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Watch out adults, "kidpreneurs" are entering the world of business


Ben Casnocha in front of the Transamerica building in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Ben Casnocha)


Ben Casnocha in his hometown of San Francisco. (Courtesy of Ben Casnocha)


Crayon Holders, invented by Cassidy Goldstein at the age of 11. (Photograph by Lana Gersten)

Ben Casnocha was 12 years old when he stumbled upon a business idea. After encountering filthy seats at a San Francisco 49ers game, he wanted to file a compliant with the city, but found no way to do it. Frustrated by the lack of customer service available to the public, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Casnocha got online and read about other entrepreneurs. Then he created Comcate Inc, a software company that helps city governments manage customer service complaints. Now, eight years later, Comcate serves over 85 cities, counties and school districts in the United States and has over 5,000 users.

Though his vision might seem far beyond his 12 years, his actions are no longer uncommon.

When you’re old enough to turn on a computer, you’re old enough to start doing something,” Casnocha says.

Casnocha is part of a new generation of tweens and teens who are using their increasing access to information and resources on the Internet to become “kidpreneurs.” Though some are still in braces, these young people are taking their futures into their own hands, and not letting their age stand in the way. Nowadays they even have their own conferences, while a growing number of public school around country are adopting curriculums designed to encourage them.

We’re “at the cusp of what I would consider an evolutionary tsunami of youth innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Norm Goldstein, CEO of By Kids for Kids, an organization that turns kids’ ideas into patented, marketable products.

He should know. At the age of 11, his daughter, Cassidy, invented “Crayon Holders,” a patented drawing device that makes it easy to draw with broken crayons. Since the product began selling, it has made a profit well into the six figures (the company will not release actual numbers), and is now sold at Wal-Mart stores around the world, as well as in other retail outlets and online catalogs. Since founding By Kids for Kids in 2003, Goldstein has filed 42 patents on behalf of other child inventors.

“There are organizations that have started to embrace the notion that kids matter,” says Goldstein, who believes this is all just starting.

More than a quarter of young people would like to or have already started their own businesses, according to a July 2007 survey conducted by Harris Interactive in which nearly 2,500 Americans aged 8-21 participated.

These young people are taking what they know--computers and simple Google searches--and using it to teach themselves how to create Web sites, market their product and manage finances.

“You don’t have to be 45 to reach the heights in corporate America,” Goldstein says. “You don’t have to be in your 30s to be an entrepreneur.”

When Najee McGreen was in eighth grade, he took his passion for computers and created Techmaster Computer Works, a computer repair business to service people in his community of Brooklyn, N.Y. A year later, after noticing that a lot of his peers knew nothing about computers, he added a youth apprenticeship program to teach elementary aged kids about computers. Now six years later, McGreen’s company has 13 employees who custom build, sell and repair computers for people throughout New York City.

At its peak, in 2004, before he left for Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, his company grossed approximately $7,000. In the coming years, he hopes to expand it even more.

Many elementary aged children are learning about entrepreneurship at school. Putting business and entrepreneurship in terms that young children can understand allows them to see opportunities at a young age, said Catherine Hutton, CEO of The BizWorld Foundation, an organization that creates entrepreneurial curriculums for students in all grades.

Working in groups, students learn how to start and run their own simulated businesses, incorporating concepts of design, marketing, manufacturing and selling. A separate investing curriculum teaches students how to set financial goals, create a diversified portfolio, and track their investments. Starting in 2003 with just a handful of volunteers in Silicon Valley, the number of classrooms using the curriculum has grown to 1,300 nationwide, ranging from third grade all the way through high school.

But mainly, kids are looking to their peers for inspiration. These days, kids are growing up in a culture dominated by YouTube, Google and Facebook, all of which were founded by people in their 20s.

“High schoolers are seeing kids just a few years older than them becoming billionaires,” said Tom Phillips, public relations representative for the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization that helps young people from low income communities build entrepreneurial skills.

For those kids, carving out their own futures is an appealing solution. Dallas Crilley, a 15-year-old high school freshman in Dewitt, Mich., typically spent his summers playing video games, eating pizza and hanging out with friends. But last summer, he decided to do something productive, by writing a book about young entrepreneurs.

“I decided enough was enough,” said Crilley. “I wasn’t going to wait till I’m such and such an age” to make money. After researching young entrepreneurs, he told their stories in a book, “Kidpreneur: Genius Ways for Kids to Pay Their Way Through College,” which was self published in September with the help of his dad. Since then, he used part of his $8,000 profit to start a clothing company, which uses silk screening to design T-shirts. So far, he and a friend have almost broken even.

With the money Ben Casnocha earned from his company, Comcate, he is now putting himself through Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. “There’s always a lot of failures and ups and downs and people who don’t take you seriously and you have to bounce back from that,” says Casnocha. But “if you’re young, you kind of know that coming in, so you’re more inclined to deal with it.”