Forget about living in your parents’ home until the economy recovers. These youthful entrepreneurs are reaping the rewards of successfully striking out on their own.
Started business at: Age 16
Business: Auto parts, fashion
From a very young age, Chinese-American Jon Koon was a mogul in the making. He saw huge discrepancies between American and Japanese automobiles in terms of innovation and design, and he used the $5,000 he’d saved up from red lai see packets to make aggressive moves into the auto market.
He started purchasing car parts from international supply chains, teamed up with a local mechanic and worked his magic to give tons of cars spiffy, high-end finishes and fancy engines with top-notch speakers — all of which gave rise to the blinged-out car craze that was MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” show.
Not long after, Jon opened a manufacturing business that distributed auto parts to a variety of niche markets. In 2008, he switched gears when American rapper Young Jeezy took Jon on as the exclusive partner in his line of clothing, 8732. Soon enough, Jon stuck with fashion as his true calling and his company, Tykoon Brand Holdings, now owns and operates several brands across the globe. As of last year, the company was worth $80 million and had several new projects on the horizon.
Started business at: Age 16
During his junior year of high school, Connor Zwick grew disenchanted with the education system. He observed the disconnect between the system and the process by which students learned, and he wanted to explore that dynamic.
After looking to governmental policy changes for a possible solution, he concluded that the only true way to improve the system was by innovating through technology.
“Flashcards+ was my initial attempt at disrupting the education system, by targeting the way individual students learn, and optimizing it,” he said.
Now, Zwick’s website is one of the most popular grassroots educational tools of all time, and it continues to grow. To date, 1.6 million users have downloaded and used the site.
Started business at: Age 14
Business: Office furniture
Back in 2001, before office retailers like Staples (SPLS) took their businesses online, Sean Belnick recognized the potential for selling office furniture over the Internet.
He founded BizChair.com with the aim of simplifying the process consumers faced in buying furniture over the Web. He started small, initially selling only office chairs. By selling goods directly to buyers, Sean managed to rake in revenues of $42 million by 2008.
“Customers won, we won, and everyone was happy but the middle man,” he told Entrepreneur.com.
He has since expanded the business to include more furniture for offices, homes and restaurants. He continues to lead the company’s evolving market strategy and to focus on the development of new information-technology initiatives.
Started business at: Age 12
Business: Gaming, Web hosting, education
Ritik Malhotra began programming when he was just 8 years old. Four years later, he started a website that let viewers read comics online and, after reading up on useful SEO tactics, managed to attract 250,000 visitors in one year. He eventually mastered the art of making websites, and he used the skills to start a gaming site and a popular Web forum that attracted 6.5 million viewers.
By the time he was 13, Malhotra was running a Web-hosting and software consultancy called HostingAxis. It garnered a return of more than 600 times his initial investment. While the site had revenues in the high single-digit thousands, Ritik shut it just before he entered high school so he could focus on his studies.
Now, Ritik is co-founder of Silicon Valley Prep, a learning academy that teaches competitive math, computer science and public speaking to elementary-, middle- and high-school students. A 2012 Thiel Fellow, the 19-year-old also co-founded Greply, a venture-backed startup in Silicon Valley. He has just built a tool that allows users to search the Web for the best deals on any given product.
Revenues from Silicon Valley Prep have totaled up to $45,000 in one summer alone. As for Greply, he said that he and co-founder Samvit Ramadurgam are “going for high growth.”
Started business at: Age 17
Business: Coach, car and limousine service
When Ray Land was in eighth grade, he was already a trip planner. He planned his first outing — an excursion with some classmates to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. — and in the process unearthed a passion for planning, traveling and meeting new people.
It wasn’t long before he became known as the school’s resident travel planner; classmates would ask him to plan tours for them in cities like New York and Washington, D.C.
By age 17, he bought his first motor coach and started a company named Fabulous Coach. Land quickly realized he needed to expand. As of last year, Fabulous Coach had 65 vehicles and annual revenue of $6.5 million.
“This year, we downsized to help (streamline) the fleet, and we are back in growth mode now,” he recently said.
The seven-year-old company now coordinates roughly 150 trips per week for several thousand customers. Land is working to create a travel destination in Florida for the company.
Started business at: Age 19
Business: Mobile rewards network
After leaving his job at social news website Digg, Brian Wong decided to do some traveling. Wherever he went, people appeared to be engrossed in playing games on their cellphones. This observation led to an epiphany — achievements create happiness, and natural happiness can be leveraged in a meaningful way.
So, with the help of a former co-worker and seed money from venture capitalists, Brian formed Kiip, a mobile app rewards network that helps companies dole out rewards to game players for in-game achievements. Imagine getting a $10 gift card from Starbucks (SBUX) whenever you hit that next level in Mega Jump!
Kiip has partnered with at least 40 advertisers who hand out rewards in more than 400 games. In its latest round of funding, the company raised $11 million to fuel global growth.
Wong’s advice to aspiring tycoons? Generate serendipity.
“You actually have the ability to create your own luck, and most of us don’t realize this,” he said. “Don’t wait around for things to happen. Seize every opportunity.”
Started business at: Age 16
Growing up in Wahiawa on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Jack Uesugi always found himself surrounded by art. His father, a Web designer, and his mother, a photographer, taught him the value of running a business early on. At an art event, Jack discovered an impressive array of work by little-known local artists and felt the urge to put the pieces on silkscreen prints.
At 16, he started a line of limited-run T-shirts and prints. Instead of starting out with a business plan, Jack said he set the company in motion by taking baby steps “until the business started building on its own momentum.”
The company, a1000x, donates a slice of its profits to charities and showcases the work of artists who don’t know how to market themselves. The philosophy behind the brand dictates that for every time you give, you get “a thousand times” back. “It’s about finding a passion and doing it big,” Uesugi said.
Started business at: Age 13
Business: Eyesight, social media
Sujay Tyle is a young man dedicated to improving the world’s vision. ReSight, the nonprofit enterprise he co-founded with his brother, is devoted to eradicating blindness. Its motto: Change through vision.
The brothers, both of whom have poor eyesight, geared their initiative toward helping the visually impaired in India. After raising roughly $15,000, the brothers placed their emphasis on empowering women to become “vision guardians” in underprivileged areas of India by providing them with the means to offer cheaper, more accessible vision screening that could lead to treatment.
So far, ReSight has reached more than 10,000 people and has 40 vision guardians throughout India. Sujay’s next goal is to raise $10,000 to employ another class of vision guardians and expand the concept to other regions of the world.
He started attending Harvard University when he was 15 but dropped out after three years after accepting a 2011 Thiel Fellowship, a grant of $100,000 to skip college to focus on work and self-education. Through the fellowship, offered by the foundation started by Peter Thiel, the famed Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Tyle leads business-and-development strategy at Scopely, a Los Angeles startup focused on empowering developers across the globe to build social mobile games.
Started business at: Age 19
Business: Social media
Cory Levy was passionate about entrepreneurship before he even knew what the word meant. At 15 he was working at a startup every day after school, soaking up the business and gaining insight into the role of venture capital.
After cold-calling and sending out Facebook messages to many venture capital funds, Cory got an in with Union Square Ventures. He sat in on board meetings and watched management at work. Eventually, one of the investors offered seed money when Levy and co-founder Michael Callahan described their plans for a social media startup they called One.
From Levy’s point of view, most people have met the key figures in their lives through some chance encounter. It was this “macro” mentality that spurred the creation of One, an app that allows individuals to list all the things they love to a personal profile that connects individuals to others in the nearby area who share interests.
“We’re moving more and more into a world of personalization and branding,” Levy said.
He also founded the NextGen Conference, an event that brings together top-tier investors and young thinkers to create a network of innovative minds.
Started business at: Ages 15 and 16
Business: Social media
When Catherine Cook moved to a new high school in New Jersey, she and her brother Dave saw a need for “social discovery” and better tools to meet people. With the help of a $250,000 investment from their older brother, Geoff, the pair created the online yearbook known as myYearbook.com. The site grew rapidly, and within 10 months, myYearbook had 1 million users.
As it expanded, myYearbook left the high school realm and was ultimately sold to social networking site Quepasa for $100 million in cash and stock and renamed MeetMe, a site that attracts advertisers including Neutrogena, ABC and Walt Disney (DIS).
The Cooks, who still work at the company, expect MeetMe to be available in six additional languages by the end of this year.
According to comScore, MeetMe jumped from the 29th most-visited site in the United States to 18th by page views, with roughly 32 million users reported in 2011.