Meet the Whiz Kids: 10 Overachievers Under 21

Ten young innovators are about to make Web 2.0 passé.

ByDan Tynan, PC World

— -- Mark Zuckerberg, watch your back. Sergey and Larry? Consider early retirement.

The next generation is coming up fast, and they aren't waiting for you Web 2.0 geezers to step aside. Here are 10 serious overachievers--20 years old or younger--with more ambition, energy, tech smarts, and business savvy than you'll find in most entire high-tech companies, let alone most adults.

Like various graying legends of the PC revolution (Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Michael Dell), these ten didn't wait until they were of age before starting their meteoric careers. Some are already millionaires; others seem destined to achieve greatness in other ways.

Catch them now while they're still young and relatively innocent. And maybe, if you're lucky, one of them will someday offer you a job.

1. The Serial Entrepreneur

Ben Casnocha, of Comcate.Ben Casnocha, 19

Few people of any age have started a software company and written a book--and considerably fewer 19-year-olds have. But Ben Casnocha is one of them.

Inspired by a teacher who made him memorize Apple's Think Different ads, Casnocha founded Comcate, which sells software designed to help local governments resolve citizen complaints. The specific impetus came from having "a personal experience where I realized how poor some local governments were at dealing with customer service." It was the second company Casnocha had started; he was 14 years old.

At age 17, Casnocha was named one of the nation's top 25 entrepreneurs under 25 by Business Week for his work running Comcate, yet he also found time to be captain of his San Francisco University High School basketball team and editor of Devil's Advocate, the school newspaper.

After finishing high school, Casnocha took a year off to travel and write a book about his experiences called My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley. His personal blog--where he opines on topics from technology to spirituality to politics--has been named one of the top 25 in Silicon Valley by the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Casnocha enrolled at California's Claremont McKenna college last fall and seems almost irrationally modest about his success so far.

"I don't believe in long-term plans," he says. "Most good things that happen to me are unexpected. Certainly, you can cultivate 'positive, bulk randomness' (a topic I discuss in my book), but some of it is just sheer luck and timing."

Read the full interview

2. The Youngest 'Old Pol'

Stephen Yellin, political blogger.Stephen Yellin, 19

Talk to Stephen Yellin about his favorite subject--politics--and he sounds like a seasoned veteran of the political wars. And he is. Heck, he's been talking and writing about politics since he was 13.

A highly respected liberal blogger at Daily Kos, Yellin advises candidates on how to reach out to the Net community. At age 15 he was called "the Trippi of the future," a reference to Joe Trippi, who brought Democratic fund raising into the Internet age for Howard Dean's campaign. Yellin deflects the compliment, however. "I hope to one day be as good as Joe Trippi," he says.

Unlike most political bloggers, Yellin emerges from behind the keyboard and gets his hands dirty, too. He's currently a Democratic Committeeman for Union County, New Jersey, and he worked on several New Jersey State Senate campaigns last year.

At one time, Yellin thought he might run for office himself one day. But now that he's seen how the sausage is made, he's lost some of his appetite.

"Candidates are on the phone 8 hours a day, five days a week, asking for money," he says. "You end up running around talking to people you don't know and making deals with people you don't like. I'm not saying to be a candidate you have to sell your soul, but I think you have to compromise what you truly believe in."

Yellin's new goal: To teach history at the college level.

"I'd like to believe in a world full of good people working together to build a better society," he says. "The best defense against tyranny is to have a strong democratic society where people take their responsibility seriously."

3. The MySpace Millionaire

Ashley Qualls, of Qualls, 17

Here's a riddle: How do you take $8 and turn it into a $1 million? Put it in the hands of Ashley Qualls. Three years ago, Ashley borrowed $8 from her mother, purchased the domain, and began posting her own MySpace backgrounds, free to download.

Heavy on hearts, frills, and lyrics from popular songs, the designs were a huge hit with MySpace's massive female population. Attracting hundreds of thousands of hits each day from 14- to 17-year-old girls, the site was a natural for advertisers. Last year, brought in $1 million in ad revenue and 7 million unique visitors each month.

It wasn't quite as easy as it sounds, says Qualls. With the profits from the site, she bought her mother a house and set up Whateverlife's Detroit headquarters in the basement. Long days and nights followed. The demands of running the business forced Ashley to quit high school, leaving behind a 3.8 GPA. She hired her mother to help her run the site, which produced its own set of tensions. Despite her success as an entrepreneur, she couldn't sign contracts by herself because she was too young.

"The biggest challenge I've had is my age being a big factor in anything and everything I do," she says. "It sometimes can be difficult to have business owners take a 17-year-old seriously. I'm glad I'm finally legally turning 18 this year."

Her age hasn't limited her ambitions. Whateverlife has branched out into an online magazine and a virtual store (though Ashley turned down an offer to star in a reality show based on her life). Nevertheless, she's still a girl at heart.

"I do miss the fact that I won't be graduating with my friends this year," she says. "They're all getting excited, and it's sad to know I won't be a part of that exact moment. But they are here with me, and I'm still going to my prom!"

Read the full interview

4. The Quiz Master

Andrew Sutherland, creator of Quizlet.Andrew Sutherland, 18

It started with a French test. Andrew Sutherland, then a 15-year-old high school freshman in Albany, California, had to memorize 111 French terms for animals (including "winnie l'ourson," better known to us as Winnie the Pooh). Most kids would write up flash cards or badger their parents into helping them prep. Instead, Sutherland created a software program that ultimately turned into Quizlet, a Web-based tool that anyone can use to memorize vocabulary terms.

Users enter the terms they need to memorize and the correct definitions, and Quizlet does the rest--logging their correct answers and retesting them on any they miss. Since Sutherland publicly launched Quizlet in January 2007, some 130,000 users have taken more than 12 million quizzes on subjects ranging from Animal Farm to Zoroaster.

To handle the business aspects of the endeavor, Sutherland formed a company called Brainflare, with his father Howard as CFO/Secretary. But Quizlet fans may have to wait awhile before Sutherland rolls out the company's second product. The first one took 450 days to build before he unveiled it. And Sutherland, who was recently accepted to MIT, says becoming a software magnate was never one of his career goals.

"I wanted to be a firefighter, an astronaut, a zookeeper; you know, all the typical things," he says. "I never really thought out a choice to make a career out of computers. I just got more and more into it, and now here I am."

Read the full interview

5. The Junkyard Genius

Garret Yazzie, inventor.Garrett Yazzie, 16

Garret Yazzie wasn't trying to become a teenage celebrity when he invented a solar home heater out of a 1967 Pontiac radiator and 69 aluminum soda cans. The then-13-year-old was merely trying to heat his family's trailer on Arizona's Navajo Indian Reservation, which had no running water and limited electricity.

That invention garnered Yazzie national attention. He won first place at the 2005 Arizona American Indian Science and Engineering Fair and was one of 40 finalists (out of 7500 applicants) to attend the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge in Washington, D.C. Arizona State University created a scholarship in his name; and last April, ABC's Extreme Makeover TV show presented his family with a new house.

But Garrett wasn't done. The next year, he invented a water wheel using an industrial-size cable spool connected to a 10-speed bicycle and an alternator. The wheel produced enough electricity to power a refrigerator or light up a mountain cabin. Once again, he won the American Indian science fair and placed as a semifinalist in the Discovery Channel challenge.

At the challenge, Garrett met the Pierz family, who offered to take him in and provide a better education than he could get at home. Now 16, he's a sophomore at a private prep school in Clarkston, Michigan. But he hopes to return to Arizona and build a business that designs and sells alternative energy devices.

"I also want to build my business on the reservation to create jobs and futures for other kids just like me," says Yazzie. "I want those kids to know that if they get a good education they can find a good job on the reservation, near their families. I want to also remind people that living in harmony with our environment, with Mother Earth and Father Sky is not only a good idea; it is the only way that is sustainable long-term."

6. The Alchemist

Anshul Samar, creator of Elementeo.Anshul Samar, 14

Like Quizlet's Andrew Sutherland, Anshul Samar began his entrepreneurial career by seeking an alternative to soporific study techniques--in this case, mastering chemistry. So he created Elementeo, a card game based on chemical elements in which players battle to reduce their opponents' electrons (and ultimately their in-game IQ) to zero.

Anshul started his company with a $500 grant from the California Association of the Gifted. As founder and CEO of Alchemist Empire, Inc., Anshul says he spends most of his time "designing, engineering, R&D, corresponding with designers and artists, giving pitches to people that are interested, marketing, testing, and doing a lot of brainstorming." That's in addition to chatting up venture capitalists and lawyers, giving talks to parents and teachers, doing presentations at conferences, talking to the media, and finishing his homework. Because, after all, he's only an 8th-grader.

Last May, Anshul was the hit of TIEcon, a annual gathering of tech entrepreneurs, outshining such luminaries as's Marc Benioff and eBay's former CEO, Meg Whitman.

"Living in Silicon Valley, I have seen all of these people starting their own businesses, showing the world their product, and being entrepreneurs," says Samar. "Since 4th grade, I've dreamed of being the CEO of my own business. And now, in 8th grade, I am finally one."

If Elementeo doesn't catch on, Anshul says, he's not worried. "If this business fails, I can still come home and have a nice dinner. I will still have my basketball hoop in my backyard and my skateboard in the garage."

Read the full interview

7. The Chair Man

Sean Belnick, of Belnick, 20

At age 20, Sean is the oldest wunderkind in our group, but he takes a back seat to no one. And why should he? Six years ago, he started an online furniture business that grossed $38 million in 2007.

At age 14, Sean Belnick was already making $1000 a month selling Pokemon cards and other collectibles on eBay. He figured that the same model could work with almost anything. And with a stepfather who worked for a furniture maker, that market seemed like the most logical place to start. Investing $600 in Web hosting and online advertising, he launched to sell office furniture direct to businesses. Now, six years later, Belnick occupies the number2 spot on Inc. Magazine's list of America's "30 coolest young entrepreneurs," and his customer list includes Microsoft, Google, and the Pentagon.

Now a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, studying business (naturally), Belnick leaves the day-to-day operations to his stepdad, Gary Glazer. After graduation, he plans to climb behind the CEO's desk once more. And when he does, he'll be sitting on more than just his laurels.

8. The Master of Domains

Matt Wegrzyn, of Wegrzyn, 19

You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to get the better of Matt Wegrzyn, of In fact, you might not want to go to bed at all. The creator of says that "a typical day probably starts at 10 a.m. for me and lasts until 5 a.m. There's just too much to do in order to sleep. I feel like I need to work every hour possible on the weekdays in order for this company to be successful."

Bodis is a domain-name parking service. If you invest in a domain name but don't want to create a site for it, you can park it with Bodis. It will place click-through ads on a page bearing your domain name, then split the revenues with you. In 2007, Bodis split enough ad revenues to pull in $1 million.

It was a natural venture for Matt, who bought his first domain name at 17 for $120 and sold it a few weeks later for $500. Eventually he became a premier "domainer," selling some plum names for as much as six figures. But he considers himself a developer first and an entrepreneur second.

"In my opinion, developers have the biggest advantage," says Wegrzyn, who mastered the ColdFusion programming language by age 15 and has done all of the development work on Bodis. "They can easily start their own company, sell their own software, develop their own code. And there's always something that you can develop that is not out there. There's nothing better than knowing your own service/product inside-out--literally."

It also helps if you keep a schedule that would turn most people into zombies. But Matt has vowed to start taking it easier very soon. "By 2009 I [will] work normal hours, no more all-nighters," he says. "And by 2010 I plan on showing up only a few hours per week. It's not because I will lose dedication. I believe with all the hard work I am putting in right now, there won't even be a need for me to show up two years from now."

Read the full interview

9.  The iPhone Hacker

George Hotz won a prize offered by for unlocking iPhone software. George Hotz, 18

Most hacking exploits earn their creator at best notoriety, and at worst, a prison sentence. But when George Francis Hotz became the first person to unlock Apple's iPhone last August, enabling it to work with any GSM wireless carrier, he got a $50,000 Nissan 350Z and three more iPhones. The car was courtesy of Certicell, a Louisville-based firm that resells used handsets; Certicell also took the opportunity to hire the then-17-year-old as a consultant.

But Hotz is no one-trick wonder. Before he ever touched the innards of an iPhone, he had won a $20,000 prize in a national science competition sponsored by Intel. The title of his project--"I Want a Holodeck"--proves he's nothing if not ambitious.

These days, the New Jersey teen is studying biotechnology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. For fun, he hacked the magnetic stripe on his student ID card, enabling him to unlock any door on the RIT campus. But he still finds time to play with iPhones. In February, Hotz published another exploit that permits a full software unlock of the latest iPhone software, earning him an additional $1182 from a Web-sponsored unlocking contest.

Memo to Steve Jobs: Hire this kid now, before he puts you out of business.

10. The Social Director

Catherine Cook, of Cook, 18

Imagine a cross between MySpace and Facebook, only operated by the teenagers who dominate those sites. Now imagine that it's the fastest-growing social network on the planet. That's

Not bad for a couple of New Jersey high school students.

In 2005 Catherine Cook was a 15-year-old sophomore tired of her high school yearbook and unimpressed by its online equivalents. "Friendster was boring, MySpace was creepy, and Classmates was a rip-off," she wrote. At the time, Facebook was open only to college students. Why not create something she and her friends would actually use?

So she brought in her 16-year-old brother Dave and her 26-year-old brother Geoff, already a successful Web entrepreneur with a company called CyberEdit, Inc., and started With more than 5 million members, it's the world's seventh-largest social network and is growing at a rate of more than 400 percent per year, according to Hitwise.

"I grew up watching my oldest brother Geoff start and run his company, and I knew I didn't want to have a normal job like my parents--I wanted something cooler, more creative, and just more fun," says Cook. "I didn't necessarily see myself starting a social networking site, but I think I've always seen myself as an entrepreneur."

Unlike many of our other wonderkids, Cook says her age was an asset to her.

"When you're a teenager, it's virtually risk-free to start a business: You're still dependent on your parents, so really there are no major risks," says Cook. "Even if you fail, you'll still have a really really great college admissions essay, so just do it already."

Read the full interview

Contributing editor Dan Tynanhopes his kids read this story and take the hint.

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