Young, Rich, and Calling Their Own Shots
BY Angus Loten
Entrepreneurs keep getting younger and younger, while their companies only get bigger. From solar energy to lobster trapping, the members of our annual 30 Under 30 list are shaking up a variety of industries -- and doing it on their own terms. Meet the next big stars of the business world.
While there's no magic formula for success in business, it never hurts to be quick on your feet, able to brush aside fears, and come armed with a fresh perspective. It's no wonder we're seeing more and more young entrepreneurs these days.
Take Aaron Hall, who was just 21 years old when he took over a struggling solar power firm from a family friend. Now 28, Hall sits at the helm of a rising star in the energy industry, poised to hit $60 million in revenue.
Then there's Tina Wells, who was a teenager herself when she started writing product reviews for young people. At 28, she now heads Buzz Marketing Group, which develops marketing research and strategy for SonyBMG, among other corporate giants.
And don't forget Leanna Archer, who was barely 10 years old when she launched a line of all-natural hair-care products. This year, she's set to bring in $150,000. In October, she turns 13.
That kind of early-life success has landed all three a spot on this year's 30 Under 30, Inc.com's annual ranking of the nation's top young entrepreneurs. As always, this year's group reflects the broad interests and skills of a tech-savvy generation connected to the world and its markets like no other in history. They range from a basement start-up offering cheap WiFi access in underserved communities from San Francisco to India, to a multimillion-dollar federal contractor providing IT services for the Pentagon.
In between, we have a pair of lobstermen selling lobster trap timeshares, and a group of college-age guys who will haul anything out of your home for a price.
Whatever your idea, starting a business at any age has its challenges. For young entrepreneurs like these, that can include juggling homework and making payroll. It can also mean convincing your parents, bankers, and other grown-ups to take you seriously. Yet despite the many pitfalls -- least of which is the current economic downturn -- a growing number of tweens, teenagers, and 20-somethings want to be their own boss.
Of 2,400 young people surveyed last year by the Kaufman Foundation, four out of 10 said they wanted to start their own business. And 63 percent told the Kansas City, Mo.-based non-profit group that through hard work, they could do it, too.
Most said running their own businesses would allow them to put their skills to work, build something for the future, and make money. Increasingly, those entrepreneurial instincts are being fostered at school -- and at an early age. According to the National Council on Economic Education, a growing number of states are adding entrepreneurship studies to K-12 curriculums, though the topic is also feeding into math, history, and other standard high school subjects. There are now more than 2,000 colleges and universities offering at least one course in entrepreneurship, compared to just 300 in the mid 1980s, studies show. Over the same period, the number of college departments dedicated to entrepreneurship has doubled to about two dozen and growing.
That's not to say these millennial CEOs are textbook business school grads. In fact, many put their degrees on hold to watch over their ventures. Aaron Levie, 23, and Dylan Smith, 22, both dropped out of college and moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to run Box.net, their online file sharing start-up. Levie describes the high-tech hub as a "haven for college dropouts looking to launch a business." Rahim Fazal, co-founder of Involver, started his first business when he was in high school, and actually told his parents he was dealing drugs -- just so they wouldn't find out about his company and make him focus more on his schoolwork.
Others, like 28-year-old Claire Chambers, transitioned seamlessly from school into the corporate world, only to leave behind an enviable career to do their own thing. "I've always been an entrepreneur at heart," says Chambers, the founder of Journelle, a lingerie company. "As a child, I started a dog-walking business."
So what do their parents think of all this? Where did they get the money? And what industries are they taking over? These are just a few of the questions we put to this year's group of junior overachievers, while catching up with a few of our past honorees. Get to know them -- they're going to be around for awhile, and, who knows, one of them may end up being your boss someday.
As 12-year-old Archer says, "I don't take no for an answer."