Teenage Businessman

Being a teen is hard work for this entrepreneur By Jon Swartz, USA TODAY

While most of his high school classmates bask in the glory of senior year, Ben Casnocha schmoozes with powerful high-tech executives, venture capitalists and real estate moguls in Silicon Valley.

Just 17, his typical day is a swirl of adult responsibility and teenage folly. On a recent weekday, Ben attended an angel-investor group meeting in the morning and high school classes in the afternoon. The previous evening, he had dinner with a venture capitalist. A few days later, he had breakfast with Marc Benioff, CEO of highflying software maker Salesforce.com, and lunch with a real estate mogul.

"It gets pretty crazy," says Ben, who carves out breaks during school to help run Comcate, the San Francisco-based software company he started in his bedroom when he was 12. When he isn't doing that, he's captain of the basketball team and editor of the school newspaper. "Sometimes I have to pause to make the distinction between Ben the teenager and Ben the businessman," says Ben, who also stands out because he's 6-foot-4.

"It's not every day you get to sit with a 13-year-old and hear about his plans to change the world," says Greg Prow, a VC who met Ben in September


Figures are elusive on just how many teens start or run businesses, but Ben is one of an estimated tens of thousands in the USA, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with entrepreneurs.

Advances in technology, such as the Internet, and wider acceptance of entrepreneurship have made it easier for teens to start businesses, says Steve Mariotti, president of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which works exclusively with teens.

At a Starbucks last week, Ben looks like any clean-cut teen grabbing a latte on the way to school. Dressed in a striped T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, he lugs an iPod, BlackBerry and PowerBook in his backpack.

Not your typical start-up

But not every teenager rubs shoulders with Motorola CEO Ed Zander and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy, as Ben did at a soiree last year. They don't call city managers to pitch the merits of their company's software, which helps public agencies improve customer service, as Ben does. And they certainly aren't speakers at tech and education conferences, as Ben has been.

Last year, Ben trekked to Zermatt, Switzerland, and tried to crash a young global leaders' conference. He was tossed out, but it got the attention of Salesforce.com CEO Benioff, who was attending, and the two soon struck up a friendship.

"He's an exceptional person with a lot of potential," says Benioff,

41, who started as a games maker when he was 15. "I want to help him, and have as many breakfasts as he wants."

Comcate has carved a profitable niche, with annual revenue of about $750,000 and a few dozen customers in small and midsize cities in California, Florida, Indiana and elsewhere. Ben began selling gumballs to his older twin brothers when he was 7 and briefly ran a Web-design company when he was 11, says his dad, David, an attorney on Comcate's board. Comcate started as a project for Ben's sixth-grade tech class at Town School for Boys, a private prep school here. It was hatched from his bedroom, which is stuffed with books and athletic trophies. As Ben quizzed city agencies on how they resolved residents' complaints, he realized many needed software. The project blossomed into a start-up.

"These guys were serious," says Comcate President Dave Richmond, recalling when Ben and David Casnocha interviewed him for a job. Richmond, 41, was surprised to learn that the boyish executive asking probing questions, was only 14. The former VC, hired as the company's first full-time employee, was later named president. The company employs several salespeople and programmers in the Bay Area and overseas.

Though he considers himself a mentor to Ben, Richmond calls their relationship "focused." Busy schedules dictate a steady stream of e-mails and occasional phone calls each day to discuss strategic planning, marketing and sales. "We don't spend much time shooting the breeze," says Richmond, the father of two children. "Clients assume he's older, based on his presence and demeanor."

One of those clients -- Silvia Vonderlinden, city clerk of nearby Menlo Park, Calif. -- says age "makes no difference" working with Comcate. "I just think they're extremely customer-oriented, and the product is very good," she says. The city uses Comcate software to field questions from city residents via e-mail.

During the school year, Ben's day starts at 6:30 a.m. He reads dozens of business-related e-mails, and monitors websites and blogs for news. In his spare time, Ben has jotted down 50,000 words for a prospective book on his business career. His blog (bigben.blogs.com) muses on topics as diverse as author Joan Didion and the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan. And he says he has found time to read 120 books the past 16 months. He wants to read 4,200 over the next 60 years.

Striking a balance

Such an ambitious lifestyle can be gratifying -- and confusing, admits Ben, who has applied to 15 colleges, including University of Chicago and Cornell University. For a while, he says, he adopted a "dual identity": There was the professional Ben, who answered calls with a deep, raspy "Hello, Ben Casnocha," and the happy-go-lucky teen who picked up the phone with a "Hey, what's up?"

He admits things got hairy his freshman and sophomore years in high school, when his schedule overwhelmed him at times. As a sophomore, Ben had a C- in two classes, and his grade-point average is an ordinary 3.0. But he logged a 3.8 in the last semester.

Since then, he's become more comfortable with his teen alter ego, crediting a sojourn into Buddhism and meditation. For 15 minutes a day, Ben plops into a seat, spine erect, and relaxes. He controls his breathing and concentrates on the word focus. His journey to self discovery has taught him the importance of the big picture, and he cringes when he is called a whiz. "I'm just the smallest dot in a big map of human history," he says.

He's also a keen observer of others' behavior. "One of his favorite things to analyze is the social scene at high school," says classmate Danielle Robin, 18, a senior who has known Ben for four years. "Ben once told me that high school is a plethora of superficial bull - - -t. We call him Ben the Businessman." His son's insatiable curiosity, however, has convinced David Casnocha that Ben will end up in journalism. "He loves to read and write too much," his father says.

"I often tell him, 'Dude, if your worst offense is being different than everyone else, you're going to have a great life,' " adds Tim Taylor, 37, a former angel investor who sits on the board of several tech companies and advises Ben. "Where he's grown is in exploring life beyond his company."

Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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