Entrepreneurial Kids Are Now Launching Their Own Tech Companies

April 8, 2016 • Blog Post • BY ATLANTIC RE:THINK


  • Learn how app-happy entrepreneurial kids are moving beyond the lemonade stand and using tech tools to create their own enterprises

Thanks to the democratizing effect of mobile and cloud technology, you don’t have to go to Harvard to become a Zuckerberg

A life of entrepreneurship once began with a lemonade stand in the front yard. The truly enterprising kid might graduate to mowing lawns, raking leaves or shoveling snow. Then came the Internet.

Kids today can launch a tech empire while they’re still in the single digits, take their tinkering from their bedroom desks all the way to the global main stage and, if they’re smart and very lucky, make big money. In its ranking of 40 teen entrepreneur millionaires, Inc.com found that 26 of these entrepreneurs got their start online.

This rising generation of Millennial and Gen Z inventors owes its success to radical changes in digital and mobile technology, cheap hardware and free software—a burst of innovation that has greatly expanded access to tools once reserved to experts of IT and computer science. How kids have been able to leverage that access shows just how democratic technology has become.

Take Chip Beck, a young tech entrepreneur whose 17 apps, including an election-polling tracker called Politica, have been downloaded more than 100,000 times. Beck, now 17, traces his interest in tech to the release of the first iPad in 2010.

“The iPad had just come out and I got one for Christmas,” he says. “I was playing around with it, just wondering how it works and how everything goes together, and I took great interest in it.”

Beck’s start is typical of others his age for whom the advent of iOS and Android apps in the last five years has been a gateway to future careers and, for some, early fortunes.

One of those is Nick D'Aloisio, who in 2013, at the age of 17, sold his news-aggregation app Summly to Yahoo for $30 million. Another is Brian Wong, who raised $15 million in venture capital for his mobile-rewards network, Kiip, in 2012 at the age of 19.  

Much of their app-development expertise was self-taught. Beck taught himself to code by buying books about iOS-app development on Amazon and by scouring GeekyLemon.com, StackOverFlow.com and similar sites.

“The Internet has been a great boon for teaching coding,” says Shawn Hymel, creative technologist at SparkFun, which makes kid-friendly Arduino microcontrollers and the Raspberry Pi, a cheap, credit-card-sized computer. “Sites such as Code.org, Khan Academy, etc., specialize in teaching courses for coding and you can just sign up for one and take it just as you would any online course.”

Of course, not every would-be kid entrepreneur has access to a tablet (the cheapest iPad currently goes for $269). But the cost of key technology keeps plummeting year after year, bridging the digital divide for an increasing number of young inventors and entrepreneurs. “More and more components are becoming less and less expensive these days,” says Hymel. “We’re still seeing faster processors becoming smaller and cheaper and requiring less power.”

Raspberry Pi, which sells a $5 single-board computer, and C.H.I.P., a $9 computer that will come complete with Bluetooth and 4GB of memory, were both created to improve access to computers for young people. The Pis—named the fastest-selling computer in the U.K. in 2015—have already made a major impact.

“The thing is, you can buy them and give it to a kid and if they break them it’s not a big deal,” says Hymel, adding that they’re cheap enough for schools to buy them for every student who wants to learn to code. “That opens up the possibility where you have the hardware support to enable kids in classrooms to create code and learn computer science concepts,” he says. Chip Beck used one of his many Pis to create a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot for hotel rooms.

While still beyond the reach of many kids who are just starting out, cloud technology has also dramatically reduced the cost of access to servers, storage, testing and advanced tools such as data analytics. “Developers can power their app without needing to be experts in the technology,” explains Sean Hughes, senior manager of developer relations at HPE, “and without needing to deploy your own servers or data-center link because we do all that through the cloud.”

While teens like Beck have a natural curiosity for technology, it’s becoming clear that all kinds of kids benefit from familiarity with computer science. A new $4 billion federally-funded program, Computer Science for All, is designed to get more American kids learning the 21st century language of code. It’s also aimed at training the next generation for high-paying jobs in the increasingly tech-related labor market. Projections call for 1.4 million jobs in the computing field to be available in the U.S. by 2020, but at the moment, only 400,000 computer science graduates have the skills to apply for those jobs.

While computer science training rises to meet the demand of the tech job market, education for young entrepreneurs has some distance to go.

Young people intuitively understand their tinkering as a business opportunity, not just a hobby. According to the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship in the United States, that’s largely because Millennials enjoy “near ubiquitous”exposure to entrepreneurship. Some is from pop culture in TV shows like “Shark Tank” and “Silicon Valley.” There is also the legend of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who was a billionaire at 23.

The number of college classes on entrepreneurship is skyrocketing. There were only 100 such college-level programs in 1975—today there are thousands. But that kind of training isn’t happening early enough for kids in the middle school and high school years. According to a Gallup-HOPE Index poll, four in 10 U.S. students in grades 5 through 12 now express plans to start a business, and schools have yet to catch up.

Some local startup support groups are providing what schools don’t. There are now some 2,000 such incubators and accelerators in the U.S., and that number is growing rapidly. Beck, for example, is enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Academy, an incubator in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Through the two year old program, which gives high school seniors space and resources to incubate new business ideas, Beck is prototyping a vehicle-to-vehicle communications safety system that he plans to sell to automakers. The Academy also gives him real-world business opportunities, he says. “We often have executives and angel investors come in to talk to us during the day.”

More and more kids are also getting involved in MakerSpaces, a national network of DIY community-run labs that focus more on hardware and electronics inventions than building Internet companies. SparkFun’s Hymel works with a 14-year-old named Reagan and his two younger brothers who are currently seeking seed funding for an interactive maze called CubeRinth that they invented in a MakerSpace and hope to sell as a kit. “Reagan and his brothers have access to all these MakerSpaces,” says Hymel. “And the culture there is to make, make, make—just find something you’re interested in and build it.”

Nobody had to tell Chip Beck that, but he has benefited from the culture that has grown up around people like him. In 2015, he won a scholarship to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, which is now open to kids as young as 13. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has gone even further with his coveted Thiel Fellowship, which offers entrepreneurs under the age of 23 a $100,000 stipend to skip college and launch their own businesses.

Does Beck hope to be ones of those teen college dropouts working at a startup and making millions in Silicon Valley? Yes, absolutely, but he’s been around long enough to know that the stories about people like Mark Zuckerberg are as rare as they are inspiring. “The people you hear about getting pulled out of college—when it happens, it’s like a miracle,” Beck says, “because it just requires the right attention at the right time from the right people.”

In the meantime, he’s waiting to hear back from Stanford, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania, aiming to major in computer science, maybe with a double major in business. Wherever he goes, he will be funded in part by his very own money—the reward of his first, but certainly not his last, tech venture. 

To download the HPE + 451 Research report “The Transformative Impact of the Cloud,” CLICK HERE.