Enfantreprenuers Grown Up
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Enfantrepreneurs: All grown up
The tech boom spawned its fair share of characters, among them the teenage overachievers who ran their own companies and occasionally ran themselves into the ground. Those days are over. But the “enfantrepreneur” pushes on
Courtesy The Globe & Mail
by AndrÐ¹ Mayer
With Scott Colbourne
Friday, September 26, 2003 – The Globe & Mail
That was then
Theyre the sort of kids most parents covet, with their cherubic, beaming faces and accomplishments that fill us with pangs of inadequacy. Business loves its mascots, and none so much as that textbook model of overachievement, the enfantrepreneur.
The cult of the kid capitalist emerged during the internet boom years. If you could write a program, it scarcely mattered if you were of drinking age. It seemed that, every week, the media uncovered yet another ingÐ¹nue with an innovative notion-digital or otherwise-and the will to execute it. There was Vancouver teen Joely Miller, the inventor and marketer of an extreme bicycle; there was Seattles Nicholas Ravagni, who, at 11, created a device that helped people learn to play guitar.
There was also Michael Furdyk of Toronto. In 1999, at age 17, Furdyk and two friends sold their company, Mydesktop.com — a web site intended to better inform users about their computers — to Connecticut-based Internet.com for $1 million (U.S.). After that little item hit the news wires, in Furdyks words, “everything exploded.”
“We were on Canada AM and we got back to our office and had 20 calls, from every media outlet,” he recounts. “We had six or seven camera crews wait in line to do interviews with us.”
For CBCs The National, Furdyk conducted the interview in his rented office on a plastic patio table bought at Wal-Mart. A week-old pizza box sat on it for the duration of the Q&A. Such was the insouciance of the time.
Furdyks success earned him not one but two profiles in Teen People, as well as appearances on CNN and Oprah. He bought an SUV and a townhouse, where he and other teens worked into the wee hours on ventures like BuyBuddy.com, a comparative-shopping site that closed a $4.5-million round of funding in 2001-money it quickly burned through. Now 22, hes sold his townhouse and lives with his parents. But he remains a spokesperson for youthful initiative as co-founder of TakingITGlobal.org, a non-profit web site partially funded by the Royal Bank, Microsoft and others, which aims to create a network for youth leaders around the world.
If Furdyk was the model of the techie teen who made good, then Victoria native Tom Williams was the story nobody wanted to hear. Williams founded his own software company and, at 15, was hired by Apple Computers in Cupertino, Calif., as a project manager in its interactive music division. TV footage of him from the mid-90s shows a floppy-haired teen bouncing on his own couch, in his own pad, with the stereo cranked. But in a 1999 CBC documentary, Williams admitted that he had helped foster his own legend. He confessed to playing up for the camera, giving the media what they wanted: a kid skylarking in the adult world. The truth was, his parents were divorcing and he was on his own, partying unsupervised. He eventually left Apple.
“My mom aged very quickly when I was down in California,” says Williams today, at age 24. He is now a principal of Thomas Research, a Vancouver firm that analyzes publicly traded tech and health-care companies.
“Part of the thing about being a young person is that were attracted to mythology,” he says. “If I had tempered my intensity even by a few notches, and still explored other interests not in any way related to what I was doingif I still managed to ensure that I took care of myself and my body, I probably wouldnt have had to spend six months just catching up with myself.”
The hard-pushing days of the internet surge may be over. So much may have changed, and yet so little really has.
The last teen internet star
Most people never gain a profile beyond their own four walls. Keith Peiris was world-renowned at the age of 12. In February, 2001, he joined Prime Minister ChrÐ¹tien on the Team Canada trade mission to China. During the trip, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew joked that Keith had stolen his airtime on CNN.
That July, Keith returned to Chinese soil to speak at business conferences in Shanghai and Beijing. He was ostensibly representing London, Ont.-based Cyberteks, the web-design company he had founded the previous year. Keith began creating web sites on his PC at age 9. As Cybertekss president, CEO and chief creative director, he landed his first paying customer in 2000, packaging on-line content for Kewl Threads, the clothing line started by Shayne Corson and Darcy Tucker of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That year, the company posted modest revenues of $130,000.
The companys client list now includes the U.S. radio marketing firm Interep; the chemistry department at the University of Western Ontario; and the London Knights, for which Cyberteks built a web site The Hockey News called “the most comprehensive and interactive in the Canadian Hockey League.” One of its features is a penalty-shootout video game.
This spring, the National Hockey League invited Cyberteks to participate in the trade show that accompanies its annual marketing meetings. Keith, now 15, is mad for hockey, and because the convention fell during spring break, he wouldnt have to miss any school. His father, Deepal Peiris, who is also Cybertekss vice-president, rented an SUV, dismantled the corporate office — i.e., the basement of the familys townhouse in London — and loaded the truck with servers, monitors and assorted other gear. Deepal, Keith and two Cyberteks full-timers, Mark Ruddick and Andrew Mazepa, drove non-stop to The Marriott Marquis in Atlanta.
During breaks at the convention, sports-related retailers had a chance to entice reps from each of the NHL teams with their wares: framed posters, customized hockey coins, bobbleheads and so on. The NHL delegates knew that making eye contact would get the vendors unduly excited, so most assumed the same impassive gaze: A look that said, I can see youre selling something, but I really must be getting to the buffet table.
Cyberteks paid the top rate — $4,200 (U.S.) — to be situated within view of the halls front door. Its staffers wore logoed crossing-guard