The Young Entrepreneur: Now a popular career choice for teens, but how many are the real deal?

Chris Leydon on how young entrepreneurialism is fantastic to see, should be celebrated; but only when truly deserved.

Young Apprentice

When I was still at school career choices were much simpler. You either wanted to be a footballer, or a Power Ranger. The latter being somewhat unfortunately unrealistic, most of the children my age aspired to be the next Ryan Giggs, Michael Owen or David Beckham (I’m too old for Rooney mania). Ask many school children what they want to be when they grow up now and the answer is strikingly different; an entrepreneur. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson are the new Green, Red and Blue Rangers. (Perhaps inspired The Social Network, countless episodes of Dragons Den, or perhaps more appropriately The Young Apprentice) Balls, boots, Zords are no longer the tools required; instead a laptop, an internet connection and some form of computing talent.

Young entrepreneurialism is fantastic to see. Young people discovering problems, or gaps in the market, and filling them with their solutions and products is exciting, invigorating and should indeed be celebrated; but only when truly deserved. Last week I saw an article, published by the Daily Mail, praising an 8 year old boy for creating an ‘online marble empire’. Supposedly Jordean, the “marble king”, started his own marble trading business in his school playground before begging his mother to allow him to create his own website, specialising in selling marbles around the world. What’s truly frustrating about this particular story is that nothing of worthwhile note has actually taken place. An 8 year old has asked his mother to create a website for him, to sell marbles, and she’s abusing the story for marketing purposes; something that’s clearly working. Perhaps I’m frustrated that the child didn’t go all ‘social network’ on this site, putting chips inside the marbles and creating some kind of online social network / league to ‘gamify‘ his site and a whole bunch of other meaningless buzzwords which are being used to describe the current web boom. Essentially, after all, this is just another web store; just with some cute 8 year old marketing boy, who of course “wants to be the next Alan Sugar”. Excuse me whilst I digest this utterly sickening statement for my compost pot.

Marbles Entrepreneur Daily Mail

Has the Daily Mail lost it’s marbles?

Perhaps I’m being a little too hasty to quickly dismiss all young entrepreneurs under the age of 20 as marketing ploys for their greedy parents. I’m sure there are plenty of kids earning big bucks out there somewhere for all of their sweating hard work.

The Daily Mail has another article about a young entrepreneur. This time it’s about Christian Owens, a self proclaimed millionaire. The article states that Christian, through his various online escapades, has taken over $1 million in revenue. Certainly a very commendable achievement, until start scratching the surface to reveal what’s really going on under the article. According to Christian, and The Daily Mail, he made his fortune by offering Mac software bundled together and at a discounted price, MacBundleBox; nothing original there, the more successful MacHeist had been doing this for a few years prior to Owens. Google around for MacBundleBox and you’ll find a whole host of horror stories from developers whose software had been included in the offer. Dramatically inflated numbers, poor returns and missing payment. Similar stories appear when looking for Owens’ other company mentioned in the article, Branchr.

Young Apprentice

Shows like the BBC’s Young Apprentice have led to an exponential increase in self-proclaimed ‘young entrepreneurs’

Perhaps most interesting is a request from Companies House to see the annual accounts filed for The Dream Network Ltd (UPDATED) (Christian Owens’ company) two weeks after The Daily Mail article claiming over $1 million in revenue. According to the balance sheet, provided by Companies House, The Dream Network Ltd was worth -£6,143 and owed £13,985; the company had borrowed £17,541 from its creditors in the same year too. Unless Christian had withdrawn $990,000 before filing his accounts, and paying off his creditors, the story is starting to look full of hot air. He could, of course, have made a million in revenue and withdrawn it; but since The Dream Network Ltd isn’t registered for VAT (mandatory after earning £68,000 in revenue in 2009) it’s looking increasingly unlikely. If the latter situation had occurred then Christian would, most likely, be guilty of tax evasion1. This kind of ‘young entrepreneur’ taints the term.

Quite often, it seems, the press get hold of a story submitted to them by pushy parents or egomaniac kids about “The Next Steve Jobs / Alan Sugar / Mark Zuckerberg” and with a slow news day and a bit of luck it gets published. Unfortunately a lot of these stories are built on hot air and are essentially puff pieces, which in turn gives young entrepreneurialism a bad name; it makes it trivial. A couple who will know this better than most are those branded “The Youngest Publishers in the World”.

Sean Spooner and Louis Porter

Sean Spooner and Louis Porter: Young business people who deserve recognition

Sean Spooner and Louis Porter were both 14 when they started a local magazine for their home town, Corby Magazine. Quickly after their first issue the boys were gaining all kinds of media interest for being “The World’s Youngest Publishers“. Interviews in local, regional, national and worldwide media outlets followed; but none of them got down to the nitty gritty of starting a young business at a young age. Unlike their ‘young entrepreneurial’ counterparts above, Sean and Louis shy away from using their age as a marketing gimmick. The fact that their magazine is completely their own creation, without outside help or finance from parents or schools, is little known or celebrated; it’s a shame.

Unfortunately there is an increasing culture in listening to and reporting on those who shout from the rooftops the loudest about their ‘successes’. We’re not paying nearly enough attention to the young people who are doing the groundwork themselves. Instead of congratulating and celebrating young business successes, we’re focused on their age and how much money they claim to have made’ not the achievements of actually starting something in the first place.

When I was still at school career choices were much simpler. You either wanted to be a footballer, or a Power Ranger. No one wanted to be a footballer, or a Power Ranger, because of the money; we wanted to change the world. Articles on 3 year olds being able to score hatricks weren’t published, nor when a budding Ranger to be beat up 10,000 Putty Patrollers. Instead we congratulated those with measurable success and facts, regardless of age. Let’s stop with the bullshit press articles about 8 year olds who are the face of their parents business escapades. Let’s stop listening to the boys shouting about how big their financial penis is. Let’s start taking note of those who start businesses from nothing, see it through (with varied success) and commend them on it.

Here’s to Sean Spooner and Louis Porter; young entrepreneurs who are kicking arse, regardless of age and financial obstacles. Businessmen who are doing something that they love and making a measurable success out of it, without the need of bullshit attention seeking PR or lies.

What do you make of this new breed of teens who call themselves ‘young entrepreneurs’? Do you know of any young business people who truly deserve recognition? Is the increase in self proclaimed ‘young entrepreneurs’ a good thing? Are television shows like The Young Apprentice and Dragons Den partially to blame for this state of affairs? Should young people be encouraged to go in to business without an education beyond 16?

Chris Leydon is a self proclaimed evangelist without a cause. Former TechCrunch TV Producer and founder of TinyGrab, Chris has a ‘unique’ insight into the tech startup world and can be found on Twitter at @leydon.

 1 We reached out to Christian Owens for comment, but have yet to receive a response.