The World's Youngest Billionaire: Will He Keep It?

It's an almost-brilliant move.

This has been a landmark week for Mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old founder of social networking site Facebook.

First, Forbes magazine — that arbiter of all things obscenely wealthy — declared Zuckerberg to be the youngest "self-made" billionaire on the planet. Then, associate editor Matthew Miller took the title up a notch by adding, "He is the youngest billionaire in the world right now — and we also believe he is the youngest self-made billionaire in history."

That last probably isn't true — but unlike, say, Alexander the Great, Zuckerberg didn't have to lead an army to conquer Asia Minor but merely created a venue for college girls to post photos for which they'll have to apologize for the rest of their lives (appropriately enough, because Facebook reportedly started out as a coed rating service for Zuckerberg's classmates at Harvard).

The actual historic value of Zuckerberg earning this title is probably negligible, because I doubt he'll hold it very long — or, for that matter, whether he'll still be a billionaire a few years from now, when Facebook follows MySpace as the Last Big Thing.

Here in Silicon Valley we are used to young geniuses who wave their paper billions — then get creamed by a stock price collapse just before their lock-out period ends.

That's why I can still count the real billionaires in this town on two hands (though I wouldn't worry about Mark: no matter what happens he'll walk away very rich and with at least seven decades to enjoy it).

Nevertheless, this is a watershed event of a sort. It is a reminder, as if we need another one, that the barriers to entry into tech by a bright young entrepreneur get lower every year, while the chances of early success get higher.

I may have written this a few years ago, but now's a good time to revisit it: In the 1950s, about the only way you could start a high-tech company was if you were a Ph.D. in solid-state physics or electrical engineering.

It wasn't until the end of the 1960s that the first professional businesspeople (Irwin Federman of Monolithic Memories comes to mind) actually began to run tech companies.

But two trends were already at work.

First, the infrastructure of entrepreneurship — facilities, venture capital, consultants, marketers — grew more sophisticated by the year, which enabled fewer veteran managers into the game.

Second, the technology itself became increasingly removed from the silicon-and-code world of early tech to high-level applications — i.e., now you didn't need to be a chip guy or a code writer to start a tech company.

By the 1970s, fewer and fewer tech companies were being started (or at least run) by lab types and more were in the hands of MBAs and marketing folks.

Then came Atari and Apple, two companies founded by the least likely entrepreneurs: a former carnival barker and two hackers. Apple's two Steves — Wozniak and Jobs — had gray-beard Mike Markkula, an Intel veteran, behind the scenes, but Nolan Bushnell ran Atari almost on his own.

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