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20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow

Teen Entrepreneurs

Kirsten Chang|CNBC News Associate
Teen Entrepreneurs
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With today’s jobs market in a dismal state, no buzz word has given more hope to the youthful unemployed than the word “entrepreneurship.”More and more, young men and women are striking gold – armed with a strong innovative spirit, a razor-sharp focus and an ability to hold their own out in the marketplace. From coaches, automobiles and limos to T-shirts, street fashion – and, yes, the inevitable social networking tools so embraced by the 21st century – industries across the globe are seeing thei
Photo: Peter Dazeley | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

With today’s jobs market in a dismal state, no buzz word has given more hope to the youthful unemployed than the word “entrepreneurship.”

More and more, young men and women are striking gold — armed with a strong innovative spirit, a razor-sharp focus and an ability to hold their own in the marketplace. From coaches, automobiles and limos to T-shirts, street fashion — and, yes, the inevitable social networking tools so embraced by the 21st century, industries across the globe are seeing their very own teen tycoons-in-the-making.

Click ahead to see 10 budding young entrepreneurs who have already made it big — even in the face of today’s daunting market!

By Kirsten Chang
Posted 8 August 2012

Episode one of “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow” premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m. ET; episode 2 premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. ET.

Jon Koon
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Started business when he was 16: Auto parts, fashionFrom a very young age, Chinese-American Jon Koon was already a mogul-in-the-making. He saw huge discrepancies between American and Japanese automobiles, in terms of innovation and design, and used the $5,000 he’d saved up from red “lai see” packets to make aggressive moves into the auto market.He started purchasing car parts from international supply chains, teamed up with a local mechanic and worked his magic to give tons of cars spiffy, high-
Photo: Tykoon Brand Holdings

Started business when he was 16
Business: Auto parts, fashion

From a very young age, Chinese-American Jon Koon was already a mogul-in-the-making. He saw huge discrepancies between American and Japanese automobiles in terms of innovation and design, and used the $5,000 he’d saved up from red “lai see” packets to make aggressive moves into the auto market.

He started purchasing car parts from international supply chains, teamed up with a local mechanic and worked his magic to give tons of cars spiffy, high-end finishes and fancy engines with top-notch speakers — all of which gave rise to the blinged-out car craze that was MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” show.

Not long after, Jon opened a manufacturing business that distributed auto parts to a variety of niche markets. In 2008, he switched gears when American rapper Young Jeezy took Jon on as the exclusive partner in his line of clothing, 8732. Soon enough, Jon stuck with fashion as his true calling and his company, Tykoon Brand Holdings, now owns and operates several brands across the globe.

As of 2011, Tykoon Brand Holdings was worth $80 million — and Jon looks forward to several new projects Tykoon has lined up for the near future.

Connor Zwick
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Started business when he was 16: EducationDuring his junior year of high school, Connor Zwick quickly grew disenchanted with the education system. He saw a deep disconnect between that system and the process by which students learned new things, and wanted to explore that dynamic further.After looking to different governmental policy changes for a solution, he soon realized that the only true way to improve the system was by innovating through technology. "Flashcards+ was my initial attempt at d
Photo: Thiel Foundation

Started business when he was 16
Business: Education

During his junior year of high school, Connor Zwick quickly grew disenchanted with the education system. He saw a deep disconnect between that system and the process by which students learned new things, and wanted to explore that dynamic further.

After looking to different governmental policy changes for a solution, he soon realized that the only true way to improve the system was by innovating through technology. "Flashcards+ was my initial attempt at disrupting the education system, by targeting the way individual students learn, and optimizing it," he said.

Now, the website is one of the most popular grassroots educational tools of all time, and it continues to grow like wildfire. To date, 1.6 million users have downloaded and used the site.

Sean Belnick
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Started business when he was 14: BelnickBefore office retailers like Staples started bringing their businesses online, Sean Belnick saw a huge, untapped market for furniture back in 2001. At age 14, he aimed to simplify the process consumers faced of buying furniture by founding BizChair.com. He started small, initially selling only office chairs. By selling goods directly to buyers, Sean managed to rake revenues of $42 million by 2008.“Customers won, we won and everyone was happy but the middle
Photo: bizchair.com

Started business when he was 14
Business: Belnick

Before office retailers like Staples started bringing their businesses online, Sean Belnick saw a huge, untapped market for furniture back in 2001. At age 14, he aimed to simplify the process consumers faced of buying furniture by founding BizChair.com. He started small, initially selling only office chairs. By selling goods directly to buyers, Sean managed to rake in revenues of $42 million by 2008.

“Customers won, we won and everyone was happy but the middle man,” he told Entrepreneur.com.

He has since expanded the business to include more furniture for offices, homes and restaurants. Now, at 25, he continues to lead the firm’s evolving market strategy and to focus on the development of new IT initiatives. In 2010, Belnick, the parent company of BizChair.com, saw sales rise to $58 million.

Ritik Malhotra
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Started business when he was 12: Gaming, webhosting, education, etc.Always on the hunt for new ideas, Ritik Malhotra began programming when he was just 8. Four years later, he started a website that let viewers read comics online, and after reading up on useful SEO tactics, he managed to attract 250,000 visitors in one year. He eventually mastered the art of making websites — starting a gaming site and then a popular web forum that attracted 6.5 million viewers in a single year.Following that, h
Photo: Thiel Foundation

Started business when he was 12
Business: Gaming, webhosting, education, etc.

Always on the hunt for new ideas, Ritik Malhotra began programming when he was just 8. Four years later, he started a website that let viewers read comics online, and after reading up on useful SEO tactics, he managed to attract 250,000 visitors in one year. He eventually mastered the art of making websites — starting a gaming site and then a popular web forum that attracted 6.5 million viewers in a single year.

Following that, he ran a webhosting and software consultancy business called HostingAxis by the time he was 13. It garnered a return of more than 600 times his initial investment. While the site had revenues in the high single-digit thousands, Ritik shut it just before he entered high school so he could focus on his studies.

Now, Ritik is co-founder of Silicon Valley Prep — a learning academy that teaches various levels of competitive math, computer science and public speaking to elementary, middle- and high-school students. A 2012 Thiel Fellow, the 19-year-old also co-founded Greply, a venture-backed startup in Silicon Valley, and has just built a tool that allows users to search the web for the cheapest deals on any given product.

Revenues from Silicon Valley Prep have totaled up to $45,000 in one summer alone. As for Greply, he and co-founder Samvit Ramadurgam are “going for high growth, so we’ll see how the numbers turn out,” Malhotra said.

Ray Land
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Started when he was 17: Coach, car and limousine serviceWhen Ray Land was in the eighth grade, he was already a natural-born coordinator. He planned his first trip – a trip for his classmates and him to venture to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. – and unearthed a passion for planning, traveling and meeting new people. It wasn’t long before he became known as the resident travel planner in his school, and other classmates would ask him to plan tours for them in cities like New York and Washing
Photo: Laura Fowler Photo

Started when he was 17
Business: Coach, car and limousine service

When Ray Land was in eighth grade, he was already a natural-born coordinator. He planned his first trip — a trip for his classmates and him to venture to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. — and unearthed a passion for planning, traveling and meeting new people. It wasn’t long before he became known as the resident travel planner in his school, and other classmates would ask him to plan tours for them in cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

By age 17, he bought his first motor coach — an old 1989 49-passenger — to provide premiere transportation to passengers needing to travel. With a newfound company, Fabulous Coach, Ray soon realized the need to expand. At its peak in 2011, the firm operated 65 vehicles across North America on revenue of $6.5 million.

“This year, we downsized to help [streamline] the fleet, and we are back in growth mode now,” he said.

Right now, Fabulous Coach coordinates roughly 150 trips per week for several thousand guests, and Ray is currently working to create a travel destination in Florida and to create an interstate stop that showcases all that Florida has to offer.

Brian Wong

Started business when he was 19
Business: Mobile rewards network

After leaving his job at Digg, Brian Wong decided to do some traveling to take his mind off things. On one of his trips, he began observing “a ton of mobile activity around the globe,” even as he strolled up and down airplane aisles.

He saw that no matter where he went, everyone appeared to be engrossed in playing games on their cell phones, and he suddenly had an epiphany — achievements create happiness, and natural happiness can be leveraged in a meaningful way. So, with the help of a former co-worker and seed money from venture capitalists, Brian formed Kiip — a mobile app rewards network that enables companies to dole out tangible rewards to players for in-game achievements. Just imagine getting a $10 gift card from Starbucks whenever you hit that next level in Mega Jump!

Right now, Kiip has partnered with more than 40 brands to hand out rewards in over 400 games. In its latest round of funding, the firm raised $11 million to fuel more global growth in the mobile rewards market. Kiip has raised a total of $15.4 million to date.

His advice to aspiring young tycoons? Generate serendipity. “You actually have the ability to create your own luck, and most of us don’t realize this,” he said. “Don’t wait around for things to happen. Seize every opportunity.”

Jack Uesugi
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Started business when he was 16: T-shirtsGrowing up in Wahiawa, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, Jack Uesugi always found himself surrounded by art. His father was a graphic web designer and his mother was a photographer, and both taught him the value of running a business early on. At an art event, Jack beheld an impressive array of work by little-known local artists and felt the urge to put the pieces on silkscreen prints.At 16, Jack started a line of limited-run T-shirts and prints. Instead of
Photo: Steve Nohara

Started business when he was 16
Business: T-shirts

Growing up in Wahiawa, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, Jack Uesugi always found himself surrounded by art. His father, a graphic web designer, and his mother, a photographer, taught him the value of running a business early on. At an art event, Jack discovered an impressive array of work by little-known local artists and felt the urge to put the pieces on silkscreen prints.

At 16, Jack started a line of limited-run T-shirts and prints. Instead of starting out with a business plan, Jack said he set the company in motion by taking baby steps “until the business started building on its own momentum.”

The company, a1000x, often donates a portion of its profits to charities and showcases the work of artists who don’t know how to market themselves. The philosophy behind the brand dictates that for every time you give, you get “a thousand times” back. “It’s about finding a passion and doing it big,” Jack said of his mentality toward the business.

Now entering his senior year in high school, Jack has had to tone down the business to prep for AP tests, finals and college applications. But he’s picking things up again this summer with a newly revamped marketing plan. His a1000x has averaged roughly $5,000 in monthly online sales via the company website, but Jack hopes to get more of his product into stores and on other online retailers.

Sujay Tyle
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Started business when he was 13: Eyesight, social mediaA young man dedicated to improving the world’s vision, Sujay Tyle co-founded ReSight, a startup devoted to eradicating blindness, at the tender age of 13. Still in high school, he began the nonprofit organization with brother Sheel Tyle because the two had poor eyesight, and geared the initiative toward especially helping the visually impaired in South Asia.After constant fundraising, contacting hospitals and connecting with high net-worth i
Photo: Thiel Foundation

Started business when he was 13
Business: Eyesight, social media

A young man dedicated to improving the world’s vision, Sujay Tyle co-founded ReSight, a startup devoted to eradicating blindness, at the tender age of 13. Still in high school, he began the nonprofit organization with brother Sheel Tyle because the two had poor eyesight, and geared the initiative toward helping the visually impaired in South Asia.

After constant fundraising, contacting hospitals and connecting with high net-worth individuals, they raised roughly $15,000 to start their operation. But the emphasis is not on the money, Sujay said. The focus is on empowering women to become “vision guardians” in underprivileged areas of India by providing cheaper, more accessible treatment. Once vision guardian status is obtained, they can then screen villages for others who may also be candidates for the cure.

So far, ReSight has reached over 10,000 people, with 40 vision guardians all over India. Sujay’s next goal is to raise $10,000 to employ another class of vision guardians and expand the brand to other regions of the world.

He started attending Harvard University when he was just 15, but dropped out after three years to become a 2011 Thiel Fellow. Through the fellowship, he now leads business and development strategy at Scopely, a Los Angeles-based stealth startup focused on empowering developers across the globe to build social mobile games.

Cory Levy
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Started business when he was 19: Social mediaAt 15, Cory Levy was passionate about entrepreneurship before he even knew what the word meant. He would work for a startup every day after school, soaking up the business until he started to wonder what life was like from a venture capitalist’s perspective.After cold-calling and sending out Facebook messages to a number of high-powered executives from many venture capital funds, Cory finally got an in with Union Square Ventures. He sat in on board me
Photo: Josh Holat

Started business when he was 19
Business: Social media

At 15, Cory Levy was passionate about entrepreneurship before he even knew what the word meant. He would work for a startup every day after school, soaking up the business until he started to wonder what life was like from a venture capitalist’s perspective.

After cold-calling and sending out Facebook messages to high-powered executives from many venture capital funds, Cory finally got an in with Union Square Ventures. He sat in on board meetings and watched top-tier management at work. Eventually, one of the investors offered seed money when Cory and co-founder Michael Callahan decided to form the social media startup One.

From Cory’s point of view, most people have met the key figures in their lives through some chance encounter. It was this “macro” mentality that spurred the creation of One — an app that allows individuals to list all the things they love to a personal profile, and that then connects those individuals to others in the nearby area who share some of those interests. “We’re moving more and more into a world of personalization and branding,” Cory said. Plus, people love to keep track of the things they’re into.

He also founded the NextGen Conference, an event that brings top-tier investors and young thinkers like Cory together to create a world-class network of innovative minds.

Catherine and David Cook
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Started business when they were 15 and 16: Social mediaWhen Catherine Cook moved to her new high school in New Jersey, she and her brother Dave, saw a need for “social discovery” and better tools to meet new people. With the help of a $250,000 investment from their older brother, Geoff, the pair created the online yearbook known as myYearbook.com. The site grew rapidly, and within 10 months, myYearbook had 1 million users.As the firm expanded, it left the high school realm and started connecting
Photo: MeetMe

Started business when they were 15 and 16
Business: Social media

When Catherine Cook moved to her new high school in New Jersey, she and her brother Dave saw a need for “social discovery” and better tools to meet new people. With the help of a $250,000 investment from their older brother, Geoff, the pair created the online yearbook known as myYearbook.com. The site grew rapidly, and within 10 months, myYearbook had 1 million users.

As the firm expanded, it left the high school realm and started connecting many more multitudes of people. It has since been sold to social networking site Quepasa for $100 million in cash and stock and been renamed MeetMe — attracting advertisers like Neutrogena, ABC and Disney. The Cooks expect MeetMe to be translated into six more languages by the end of 2012.

According to comScore, MeetMe jumped from the 29th most-trafficked site in the U.S. to 18th by page views, with roughly 32 million users reported in 2011. Dave and Catherine still work at the company. Geoff Cook is COO.

"20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow"
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Episode one of “” premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m. ET; episode 2 premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. ET.

Episode one of “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow” premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m. ET; episode 2 premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. ET.