Still in school, and they're CEOs
LOS ANGELES — Meet Abigael Anthony.
Like most teenagers, she's working this summer to earn a little extra cash. The only difference is she's working in a business she started.
"It just grew from nowhere," says Abigael, CEO of Animalbytes, a Web site that collects, organizes, and makes available free software from all over the Internet.
She actually started the site four years ago - when she was a high-school freshman. Today she earns up to $700 a month, all from advertising. Abigael is hardly alone.
The entrepreneurial wave that hit adults is trickling down to high schoolers and middle schoolers - and even some elementary school students are setting up shop and appointing themselves CEO.
Thanks to computers and the Internet, today's tech-savvy teens are discovering that starting a business is as easy as learning how to ride a bike.
Not surprisingly, the majority of businesses that teenagers are now starting are in the high-tech realm - although many still favor T-shirt, jewelry, cookie, and craft businesses.
And while the story of the kid who parks a computer in his parents' basement and makes as much money as Bill Gates is the exception, plenty of teen businesses do thrive - like Michael Dell of Dell Computers, who started his direct-sale company at 19 and now, in his early 30s, is the youngest billionaire on Forbes magazine's list of the richest people in America.
A generation with 'the tools'
"Kids today have the tools to be more entrepreneurial and they're taking advantage of that," says Kathleen Allen, who runs the undergraduate entrepreneurial program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
Of the 100 students in her program this past year, she says, nearly a third have been doing something entrepreneurial since their teens.
Statistics on this group are hard to come by - in many respects teen entrepreneurs are an underground movement.
But studies show that today's 13- to 19-year-olds are big on being their own boss.
Consider: 70 percent of high-schoolers say they want to own their own businesses, according to a survey by Yankelovich Partners.
Several factors are driving the trend:
*Computers. They have made it easier for anybody to start a business - including teens. And teens today know computers as well as they know the brand names of the best skateboarding gear.
*Instant access to information. Thanks to the Internet, information on how to start and run a business - any business - is available to anyone anywhere who is able to get online.
*Entrepreneurship is considered a legitimate profession and teenagers today have plenty of role models. High schools, and even middle schools, now offer entrepreneurial classes.
No doubt the high-tech craze is the biggest factor pushing teens toward entrepreneurship.
"The Internet offers an extra edge to teens who want to start businesses," says Danielle Valle, author of a new book called "Whiz Teens in Business." "They can do it with very little money and operate their businesses on a flexible time schedule."
Abigael says her Animalbytes Web site, which contains animal-related software, started by accident four years ago.
"It just started because my [then] five-year-old cousin wanted kitty 'wallpaper' for her computer," says the Olney, Md., resident who just graduated from high school.
She searched the Internet and found loads of free software. So she decided to set up a Web page "just for fun."
Within a year, advertisers came calling.
The rest is Internet history.
She now earns up to $700 a month from advertisers - like Netscape and Sara Lee Direct - and gets as many as 1,000 unique visitors to her site each day.
Abigael plans to keep her Web site up and running when she heads to college this fall.
Another teen having a hard-working summer is Tom Whitnah. He, too, is running a business he started - and he estimates he'll earn about $6,000 in the next two months.
"Starting it wasn't too hard," says Tom, CEO of Vision Net Consulting, a Web design company he's been running from his bedroom in San Carlos, Calif., since he was a sophomore.
"I really didn't have to put much money into it," he says. "All that went into it was time."
Of course, social commentators point out that teen ventures in technology have inherent start-up costs - hardware, software - that clearly favor better-off youths with supportive parents.
Among that group, it is certainly the most motivated teens who are the ones pulling ahead.
Consider Aaron Greenspan, who has been running Think Computer, a consulting and Web design company, out of his bedroom in Shaker Heights, Ohio, since he was 11.
His mother gave him the idea after he installed a new computer in his uncle's advertising agency. (He now says that his mother had no idea what she was really suggesting.)
"I realized I could make more money doing this than babysitting," says Aaron (no relation to Alan), with a laugh.
And he has.
Since 1995, he estimates that he's earned $50,000 - some of which he's put into new computer equipment and some into the stock market.
His clients - 82 total - include everyone from mom-and-pop stores to small- and medium-size companies. Besides designing Web pages, he designs databases and tutors clients on how to use the Internet and the latest software.
Aaron runs the whole show from his bedroom. He shares a fax machine with his mother and installed a business telephone line in his room. He incorporated his business last year and now sports shirts that bear his corporate logo.
Somehow the straight-A student who plays the French horn has managed to keep everything in balance. He only works on the weekends. (Things should get a little easier now that he has his driver's license.)
"I don't let this take control of my life," he concedes. "I still need time to relax and talk to my friends."
What do his friends think?
"I try not to talk about it at school too much or it sounds like I'm bragging," he says. "But they do enjoy hearing my tales of crazy clients."
Indeed, the lifelong skills teens learn when running a business are invaluable.
"Not every client will cooperate and understand what you're telling them," Greenspan says. "I've learned you have to be patient with people and understand their point of view."
Adds Animalbytes' Abigael: "I had never [before] done something I had to stick with. You have to come through."
A creative outlet
The reality, experts say, is that few teens are able to pile up tens of thousands in profits.
"If you have a child under 20 who can do $800 a month in sales, that's the exception to the rule," says Steve Mariotti, founder of the New York-based National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship.
Most teen businesses average $40 a week, he says.
Still, for many teens the reason for being their own boss is simple: It's something to do.
"To be stuck in school with all of this knowledge of computers and not to be able to do anything with it," Aaron says, "is cramping."
And many hope they can keep on doing it for the long haul.
"I definitely want to be my own boss now that I have a taste of running things," Abigael contends. "I like being the one in charge."
Resources for young go-getters
* The Young Entrepreneurs Network, 4712 Admiralty Way, Suite 530, Marina Del Rey, CA 90292 310-822-0261 (www.youngandsuccessful.com)
* "The Young Entrepreneur's Edge," Jennifer Kushell, Random House
* "Whiz Teens in Business," Danielle Valle, Truman Publishing (www.whizteens.com)
* The National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, 120 Wall Street, 29th Floor, New York, NY 10006 212-232-3333 (www.nftebiz.org)
* "The Young Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting and Running a Business," Steve Mariotti, Random House, 1996
* "Girl Boss: Entrepreneurial Skills, Stories, and Encouragement for Modern Girls," Stacy Kravetz, Girl Press
Estimated monthly earnings: $700
Biggest revelation: 'I never
[before] had to do something I had to stick with. You have to come through.'
CEO, Vision Net Consulting
Estimated income over next two months: $6,000
Biggest revelation: "Channel whatever passion and love you have for something into a business. If you don't enjoy it, it won't be successful."
President & CEO, Think Computer
Estimated earnings since 1995: $50,000
Biggest revelation: "If you don't keep good records, you're sunk. I'm a perfectionist by nature."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society