All grown up

The tech boom spawned its fair share of characters, among them the teenage overachievers who ran their own companies and occasionally ran themselves into the ground. Those days are over. But the enfantrepreneur pushes on

By André Mayer With Scott Colbourne Friday, September 26, 2003 - Page 58

That was then

They're the sort of kids most parents covet, with their cherubic, beaming faces and accomplishments that fill us with pangs of inadequacy. Business loves its mascots, and none so much as that textbook model of overachievement, the enfantrepreneur.

The cult of the kid capitalist emerged during the internet boom years. If you could write a program, it scarcely mattered if you were of drinking age. It seemed that, every week, the media uncovered yet another ingénue with an innovative notion-digital or otherwise-and the will to execute it. There was Vancouver teen Joely Miller, the inventor and marketer of an extreme bicycle; there was Seattle's Nicholas Ravagni, who, at 11, created a device that helped people learn to play guitar.

There was also Michael Furdyk of Toronto. In 1999, at age 17, Furdyk and two friends sold their company, Mydesktop.com-a web site intended to better inform users about their computers-to Connecticut-based Internet.com for $1 million (U.S.). After that little item hit the news wires, in Furdyk's words, "everything exploded."

"We were on Canada AM and we got back to our office and had 20 calls, from every media outlet," he recounts. "We had six or seven camera crews wait in line to do interviews with us."

For CBC's The National, Furdyk conducted the interview in his rented office on a plastic patio table bought at Wal-Mart. A week-old pizza box sat on it for the duration of the Q&A. Such was the insouciance of the time.

Furdyk's success earned him not one but two profiles in Teen People, as well as appearances on CNN and Oprah. He bought an SUV and a townhouse, where he and other teens worked into the wee hours on ventures like BuyBuddy.com, a comparative-shopping site that closed a $4.5-million round of funding in 2001-money it quickly burned through. Now 22, he's sold his townhouse and lives with his parents. But he remains a spokesperson for youthful initiative as co-founder of TakingITGlobal.org, a non-profit web site partially funded by the Royal Bank, Microsoft and others, which aims to create a network for youth leaders around the world.

If Furdyk was the model of the techie teen who made good, then Victoria native Tom Williams was the story nobody wanted to hear. Williams founded his own software company and, at 15, was hired by Apple Computers in Cupertino, Calif., as a project manager in its interactive music division. TV footage of him from the mid-'90s shows a floppy-haired teen bouncing on his own couch, in his own pad, with the stereo cranked. But in a 1999 CBC documentary, Williams admitted that he had helped foster his own legend. He confessed to playing up for the camera, giving the media what they wanted: a kid skylarking in the adult world. The truth was, his parents were divorcing and he was on his own, partying unsupervised. He eventually left Apple.

"My mom aged very quickly when I was down in California," says Williams today, at age 24. He is now a principal of Thomas Research, a Vancouver firm that analyzes publicly traded tech and health-care companies.

"Part of the thing about being a young person is that we're attracted to mythology," he says. "If I had tempered my intensity even by a few notches, and still explored other interests not in any way related to what I was doing...if I still managed to ensure that I took care of myself and my body, I probably wouldn't have had to spend six months just catching up with myself."

The hard-pushing days of the internet surge may be over. So much may have changed, and yet so little really has.

The last teen internet star

Most people never gain a profile beyond their own four walls. Keith Peiris was world-renowned at the age of 12. In February, 2001, he joined Prime Minister Chrétien on the Team Canada trade mission to China. During the trip, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew joked that Keith had stolen his airtime on CNN.

That July, Keith returned to Chinese soil to speak at business conferences in Shanghai and Beijing. He was ostensibly representing London, Ont.-based Cyberteks, the web-design company he had founded the previous year. Keith began creating web sites on his PC at age 9. As Cyberteks's president, CEO and chief creative director, he landed his first paying customer in 2000, packaging on-line content for Kewl Threads, the clothing line started by Shayne Corson and Darcy Tucker of the Toronto Maple Leafs. That year, the company posted modest revenues of $130,000.

The company's client list now includes the U.S. radio marketing firm Interep; the chemistry department at the University of Western Ontario; and the London Knights, for which Cyberteks built a web site The Hockey News called "the most comprehensive and interactive in the Canadian Hockey League." One of its features is a penalty-shootout video game.

This spring, the National Hockey League invited Cyberteks to participate in the trade show that accompanies its annual marketing meetings. Keith, now 15, is mad for hockey, and because the convention fell during spring break, he wouldn't have to miss any school. His father, Deepal Peiris, who is also Cyberteks's vice-president, rented an SUV, dismantled the corporate office-i.e., the basement of the family's townhouse in London-and loaded the truck with servers, monitors and assorted other gear. Deepal, Keith and two Cyberteks full-timers, Mark Ruddick and Andrew Mazepa, drove non-stop to The Marriott Marquis in Atlanta.

During breaks at the convention, sports-related retailers had a chance to entice reps from each of the NHL teams with their wares: framed posters, customized hockey coins, bobbleheads and so on. The NHL delegates knew that making eye contact would get the vendors unduly excited, so most assumed the same impassive gaze-a look that said, I can see you're selling something, but I really must be getting to the buffet table.

Cyberteks paid the top rate-$4,200 (U.S.)-to be situated within view of the hall's front door. Its staffers wore logoed crossing-guard vests over their dress shirts, a gift from AGO Industries, a London-based manufacturer of safety apparel and a valued Cyberteks client. "I just realized what you guys remind me of," said a Carolina Hurricanes rep on his third pass by the table. "Devo! Except that they had cones on their heads."

The Cyberteks crew would spend two days at the show in promising discussions with several teams, one of which, the Atlanta Thrashers, would eventually bite, signing a multimedia development deal a few months later.

At Cyberteks, Keith handles the design work (after school, of course), Mazepa is responsible for most of the Flash animation and Ruddick takes care of the "back-end database stuff." The latter two aren't mentioned on the company web site, which only adds to the impression that Keith does it all. Still, Keith insists, "We're really downplaying the whole age factor in how we present ourselves. People aren't going to come to us because I'm 15 years old."

It was Deepal, now Cyberteks's salesman, who quit his job at a London tech firm in 2000 to become, in effect, Keith's strategist. It's an easy job for dad.

Keith is a gifted programmer who pulls down a 94 average in school. Slight of frame and a gawky 5 foot 5, he is a child in the physical sense, but in his comportment he seems more mature than his father, a serial cackler who lets the occasional expletive slip during the flow of conversation.

Keith, on the other hand, is uncommonly serious and proper-he can't even use the word "idiotic" without pardoning himself. He also has no discernible sense of humour. Considering he just started high school, you'd expect to find an edge, a hint of guile. Not so. When I ask Keith about the biggest adjustment from public to secondary school, he says, "I found there was a large improvement in academics." When I ask him what his chums are doing for March break, he shrugs, "They're probably loitering."

On a typical school day, Keith comes home from classes, peruses the newspapers for an hour, then devotes another three or four hours to Cyberteks. He still has to make time for homework, as well as meet his commitments as a hockey player-he has practices or games seven to eight times a week.

In April, Keith's team, the South East London Bruins, took part in the Ontario Provincial Championship in London. Playing net in a game against Sarnia, Keith was nurturing a shutout until the last five minutes, when an opposing forward skated in, parted the defence and, with a desperate effort, chipped the puck past him. London still won the game, but Deepal, sitting in the stands, was dispirited; he believes Keith "lost his concentration."

"He needs to be more aggressive," Deepal says. Still, he does not bully his son, nor does Keith seem put out by his father's impositions.

While we were eating burgers in the arena food court after the game, I asked Keith who the tougher critic is, he or his dad. "I usually already know what I'm doing wrong," the younger Peiris replied. "He just reinforces it in a more agitating manner." Keith was typically pokerfaced. It wasn't intended as a witticism.

When Keith started to gain an international profile, Deepal made him watch videos of his speeches. "At first, he was very rigid," says Deepal, referring to his son's oratory. Keith hated reviewing these tapes, but the analysis helped; it made him more relaxed in front of crowds (although he's still rather taut one-on-one). "It's the same for hockey," says his father. "Practice, practice, practice has made him more self-confident."

Now, when he's in front of a television camera, Keith is the consummate professional. The Sports Network had sent a crew to the NHL trade show to profile the teen for an episode of That's Hockey! Once the mike was in place, he asked the crew if he should turn his computer monitor down to 60 hertz; otherwise, the camera would pick up a shimmering effect. He tilted his head this way and that, exhibiting his mastery of the business interview. He came across as knowledgeable and positive, and expansive without revealing anything delicate. Question: "Do you want to be the Bill Gates of web design?" Answer: "Everybody's goal when they go into business is to monopolize their industry."

As the trade show wound down, however, Keith was visibly weary. Two days of standing around and grinning had worn him right out. In an attempt to divest their cargo, many vendors were giving away free merchandise. A Toronto company called Channel 1 Media Solutions handed out stress balls, and I suggested to Keith that we throw one around to pass the time. We fired the ball back and forth for a while, until Keith looked a little vexed.

"Are you not enjoying this?" I asked.

"I'm enjoying this," he replied, peering glumly at passing delegates, "but I don't want to look like a kid."

Looking like a kid

It's late March in Prince George, B.C., at the Central Interior Science Exhibition. Held on the picturesque campus of the University of Northern British Columbia, this is one of the biggest events of the year in the city of 72,000, luring the brightest kids from grades 4 to 12 to enlighten judges with such projects as "Let-tuce Eat Healthy" and "Heavyweight Championships of Velcro." Science is cool these days, like the internet was in the late 1990s.

Sixteen-year-old Gina Gallant's entry in the fair is called "PAR III: Paving Our Future." It chronicles her trials with a new kind of asphalt, PolyAggreRoad (PAR), which contains recycled plastic.

A teenage boy swaggers over to Gina's table, friends in tow. "You're the one who made crackers that don't get soggy." Indeed, in Grade 5, Gina had invented crackers that remain crisp in soup (by adding a secret compound she self-referentially calls "substance G"). The invention had made all the local papers.

"So where are they?" quips the lad.

"You're so stupid," groans one of his pals. Gina indulges the boy's insolence, graciously explaining that the project he's looking at concerns asphalt.

He points at her display and blurts, "Did you make that?"

"What?" she asks.

"The laptop!"

Everyone bursts out in laughter, though in Prince George, the consensus does seem to be that Gina Gallant can do anything.

Her business card reads "Inventor," and for more than a decade, Gina has demonstrated a head for all sorts of clever ideas. Her dictum: "I like to fix problems." In Grade 1, she made paper by crushing broccoli, blending it with ripped-up used brown-and-white paper and water, and then flattening it into sheets with an iron. In 1999, her younger brother, Jordan, was hit by a car while riding his bike. According to police, a helmet saved his life. This inspired Gina to devise headgear with light-emitting diodes that make cyclists more visible to drivers.

All of which has made Gina a veritable celebrity. She has the ear of Mayor Colin Kinsley. Strangers stop the freckled teen for autographs when she's out and about (one guy even joked about selling it on eBay). Word around Kelly Road Secondary School is that Gina Gallant employs paid bodyguards. She says the rumour is bunk, but students give her a wide berth in the halls.

Her work with asphalt was instigated by her dad, Ken Gallant, head lab technician at the nearby Husky Oil refinery. Through him, Gina began doing some unpaid work with asphalt for the company. Having learned that one-third of most landfills contain plastics, Gina pondered a way to reuse discarded bottles. She came up with a hypothesis: "Plastic is based on hydrocarbons and asphalt is based on hydrocarbons, therefore they'd have a natural bond."

Months of experimentation at Husky followed, and Gina discovered that the ideal mix for PAR was 3% plastic (the kind used for laundry detergent bottles), 6% asphalt and 91% aggregate (crushed stone and gravel). She pitched the idea of testing PAR to Mayor Kinsley, a family friend. He loved the plan, and designated a little strip of Cranbrook Hill Road, a rutted, winding thoroughfare north of downtown "PG," as the test site. The project went ahead on Oct. 24, 2002. Husky Oil donated the asphalt, Calgary-based Ingenia Polymers the plastic. Columbia Bitulithic did the paving, and AMEC Earth and Environmental took core samples to test PAR's efficacy.

"The fact that this project in particular has been supported by a number of businesses in Prince George-that's a fair testament to what she's done," says Roy Warnock, vice-president of upgrading and refining at Husky Oil.

Gina expounded on her new paving material at a recent annual general meeting of the B.C. Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association. She remembers it as "harsh"-a high-pressure presentation for a teenager.

Ken Gallant isn't an outwardly emotional type, but you can tell that his daughter's anxieties weigh on him. Being the parent of an inventor-enfantrepreneur requires delicacy: Do you bridle the kid, in a well-intentioned effort to keep them grounded, or do you resign yourself to the role of anxious observer, hopeful that the pressure doesn't cause your child to flame out?

"As a parent, you worry," says Ken. "When you see it's getting heavy, you have to take them bowling."

Gina is acutely aware of the need for relief. "For me, I have to write my feelings down," she says, alluding to a notebook of poetry. "Like, if I don't, then I end up freaking at somebody for no reason." She also skateboards, and follows Eminem, Vin Diesel, Avril Lavigne and the local minor-league hockey team, the Prince George Cougars. Gina's mom, Crystal, swears that when she listens to Cougars games on the radio, she can actually make out her daughter's hoots and cheers.

It's Crystal who drives us in the family minivan to see Gina's handiwork on Cranbrook Hill Road. The PAR was laid in an L-shaped patch, like a lopsided Band-Aid.

"I can't believe it," Crystal swoons. "The cracks are gone." When the PAR was laid, it incurred a few fissures, known in engineering jargon as "laying fatalities," the result of underlying layers of paving. Now, six months after the PAR was laid, something subtle but miraculous has occurred: Some of the cracks have healed themselves.

"I had a theory that it might happen," Gina later observes. "Like, if the plastic melts, it would weave in and out of the lane, causing better expansion and contraction through the four seasons. But that was still yet to be proven. And right now it's proving itself."

This revelation is the crux of Gina's science-fair project. If PAR continues to exhibit its restorative qualities, it might become marketable. And Gina predicts PAR will exceed the typical 20-year lifespan of regular paving material-perhaps even double it. As yet, however, none of her innovations has earned her any money. She still relies on baby-sitting for her disposable income.

"I never started [inventing] thinking that I was going to get rich," says Gina. "I went in it because it's fun. It's like opening a present, or a door when you don't know what's behind it. It's a mystery. It's the excitement of doing competitions and things. If I get awards and money and stuff like that, it's a bonus."

To no one's surprise, "PAR III: Paving Our Future" cleans up at the 2003 Central Interior Science Exhibition. Not only does Gina take a gold medal, but she wins three sponsored awards, including one from the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology, which comes with a $100 prize.

The next morning, as she orders her customary French vanilla cappuccino at Tim Hortons, the girl behind the counter congratulates her. Same thing happens with the girl buttering Gina's bagel. She gets recognized at Tim Hortons a lot. A while back, an elderly lady, a complete stranger, asked for an autograph.

"That was when I still had my old signature," she says. She scribbles her name on a scrap of paper. "Now I have a pro signature." For the new look, first and last names, with the G doing double-duty. Instead of dotting the "i," Gina substitutes a tiny heart shape. It all looks grown-up-but not too grown-up.

Young Bucks

Henry Ford began tinkering with machinery at 11-taking apart a watch he'd received as a gift-and very early on he recognized the potential power of mass production. The world, however, was not quite ready for Ford: His quest to standardize the automobile sputtered and stalled repeatedly due to the trepidation of early investors.

Bill Gates, who began programming computers at 13, and partner Paul Allen spent their early 20s buying and borrowing ideas from others and adapting them to new uses. Their canny marriage of software and hardware led to Microsoft and billions in the bank, and proved invention is useless without a practical application and patents.

When he was 19, Michael Dell struck upon the idea of selling personal computers directly to consumers and found $1,000 to finance his nascent company. He now has the longest tenure of any computer-industry CEO-19 years-and became the youngest chief executive of a Fortune 500 company when Dell Inc. made that list in 1992.

Charles B. Johnson, now the CEO of financial services giant Franklin Resources, took the reins of Franklin Distributors at age 24 in 1957, giving him plenty of time-46 years-to amass a personal fortune in the billions. It pays to start young.

At the tender age of 21, Steve Jobs, along with partner Steve Wozniak, introduced the Apple personal computer-proof you didn't need an elephant-sized machine to automate your life. He's been pushing the boundaries (of gadgetry if not necessarily sales) ever since.

 

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