Straight to the Top
They're rich. They're successful. They own their own businesses. And they're all under 25 years old. These entrepreneurs are proving that you don't need a lifetime's worth of experience to start your own business. They use their youthful energy, connections and creativity to get them where they need to go. And for these youngsters, the best is yet to come.
Who: Catherine and Dave Cook
What: MyYearbook.com, a social networking site
Where: New Hope, Pennsylvania
When: Started in 2005
Move over, MySpace and Facebook--these young entrepreneurs have found a new way to capitalize on the social networking rage. Amazingly, Catherine Cook, 17, and her 18-year-old brother, Dave, were able to create MyYearbook.com while they were still in high school.
The 2 million-member, seven-figure-earning site, with 20 employees and ad revenue from corporations such as Disney and Procter & Gamble, got its start from an observation about yearbooks. Catherine says she and Dave were sitting around, flipping through their school yearbook and commenting on its poor quality. Their idea to turn a yearbook into a social website quickly became a reality when their oldest brother, Geoff, decided to come onboard as an investor. A Harvard graduate and a successful internet entrepreneur in his own right, Geoff gave Catherine and Dave $250,000 to start the company in 2005. With that, Catherine and Dave were on their way, working with outsourced developers in India to design a networking site that would meld the success of MySpace with the premise of a yearbook.
Pulling constant all-nighters and juggling schoolwork along with the business was "really daunting," says Catherine. Hoping to attract as many students as possible, the pair timed the launch to coincide with their return to school after spring break in April 2005. They turned heads by wearing promotional T-shirts to school, resulting in 200 people signing up in the first week. Word spread, and less than a year after opening up to all schools, the site had a million members. "At the start, [the success] was a joke," Catherine says. "We made fake press articles about us taking over the world and getting a million members. But then we actually got a million members, and we knew it was going to be big."
Catherine says the site owes its rapid growth to several factors: her appearance in CosmoGirl magazine, her and Dave's ability to gather feedback directly from the students at their school, and giveaways of free T-shirts and sandals to members who recommended at least five people to the site. "With high schoolers, something free is always good," Catherine says, adding that the site's optimal search and profile customization features have also fueled its success.
Catherine says she and Dave could not have done it without the help of Geoff, who runs the day-to-day operations of the company while she and Dave focus on schoolwork. "We're really close siblings," says Catherine. "We have the same sense of humor, and it [is] easy to work with Geoff."
So what's next for two kids who've already started their own company? College, of course. While she hasn't chosen a school yet, Catherine plans to attend a university starting this fall, and Dave is currently enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Who: Bryan Sims
What: Brass Media, publisher of Brass, a quarterly lifestyle magazine about money
Where: Corvallis, Oregon
When: Started in 2003
Bryan Sims considers himself a pretty lucky guy--not because he's young and successful (which he is), but because he's doing what he always wanted to do. This 23-year-old is the CEO and founder of Brass Media, which produces Brass magazine, a quarterly publication with more than 350,000 readers. Describing it as a lifestyle money magazine written by young adults for young adults, Sims says the subject of money has always fascinated him. "Back in high school, I started an investment club," he says. "Whether they were athletes or chess champions, the one thing everybody was interested in was money."
Recognizing this unifying factor, Sims started writing his business plan for Brass while he was still a high school senior. As a freshman in college, he began winning business plan competitions across the country, beating seniors and MBA students. In 2002, he decided to drop out of college and move back in with his parents in Corvallis, Oregon, to pursue Brass full time. Working with his father, he began searching for private investors who could help him with his startup costs, which were in the low six-figure range. His hard work paid off, and Brass magazine released its first issue in early 2004.
One unique aspect to Brass' success is its subscription plan. Unlike traditional publications, it isn't built on individual subscriptions or newsstand sales. Sims took his model and sold subscriptions in volumes to financial institutions such as credit unions, which in turn send the magazine to their members. This helped spur the magazine's growth and transform Brass from a two-man, father-son operation into a 25-person company. Sims says another secret to his success was having his father by his side as the company's COO.
With sales in the millions, Sims says he's happy with how far he's come. If given the chance to do it over again, he wouldn't change a thing, including dropping out of college. "For a lot of people, college is a time when they figure out what they want to do," he says. "I was fortunate enough to know early on that this is what I want to do."
Who: Adam Blake
What: Blake Venture Corp., a real estate investment and development company
Where: Fort Worth, Texas
When: Started in 2004
When Adam Blake's father was laid off, everything changed. Blake was only in high school at the time and had never really thought about being an entrepreneur. "But I saw what [the layoff] did to my family. It screwed up everything," he says. "I said to myself, 'I will never get a corporate job like that.' That's what's driven me."
Now Blake, 21, is the founder and owner of Blake Venture Corp. in Fort Worth, Texas, a real estate investment and development company with $3 million in assets and more than $1 million in 2006 sales. He started the company during his freshman year at Texas Christian University, when he got his real estate license. Thanks to $100,000 in startup money he received from a fraternity brother, Blake was able to buy rental properties near campus--and being so close to the school and making connections through his fraternity meant he had his pick of renters.
Blake's success with rentals led him to start flipping houses. By 2005, he was managing properties for different investors. "If I saw a 'For Rent' sign, I would call the people up and basically [offer] my services," he says.
By early 2006, Blake had started his own brokerage, providing services such as leasing assistance and property management. "It was pretty difficult for a while because I tried to do everything by myself," he says. "That was the hardest thing for me to learn-- that I couldn't do everything."
Blake says he dealt with one of the biggest roadblocks early on: getting financing. "Real estate is capital-intensive, and people think you need all sorts of experience to do it," he says. "I had to go to at least 10 different banks before I finally found somebody willing to give me a shot."
While it may sound unbelievable, Blake is not only the owner of a successful business, but he's also a full-time student who's triple-majoring in entrepreneurial management, finance and accounting. He says, "The hardest part is balancing everything."
Blake says that while he's preparing to graduate this May, the opportunities made available to him in college make it hard for him to leave. "The teachers who run the entrepreneurship program don't come from academia," he says. "They know all sorts of entrepreneurs. They like hearing about young people starting their own companies, and they want to give back and provide mentorship."
Now Blake is hoping to change his business's focus from residential properties to commercial ones. "I like it a lot more. It's easier to deal with business owners than it is to rent to tenants," he says. He's also hoping to grow 2007 sales to $2 million, with $10 million in assets.
Who: William Fikhman
What: iSoldIt franchise owner
Where: Agoura Hills, California
When: Started in 2004
William Fikhman has always been something of an entrepreneur. At the age of 10, he took home stress balls that he made as a school project and began selling them to friends and family. At 12, he started walking dogs to earn extra money. At 16, he was selling artwork in a gallery. And by 19, he was the owner of an iSoldIt eBay drop-off store franchise in Agoura Hills, California.
Now 22, Fikhman has two iSoldIt locations to his name. With just over $1 million in combined sales for both stores in 2006 and projections of
$1.5 million for 2007, you could say that not only is Fikhman an entrepreneur, he's a pretty good one at that. Not surprising for someone who grew up reading business books and admiring entrepreneurial superstars like Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki.
So how did a kid who couldn't even buy a bottle of beer purchase a franchise with startup costs of about $150,000? In Fikhman's case, he went to his two older brothers. They agreed to put up some of the money and act as silent investors with Fikhman as the operating partner, opening the Agoura Hills location in 2004 and a store in nearby Tarzana six months later. Fikhman says they got the idea to open an eBay drop-off store from an article they read in Entrepreneur magazine. "It was interesting and sounded revolutionary," he says. "It was a service that we ourselves would want to use."
For Fikhman, being so young was both an advantage and a disadvantage. "The advantages are the energy, the excitement [and] the glamour of owning your own business," he says. But he ran into problems when it came to employees. "It's been challenging at times to have employees who are older [than me]. It feels a little uncomfortable [and] unreal." He had to learn management skills as he went, figuring out how to hire, train and motivate employees for his stores.
Learning from mistakes is a part of startup, says Fikhman, who wasn't afraid to fail: "The worst thing that can happen is you try something, you mess up and you never do it again."
It's not just learning from his mistakes that has helped his stores succeed, though. Fikhman also actively recruits business from his local community. He found a junk removal company that began bringing in high-end items to sell. "These are big-ticket items that people consider junk but are really worth a lot of money," he says.
Next up for Fikhman is finishing his degree in business and accounting at California State University, Northridge, and working even harder to open several more stores in the future.
Who: Adam and Matt Farrell
What: Silicon Solar, a solar product manufacturing company
Where: Bainbridge, New York
When: Started in 1999
Adam Farrell started his $5 million solar product manufacturing company when he was just 15 years old, with $400. It began when Adam built a solar-powered model home as a ninth-grade science project. "It was difficult to buy parts for making the solar panels and other solar products in general," Adam says. "I said, 'Well, there's an unfulfilled market here, and maybe I can start selling solar cells.'"
The ambitious youngster, hailing from a family with a history of entrepreneurship, put together a website and began selling basic products online, including solar cells, educational kits and other items that he assembled by hand. Sales took off, and by 2000, Adam's older brother, Matt, joined the company as co-owner and vice president. Soon Adam, now 22, and Matt, now 24, moved their operations from their basement to their garage, and then to a small, two-story warehouse they built themselves on their parents' property.
By the end of high school, the business had grown so large that they were ordering solar materials directly from big-name suppliers such as GE and Siemens. The brothers decided to change their product offerings, switching from low-end educational kits to higher-end consumer products. "Once we realized the opportunity, we completely restructured our business and focused on finding the products that would fit our financial [aspirations]," Adam says.
And since they could not keep up with demand, they started outsourcing their products to overseas manufacturers, which Adam says was a big learning curve. "We had a lot of problems with poor-quality products or people not shipping the right product. I'd say we lost over $100,000. That's a lot of money for a startup company that didn't have any financing from the beginning."
When he went away to college at Cornell, Adam took the business with him, operating out of his small dorm room. The business kept growing, so in 2004, Adam bought an office building in Bainbridge, New York. Taking a semester off from school, he and Matt renovated the entire building, installing solar-powered heating and electrical systems. A year later, they expanded again, putting up a warehouse next to their office. "We did it all ourselves," says Adam. Not only did they save money doing the work themselves, but they were also able to use the knowledge they gained renovating their office to develop new products for their company.
In 2006, the company opened a showroom in San Diego, and by the beginning of 2007, Silicon Solar was the owner of its own overseas factory in China.
The brothers are happy with how far the company has come and project 2007 sales of $11 million. But Adam says young entrepreneurs should exercise caution. "Everything you dive into is a new experience," he says. "The phrase 'education is expensive' is very true."