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
"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
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
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
"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
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'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
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
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
"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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
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)