Teens in tech face some particular problems that others in their age group surely do not. Like if college will be a detriment to their success. Tech is famous for its most successful entrepreneurs not finishing their studies – Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for example – and whether or not to go to school is a legitimate concern for teen entrepreneurs for whom classes are an obstacle to their business activities. “The important thing is all these people [Zuckerberg, etc.] enrolled in college,” said John Ramey, who started his company, isocket, while a student at Indiana University. “They just didn’t finish,” said Ramy, who didn’t finish either but whose company signed a deal to handle Techcrunch’s advertising last May. If you do enroll in college, do you spend all your time worrying about your grades and slack off on running your business?
“VCs actually prefer B students because they know how to maximize ROI,” said Ramey, adding that students shouldn't fall into the B-school trap. "In school, don’t major in business; major in what you want your business to be about," Ramey said.
Isocket co-founder Zak Hassanein added, “For most startups, school pedigree isn’t important. Passion and devotion are. A good college is a proxy: it allows recruiters to offload judgments on someone else.”
Ramey warned the audience against falling into “Lemonade Stand Syndrome,” starting things like t-shirt companies or restaurant-menu aggregators in college towns.
“Those are things adults put on you,” Ramey said. “What I encourage people to do is start big.”
Bucking the trend and going for broke was a major – and refreshing – theme at Teens in Tech. Don’t be content building the next Twitter or Foursquare, many of the speakers agreed; follow your ideas and see where they lead you.
Designer and futurist Danny Primiani has worked for Google, Yahoo and Revision 3, is a current student in computer science and human computer interaction design at the University of Florida & UC Berkeley, and appeared on stage in a space suit.
Primiani said, “Don’t start companies, start movements. Movements always last longer than companies. Focus on how people love themselves.”
But be practical, too.
“A good idea without a business plan will fail,” said Alex Nichols, an entrepreneur and IT and marketing consultant.
Nichols added that social media has leveled teens’ barrier to entry into the field.
“The environment has never been as perfect for us as it is now,” Nichols said.
While the speakers at Teens in Tech were all young, they showed as much business acumen as any other Silicon Valley conference lineup would. Seventeen-year-old web designer, columnist and budding comic Adam Debreczeni held out this message of understanding to the adults in the audience:
“Teens are like normal people, just smaller.”
(Image: Sam Levin)