Start a Business? Are You Crazy?
When he was 16 years old, Rahim Fazal started an Internet business in his bedroom. He would spend most of his free time running the company, and would regularly sneak out of class to take calls from some of his 25,000 customers. But it wasn't until his senior year, when he sold the company for $1.5 million and landed on the front page of his local newspaper, that he finally told his parents the truth.
You see, in Fazal's family, education always came first. So when he started MailBC.com, he knew he would have to keep it a secret from them. His parents, immigrants from East Africa, were expelled from their homeland by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the early 1970s and made their way to Canada, where they set about rebuilding their lives. Fazal's parents had been university educated in the United Kingdom, and even though they physically lost everything from their life in Uganda, they always had their education to fall back on.
The value his parents placed on education had a profound impact on Fazal growing up -- so much so that even as he was running a successful company as a teenager, he outright lied to his parents about what he was doing. "I could never tell them that I was spending time starting a business," Fazal says. He referred to the business as "Operation ThunderCat" whenever he needed to discuss something with his best friend and business partner in front of other people.
Fazal came of age as the Internet began entering the mainstream, and he noticed that many people were lost when it came to getting online. So he started his first business to help small companies set up a presence on the Web and get access to an e-mail account. The business took off quickly, and soon he was carrying a cell phone and pager around school and ducking out of classes to take customer support calls.
When word got back to his parents that he was spending too much time outside of class, they confronted him about dealing drugs, which he confessed to -- even though it wasn't true. "My parents never really forgave me for that, but I was able to continue running the business and eventually sell it," Fazal says.
During his senior year of high school, Fazal got an offer from a California company to sell his business. He managed to negotiate the sale with the help of several different free consultations from law firms, and just before graduating high school, his company sold for $1.5 million. Only after his story appeared on the front page of a local newspaper the next day did he finally tell his parents the whole truth. Fazal says that after the fanfare, his parents expected that he would get a college education, but instead -- like any entrepreneur who has caught "the bug" -- he decided to start a second business, MerchantPark Communications, for which he raised almost $1 million and eventually took public at the age of 20.
It wasn't until Fazal attracted the attention of the dean of Richard Ivey Business School in Canada -- and became the only student to be accepted to the MBA program without the required undergraduate degree -- that his parents began to take his business pursuits more seriously. He went on to get his MBA and founded Involver, his third and latest venture, which helps companies with online marketing by providing the technology for them to build, manage, and distribute video campaigns across large community platforms such as Facebook.
While Fazal may have encountered more family pressure than most, such skepticism is not atypical among parents of young entrepreneurs. Most successful entrepreneurs under 30 -- and particularly those who got their start while still under their parents' roof -- would agree that a lack of complete faith from their family seems to come with the territory. The challenge is learning how to persevere in the face of naysayers. Often, being an entrepreneur means believing in your idea when no one else does.
That was certainly the case for Bobby Kim and Ben Shenassafar -- founders of The Hundreds, a skateboarder lifestyle and apparel brand that generates much of its own buzz through a popular blog. The two started their company while in law school together, and at first, no one understood why they were compromising their law careers for what seemed like just a blog and a small T-shirt business. Their parents "thought Ben and I were out of our minds," Kim says. In fact, Shenassafar says his parents regarded The Hundreds as a hobby at first, something that he would never pursue fully and eventually lose interest in.
The pair received even more criticism about their entrepreneurial pursuits when they graduated from law school and chose to devote themselves full-time to The Hundreds instead of practicing law. But rather than get discouraged, Kim and Shenassafar say the non-believers just fueled their fire. "All of the criticism and the doubt motivated us more than anything," Kim says.
Today, almost five years after they started, their website has more than 1 million unique visitors a month, they operate two retail stores, and revenue is expected to hit $4 million this year. In perhaps an equally important measure of success, they have the full support of their parents. "After a year or so, they saw how hard we were working on it and how serious we were, and the company started turning around a little bit," Kim says. "Now, years later, they're fully supportive and both of our parents are 100 percent behind us. I think they really believe in it now."