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Tuesday, February 13, 2001

I'm just a kid, says 12-year-old CEO


THE 12-year-old boss of a website design company is one of 300 business and political leaders accompanying Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on his current trade mission to China.

Keith Peiris, who founded award-winning Cyberteks Design in June 1999 and now has some 25 clients in North America, insisted in an interview that he is "just like any other kid.''

But few kids face his decisions, like whether to sell out to US or Hong Kong investors for several million dollars, and what to do about would-be clients scared away by his tender years.

He and his father will spend nine days on the Team Canada trip to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where Chretien aims to showcase the best of Canadian business in the most populous country in the world.

Sitting in his office in the basement of his London, Ontario, home, Peiris told Reuters he discovered his passion for web design when he was 10 and was "playing around'' with software downloaded from a website. Bored with singer Britney Spears and the Pokemon cards and TV reruns his peers enjoyed, he experimented with interactive tools as a hobby.

"There was nothing else to do,'' the dark-haired boy said in a serious voice.

Demonstrating his music- and animation-laden interactive websites, he summed up his strategy: "You find the best sites out there and you see if you can do better. Of course, I am not the best designer out there yet, but I will strive to be.''

A glance at the complex, elegant animations on his site shows both the extent of Peiris' talent and why news agencies and broadcasters like CNN, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Australian television are calling daily to ask for interviews.

"He doesn't want to be No 2,'' his father Deepal said proudly, his eyes sparkling behind square glasses.

Impressed by his son's first website, the former accountant, president and marketing manager for Canadian computer companies presented him with a complete kit of Macromedia applications for his 11th birthday in February 1999.

A few months later Macromedia chairman Robert Burgess introduced Keith to the public as the youngest user of Flash animation and interactive tools.

Play becomes work

That launched his career as an entrepreneur and led to the creation of Cyberteks Design.

"It was his idea,'' said his father, who is now vice-president of operations at Cyberteks. "I am teaching my son what I know. We make decisions together. I haven't done anything my son disagreed with. He makes the final decision.''

The family business is already thriving. Cyberteks grew an astounding 600% in the last seven months, thanks in part to publicity over its young founder and the inclusion of the web design company in the gallery of Macromedia clients, along with Kodak, MSNBC and Cisco Systems.

With a revenue the family coyly admits is in six figures (in Canadian dollars), the company has seven offices in the United States and five part-time employees who, like the Peiris family, work from their London homes.

Keith says he enjoys being able to work in his pyjamas but scoffs at suggestions that he might eat in the office. "It's my loss if I drop cola on the keyboard. It's my work that is going to be ruined, so I am taking it seriously.''

An eighth grade student who wins top marks for his school work, he also plays three times a week as goalie for the London Knights ice hockey team and works nights and weekends on web design contracts.

"I really don't consider it work, I consider it fun. I just had to rearrange a few things,'' he said casually when asked about his heavy schedule. He admitted some potential clients change their minds when they learn about his age, but the well-informed not-yet-teenager tries to ignore them.

"There are a few people who don't understand me, but I try not too think about that. It's just one person in 6 billion (in the world),'' he said.

Mr Kid

"Suddenly, I've been known as the whizkid or geek, which I can't say I am too happy about. Some people -- very, very few -- have asked if they should call me 'Mister,' but I try to stay as casual as possible, simply because I am a kid still.''

But when offered a children's menu in a local bar and grill, he looks offended and asks for a normal menu.

Already planning ahead, he is saving money to study business and computer engineering. "People who take things for granted will be left behind eventually. You have to continue to work hard to be part of the new era,'' he said.

His parents, Deepal and Sryia Peiris, left war-torn Sri Lanka in 1981 to settle in Canada -- first Montreal, where Sryia was working on a doctorate in organic chemistry, then London, a city of 300,000 some 125 miles (200km) southwest of Toronto.

Now the family admits it is at a crossroads, mulling whether to sell Cyberteks or keep it.

"The question is whether to grow slowly or expand very fast,'' said Deepal, adding that the family may leave Canada but would leave their head office in Toronto if it did. "We don't know where we are going to be in the next few years.'' -- Reuters

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