Technology

Starting Up: A Generation of Zuckerberg Wannabees


(Bloomberg) — The Facebook application High School Memories lets people share recollections of their teenage years. It might surprise some users to learn that the app's creator isn't old enough for high school himself.

Cyrus Pishevar, a 13-year-old resident of Palo Alto, California, developed High School Memories after seeing how popular it was for his friends to "tag" photos of one another on the social network.

"The big idea is to make memories a social thing to do," said Cyrus, who learned entrepreneurship from his dad, the founder of five startups. "When you type in your memories, it speaks more than just pictures can, especially when your friends help you through."

Cyrus is part of Silicon Valley's second generation of Web innovators—teenagers who grew up with the Internet and witnessed the rapid ascent of Facebook Inc. and other nearby companies. Raised by technology workers and introduced to computers and business early on, many of the area's youngsters have chosen to build their own apps or start whole companies in lieu of after-school sports or summer camps.

"I was surrounded by tech everyday for so long that I gained a natural interest for it," said Daniel Brusilovsky, an 18-year-old from San Mateo, California, whose upbringing by a software-manager father and Oracle Corp. veteran mother led him to found two startups before he was old enough to vote.

Fewer Skills Needed

It's easier for teens to become Web entrepreneurs these days because writing software is cheaper and simpler, said Daniel Gross, the 19-year-old founder of San Francisco-based Internet-search startup Greplin Inc.

"The tools require less expert knowledge," Gross said. "Building a Facebook app doesn't require you to have four years of computer science."

Mentoring programs also have sprung up to help young entrepreneurs build their companies. In September, Facebook investor Peter Thiel pledged to make 20 grants of as much as $100,000 apiece to teenagers with startup ideas. He says he wants teens to pursue their dreams, rather than college, because traditional education steers them away from entrepreneurship and into steady jobs.

"We need to encourage young Americans to take more risks," Thiel, who co-founded PayPal Inc. and now runs the investment firm Clarium Capital Management, said in an interview at the time.

'Child Soldiers'

Such efforts have drawn criticism for encouraging students to drop out, in the same way that a dream of playing in the National Basketball Association might prevent some kids from staying in school.

Pursuing entrepreneurship shouldn't come before an education, said Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

"These are Silicon Valley's child soldiers," he said. "The vast majority of them will fail miserably. Then they've screwed up their careers."

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg didn't drop out of Harvard University until his company was gaining traction, when he was 20. That's a model that young people should heed, Wadhwa said.

"If by any chance you happen to achieve the success that Zuckerberg did, then drop out of school," he said. "But don't screw up your education until you've done that."

Board Meetings

For Cyrus Pishevar, who was present at his dad's company meetings since he was a toddler, inspiration came well before he had to make decisions about college.

"He used to crawl between board members' legs when I had meetings at home," said Shervin Pishevar, who helped found Web development software maker WebOS Inc., mobile-app startup Social Gaming Network and three other companies, all since 1997.

By the time he was 6, Cyrus was learning how to use a computer and giving feedback to his dad on apps. Last year, Shervin Pishevar introduced him to Zuckerberg, now 26, at a movie screening in Palo Alto. Around that time, the preteen was coming up with his idea for a Facebook app.

Living in Silicon Valley means kids have easy access to programming help. With High School Memories, Cyrus got assistance from Ryan Romanchuk, a 25-year-old engineer and family friend who works at a nearby startup. His father, meanwhile, is contributing $5,000 to $10,000 to the project, mostly to pay for advertising.

Homework First

Cyrus works on the app most days after he finishes his homework, in Palo Alto coffee shops or the garage of Social Gaming Network's headquarters, a two-story house converted into an office near Stanford University's campus.

Romanchuk, an employee of social shopping site Blippy, has helped him write code and solve problems that arise, such as how to get more new users coming in through ads purchased on Facebook. If the app takes off, Cyrus plans to expand the service into a separate website with more features, as well as a version for Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

Brusilovsky began a startup incubator, Teens in Tech Labs, this year to support other young innovators. Even the most entrepreneurial teens don't always make good decisions, he said. Brusilovsky himself was fired from an internship last year at the technology blog TechCrunch for accepting gifts from startups in exchange for coverage.

Another challenge: Young entrepreneurs aren't taken seriously by venture capitalists.

'Really Cute'

"When I was pitching VCs three years ago, the first thing they said was, 'That is really cute,'" Brusilovsky said. "I don't want to be cute, I am serious about this."

Teens in Tech Labs, based in Palo Alto, will select five teams of entrepreneurs in the summer and connect them with accomplished mentors, including Kevin Hartz, co-founder of Eventbrite, and David Hornik, a partner at venture capital firm August Capital.

"These entrepreneurs might not have a billion-dollar idea today," but preparation helps, Brusilovsky said. "When they're done with high school or college, then maybe they will have a billion-dollar idea and they will know what to do with it."

Still, parents of would-be Mark Zuckerbergs are careful to preserve a degree of childhood normalcy. Cyrus takes kung fu lessons every week.

"I make sure he takes the time to be a kid," his dad said.

MacMillan is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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