- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

The idea was simple: To create a Web site targeting teen-age job seekers paid for with advertising from companies looking to hire them.

Seventeen-year-old Saied Ghaffari had this brainstorm about 18 months ago while lamenting the hassles of high schoolers finding a decent summer job.

Rather than finding a job, Saied founded a business.

Teens starting a business is a concept as old as lemonade stands. But analysts say the Internet and technology are giving young people more resources to take their business ideas further. And the slowing economy, which is pushing many of their relatives out of jobs, is giving young entrepreneurs yet another incentive to explore the world of self-employment.

"This may prompt teens to strike off on their own," says John Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement consulting firm.

"This time it may not be down-sized managers and executives who ignite the exposition of entrepreneurial ventures … it may be their teen-age sons and daughters," Mr. Challenger says.

It's difficult to quantify how many teen-agers today have businesses.

Julie Silard Kantor, the Washington regional director of National Foundation of Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), says at least 1,000 local youth are running their own ventures through the NFTE, which teaches teens about business.

She says more teens are going into business these days because the Internet has made it easier for them to provide services, like Web design, for clients.

"Young people have incredible strength when it comes to business," she says, referring to their energy and ambition.

Mr. Challenger agrees, saying, "Teens are risk-takers by nature.… They believe that nothing bad can happen to them since they have no previous experience that would lead them to believe otherwise."

Studies show that today's teens want to be their own bosses.

Some 70 percent of high school seniors say they want to start their own businesses, according to a survey by the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Kansas City, Mo.

"There is substantial interest in entrepreneurship," says Robert Strom, a teaching and research fellow with Kauffman. "And wanting to start their own business is generally about being able to control their own destiny, being their own boss. Moneymaking sort of comes lower on the list."

For Saied, the decision to start a business resulted from his inability to find work online.

"I went to every single site and nothing came up," he recalls of his job hunt. "So I thought, 'Why don't I create a site so teens can come and find jobs?' So that's how it got started."

Saied's dot-com is not yet profitable, but it has been racking up revenues from companies like Coca-Cola, Banana Republic and First Virginia Bank. These companies pay $50 per job opening that they post. The hundreds of positions advertised on the site vary from sales assistants to park rangers and lifeguards.

Hobby to business

The high-tech craze and the stock market climb in the 1990s both have encouraged teens to start their own ventures, teens say.

"We are growing up in this craze for business," says Arkady Gelman, 15, from Potomac, Md. "We've adapted to it and are ready to become business owners, big managers, and tell tons of people how to do it, and where to invest."

Arkady has been investing in the stock market since last year, when he received nearly $6,000 for his bar mitzvah. Then in February he started Succint Investment Group, which offers investment advise to teens.

For now, Succint is more of a hobby than a legitimate business, but Arkady says he plans to incorporate in four or five years.

"Right now there's no one over the age of 20, but when they go to college we'll start charging," he says of Succint's 30 clients, who are between the ages of 14 and 20 and currently don't pay Succint.

As tools like the Internet make it easy for everyone including teens to perform services for clients, the line between hobby and business blurs, says Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University.

"It's a hobby, and it's a business. The difference is collapsing."

Before giving investment advice to his peers, Arkady researches companies and sometimes even calls industry analysts for detail.

"Sometimes they think I'm a regular person I just lower my voice and speak slower," he says. "But a lot of times I forget to do it and they'll ask for credentials. And then I have to explain who I am and why I'm not just going to give the information to their competitors."

Appearing credible can be a problem for teen-run businesses, says Ric Dube, an analyst with Webnoize, a Cambridge, Mass. firm that tracks the digital entertainment industry.

"Certainly the digital world has made every hobby more sophisticated, including entrepreneurialism," he says. "But a lot of these young people can fantasize about the potential for a technology they developed, without necessarily knowing whether the business realities are going to hold that potential back."

What teen businesses need, says Mr. Dube, is more than just the desire and funds to run a company.

"They need someone who is going to cultivate whatever chops they have for the business world," he says. "Because the business world is more than just having great ideas."

Helping hands

Saied looks to his relatives for advice and assistance. His mom, Davar Ardalam, took a six-month leave of absence from her job as a producer for National Public Radio to research the market potential for an online teen job board. His uncle's Web design company in Albuquerque, N.M., created the site, saving the teen some $30,000.

There are some things Saied did on his own. Following a cousin's advice, he pitched the idea of JuniorJobs.com to a club of private investors.

"These were like, millionaires, who out of 100 companies take a look at two or three to present every month, to see if the whole group wants to invest in the company," says Saied, who one day wants to be an industrial designer for Apple Computers.

"I was so stinking nervous," he says. "I mean, I'm 16 years old and I'm about to give a speech to 45 multimillionaires and they are going to sit there and stare at me."

In the end, several members of the investment club bet on JuniorJobs.com. So did ASAP Ventures, an Alexandria incubator, which took in the teen business as one of its tenants.

"We thought they had a very unique idea," says Cal Simmons, co-founder of the incubator. "And I was impressed with the general kind of enthusiasm and excitement that Saied and [his mom] brought to the project."

Mr. Simmons says he and partner Jeff Weiss thought taking in a teen business was "a little out of the ordinary." But Mr. Simmons remembers when at age 18 he started a gift business and a small publishing company.

"That's part of what attracted me to them there are plenty of enterprising young people with good ideas," he says.

Learning about business

NFTE was founded in the early 1980s in the Bronx, N.Y., as a dropout prevention program.

Over the years, national entrepreneurship programs like it have become popular at all types of schools. Many educators see learning value in teaching students how to start businesses.

The teen ventures born through NFTE result from a yearlong class. NFTE also holds competitions, where the winners are awarded grants to help grow their businesses.

Crystal Williams, 16, won a $1,000 grant for her plan to sell scarves, accessories and party supplies out of her home in Northwest.

"I think it's wonderful, fantastic, that she's doing that," says Tilwanda Williams Law, Crystal's mom. "I was never afraid that it would take time away from her school work, because she's the type of child who never puts anything in front of her school work."

Crystal will be a junior this fall at Wilson Senior High School in the District.

"Not every young person will, or should, start a business," says NFTE's Ms. Kantor. "It's a lot of work. But entrepreneurship should be taught as a fundamental life skill in every classroom in America."

Following footsteps

Just as young athletes have Michael Jordan and Cal Ripken as their heroes, teen entrepreneurs have a growing crop of stars to supply inspiration.

Bill Gates had his first venture when he was 15 and founded Microsoft Corp. at 19. Michael Dell of Dell Computers also started a company at 19. Now in his 30s, Mr. Dell is the youngest billionaire on Forbes magazine's list of America's wealthiest people.

Most recently, the spotlight has fallen on Shawn Fanning, who wrote the controversial Napster software when he was 17 and a college freshman in 1999.

Napster is now incorporated and run by savvy venture capitalists and executives battling the recording industry in a landmark copyright case.

But two years ago it was just a teen's whim, born out of Mr. Fanning's desire for an easier way to find music on the Internet.

"I think Napster has been a part of [what drives teen-agers to start businesses] because it's been so public," says Dave Bell, 18, who in 1997 started Chasma Inc., a game software and hardware company in Nashua, N.H.

"It may have shown teens that it was possible."

Dave was 14 when he started Chasma. He was playing Atari games with a couple of friends when he decided he could write his own gaming software, and develop better hardware over which to play.

Today Chasma with $250,000 in venture funds and a partnership with Lucent Technologies Inc. develops games that can be played over cellular phones.

"As long as there's a young person out there who can think of a better way to do something, there will be a large company that wants to acquire that idea," says Mr. Dube of Webnoize.

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