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How a prodigy built a billion-dollar empire from age 14

  • GreenSky has connected consumers and banks for $8 billion in loans that are sourced through its mobile app.
  • GreenSky is founder David Zalik's fourth company and is valued at $3.6 billion by investors including Fifth Third Bancorp.
  • The former math prodigy attended college and founded his first company, a PC assembler and refurbisher, at 14.
  • GreenSky has reached more than 1.2 million consumers.

David Zalik has had numerous successes in his professional career, starting at a young age.

Zalik, a math whiz, bypassed high school and began attending college at Auburn University — also Apple CEO Tim Cook's alma mater — at age 14. (He actually began taking courses at Auburn at 12 after scoring off the charts on a standardized test.) Following in his father's footsteps, Zalik studied mathematics and launched his first business, MicroTech Information Systems, while a freshman in college. MicroTech assembled computers and sold them to students. The business took off, and Zalik expanded, selling refurbished computers to corporations and eventually offering software as well.

For eight years Zalik ran MicroTech Information Systems out of Auburn, Alabama. Like many tech success stories, Zalik was so successful so soon, he eventually dropped out of Auburn. In 1996 he sold the company, moved to Atlanta and founded two more companies — Phoenix and Outweb — using the MicroTech sale proceeds, which numbered "in the millions," Zalik told Bloomberg last year. (He actually first invested the proceeds in commercial real estate, a well-timed bet, before founding the additional companies.)

David Zalik, founder and CEO of GreenSky.
Chris Hamilton | GreenSky
David Zalik, founder and CEO of GreenSky.
"We've done eight-billion dollars. We have a trillion to go."

Atlanta-based Zalik is currently running his fourth successful business, mobile credit start-up GreenSky, which is partnering with banks to streamline the process of obtaining loans. The start-up raised money last year at a valuation of $3.6 billion from investors including Fifth Third Bancorp and was No. 17 on the 2017 CNBC Disruptor 50 list.

"We work with 17,000 merchant retailers ... to offer instant promotional credit to now over 1.2 million consumer customers," Zalik told CNBC.

More from the CNBC Disruptor 50:
A top VC on how to find start-ups worthy of investing money
The world's new superpowers aren't nations
A hot new market where start-ups are racing, far from Silicon Valley

GreenSky works by scanning a driver's license so consumers "don't have to type in a bunch of information," Zalik explained. "You'll add in a couple of other pieces of numeric data like your social security number. You give us permission to pull credit. A second later, we'll tell you congratulations you've been approved and here are your terms and your disclosures and you can go back to what really matters."

Holding up an iPhone, Zalik said GreenSky has been successful because, "in the last 10 years everybody has one of these. ... We're a mobile first company. ... We think we're just scratching the surface. We've done eight-billion dollars. We have a trillion to go."

As a tech founder and CEO who has had success through several decades, Zalik, now 43, has some advice for entrepreneurs setting out on their business journeys. Here is what was most important to Zalik as he founded companies in his teens, 20s and 30s.

As a teen: "The most important thing is to get a mentor."

Being a young entrepreneur comes with many benefits, but inexperience is not one of them. Mentors can only help, and their perspective is key. With their help, your own knowledge and wisdom can only grow.

As a 20-something: "Figure out who you are — and aren't."

If you've tasted the success of an entrepreneur, it's time to accept that not everyone can fit every role. Identify where your own weaknesses lie, and partner or hire talent for what you cannot accomplish yourself.

As a 30-year-old success: "Have confidence in your instincts, but remain open and inquisitive."

Trust yourself, and approach problems and opportunities in a sequential manner. Also be open to ideas; some won't be yours. Test and fail.

And the first step for all '14-year-old' entrepreneurs: Find your passion.

Recognize that finding your passion is a journey. And understanding your passion is the first step in finding the career path you want to go down. It is the most important thing, Zalik said.

Not everyone knows exactly what they want to do right away, and that's okay. If you don't know what your passion is, find an industry you could be passionate about and work in it. Learn everything about it.

"Learn as much as you can," Zalik said.

Knowledge is power. Opportunities exist within an industry all around you, so go for them. "It never ends," Zalik said.

By Ashley McHugh-Chiappone, special to CNBC.com

Story updated to include quotes from CNBC interview with David Zalik at the eMerge Americas conference in Miami on June 12.

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