Small Business

America's Best Young Entrepreneurs 2009


For our fifth annual roundup, BusinessWeek readers nominated a record number of young entrepreneurs. Meet the 25 most impressive

Welcome to our fifth annual roundup of the country's most promising young entrepreneurs. Before we get started examining the new batch, consider this question: Who is more likely to start a business: A college student or a worker with a few decades of experience? Yep, you guessed it: the experienced worker.

It turns out it's boomers, not twentysomethings, who start the most businesses in the U.S. Over the past decade or so, the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity belongs to the 55-64 age group. The 20-34 age bracket, by contrast, had the lowest rate. That's according to a recent report by Dane Stangler, a senior analyst with the Kauffman Foundation, based on data collected from 1996 to 2007. It echoes research by entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa, who found that twice as many tech entrepreneurs create ventures in their 50s as do those in their early 20s.

So not only are these entrepreneurs navigating the toughest economy many of us have ever lived through, they're also vastly outnumbered by older, more experienced competitors, who usually have more contacts and capital. That's even more reason to continue to give young entrepreneurs the encouragement, respect, and awe that they've received since becoming cultural icons during the dot-com boom.

Stangler says he's not suggesting young people aren't entrepreneurial or won't be. "The cachet of large, established companies has taken a hit. Job tenure has been falling for a long time. Employment is not going to recover in the very near future. People across all age groups are going to take the future into their own hands."

Dorm Room Beginnings

Brian Ruby, 25, is just one entrepreneur who is following through on Stangler's prediction. He founded molecular imaging equipment maker Carbon Nanoprobes in 2003 in his Columbia University dorm room and has since raised about $4 million from institutional and private investors. After six years doing research, Carbon Nanoprobes is now transitioning to equipment sales, and Ruby expects about $1 million in revenue in 2010. The nine-person company based in Pike Malvern, Pa., sells its equipment to universities, semiconductor firms, and material sciences companies.

Husband-and-wife team Eric Koger, 25, and Susan Koger, 24, launched indie clothing e-tailer ModCloth in 2002, near the end of their freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University. They've managed to raise a little over $3 million from angels such as StubHub co-founder Jeff Fluhr and venture capital firms First Round Capital and Maples Investments. Eric says the 104-employee, Pittsburgh-based company is profitable, with around $1 million in monthly sales, and forecasts more than $15 million total in 2009.

Logan Green, 25, and John Zimmer, 25, started Zimride in 2007 to allow carpoolers to connect online. Its 35 clients are mostly colleges but include corporate customers such as Cigna (CI) and Wal-Mart (WMT). Universities pay about $10,000 per year to use the platform, although pricing varies. Zimmer says the Palo Alto (Calif.) firm, with six employees, expects revenue of $400,000 this year and is now profitable.

Record Numbers

These are just a few of our finalists defying the odds. To assemble the group, as in previous years, we asked BusinessWeek readers to nominate candidates aged 25 and under who were running their own companies that showed potential for growth. Given the severity of the recession, we were pleased to receive a record number of nominations this year—more than 600. After the call for nominations ended in mid-August, our staff sifted through the nominees looking for the most impressive.

Not surprisingly, the majority were Web-based businesses, where barriers to entry continue to fall. There were a smattering of more traditional companies, including an aircraft seller, a specialty mushroom grower, and a machinery lubricant vendor. Compared with last year, more women were nominated, more businesses were profitable, and more had secured equity capital.

You can flip through this slide show for profiles of each of the 25 finalists, then vote for the business you feel holds the most promise. We'll announce the top vote-getters on Nov. 9. Then check out our slide show on where last year's finalists are now. For more elements of the special report, including a feature on selling to universities and a video interview with a standout alum, visit the related items box at upper right side of this overview.

Leiber is Small Business editor for BusinessWeek.com .

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