partners and First Round Capital. Since then, the site has attracted such advertisers as Neutrogena, Disney and ABC; has grown to 3 million members worldwide; and rakes in annual sales in the "seven figures," says Catherine.
How to compete in an industry dominated by MySpace and Facebook? Mine a niche. "(Our site is) specifically for high school students, and we really listen to the suggestions of our members," says Catherine.
While the Cooks decline to discuss the value of their stake in the business, one MyYearbook investor (who agreed to speak only if unidentified) claims the Cooks' chunk is worth "well over $1 million."
Seven figures is real money in this or any economy. Despite their heady success, all of these young world-beaters seem to remain--refreshingly--kids at heart. "I'm not driving around in fancy cars," says Doherty. "I'm in it totally for the adventure."
That healthy perspective comes in handy in a recession.