Young tech innovators dump life’s ‘rule book’ about college, work

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Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 12:00 am

Ryan Orbuch, 16 years old, rolled a suitcase to the front door of his family’s house in Boulder, Colo., on a Friday morning a year ago. He was headed for the bus stop, then the airport, then Texas.

“I’m going,” he told his mother. “You can’t stop me.”

Stacey Stern, his mother, felt conflicted. Should she stop her son from going on his first business trip?

Ryan was headed to South by Southwest Interactive, the technology conference in Austin. There, he planned to talk up an app he and a friend had built. Called “Finish,” it aimed to help people stop procrastinating, and was just off its high in the No. 1 spot in the productivity category in the Apple App store.

Stern loved her son’s passion but told him that he could go to Austin only if he finished the schoolwork he’d neglected while building the app. But Ryan didn’t comply, and she let him go anyway.

Ryan is now 17, a senior at Boulder High. He is among the many entrepreneurially minded, technologically skilled teenagers who are striving to do serious business. Their work is enabled by low-cost or free tools to make apps or to design games, and they are encouraged by tech companies and grown-ups in the field who urge them, sometimes with financial support, to accelerate their transition into the real world. This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks unprecedented, said Gary Becker, a University of Chicago economist and a Nobel laureate.

Becker is assessing this subject from an intimate vantage point. His grandson, Louis Harboe, 18, is a friend of Ryan’s. Louis, pronounced Louie, got his first freelance gig at 12, designing the interface for an iPhone game. At 16, Louis, who lives with his parents in Chicago, took a summer design internship at Square, an online and mobile payment company in San Francisco, earning $1,000 a week plus a $1,000 housing stipend.

Ryan and Louis, who met online in the informal network of young developers, are hanging out now in Austin at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive. They are also waiting to hear from the colleges to which they applied last fall — part of the parallel universe they also live in, the traditional one with grades and teenage responsibilities. But they have pondered whether to go at all. It’s a good kind of problem, the kind faced by superior high school athletes or child actors who can try going pro, along with all the risk that entails.

Becker has been telling his grandson: “Go to college. Go to college.” College, he says, is the clear step to economic success. “The evidence is overwhelming.”

But the “do it now” idea, evangelized on a digital pulpit, can feel more immediate than academic empiricism. “College is not a prerequisite,” said Jess Teutonico, who runs TEDxTeen, a version of the TED talks and conferences for youths, where Ryan spoke a few weeks ago. “These kids are motivated to take over the world,” she said. “They need it fast. They need it now.”

The college-or-not debate neglects other questions that high school students such as Ryan and Louis and their families wrestle with: Go to class or on a business trip? Do grades still matter? What do you do with $20,000 when you’re 15? And when the money rolls in, what happens to parental control?

“Things used to be linear. You went to a good school and you got a good job, and that was the societally acceptable thing to do,” said Stern, Ryan’s mother, who was a straight-A student and is a graduate of Duke University.

Now, she said, “there is no rule book.”

Ryan and his business partner, Michael Hansen, 17, met in seventh gradeand shared a goal: “Since middle school,” Michael said, “we wanted to make an app.”

* * *

Ryan was studying for his 10th-grade finals in December 2011 when he thought: I wish there was something that would help me stop procrastinating. So, he procrastinated by sketching a picture of a to-do-list app that would let you clump tasks into three time frames: short term, medium term and long. The idea was to help people prioritize.

He texted the crude picture to Michael. By that March, when both were 15, “we had our first mock-up,” Ryan said. By June, they were at it hours every day, refining the design, with Michael writing thousands of lines of code using Objective-C, a computer language that he learned from online tutorials. Ryan refined the design and networked. One night that summer, they went to an informal meeting of Boulder entrepreneurs.

On Jan. 15, 2013, the day before the launch of the app, Ryan pulled his first all-nighter, sending publicity notes to TechCrunch, Forbes and other media outlets. Within days the 99-cent app was No. 1, en route to having 50,000 paid downloads. After Apple took its 30 percent, the boys split about $30,000.

Ryan’s dedication came at a cost to his grades. The previous spring, he was almost an all-A student; the fall before the launching, busy with business, he earned four B’s and two C’s.

Maybe he was making up for lost time. He was 16, and, at least when compared with Louis Harboe, he was playing catch-up.

* * *

As a child, Louis loved drawing, and at age 10, he got into Photoshop. He made a portfolio of designs, such as icons to use in place of computer-program icons on your desktop; he shared them on his website and on Twitter, seeking feedback from designers and developers.

He didn’t reveal his age; his online profile picture was a smiley face. “You don’t want to tell anyone you’re 11,” he said, “because no one will hire you.”

His first job was to design the look of a puzzle game. It took a week of work. He made $350.

Louis got a handful of such gigs and email inquiries for full-time jobs, including interest from Mozilla and Spotify when he was 14.

In the summer after 10th grade, he was hired by Square, the payment company; Lindsay Wiese, a Square spokeswoman, said its internship program focuses on “talent, not age,” and that it looks for leaders like Louis who provide a diversity of perspective. Young people understand young consumers.

For Louis, the money has added up, around $35,000 in all, most of it spent on computers and accessories, some on business trips and some on eating out. Not on the college fund.

In San Francisco, Louis was seeing techies who had skipped college, or dropped out, and were making it big in real life. Back in Chicago, his dad suggested that Louis apply to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In June, Louis attended the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Louis was one of around 150 students to win a free ticket — ordinarily costing around $1,600 — to attend; he had previously collaborated on two apps, Mathmaster and iChalkboard.

Ryan attended the conference, too, and he and Louis shared a room at the Best Western to save money. This was their first meeting in person, and Louis watched Ryan with something like awe. “Every day he had some meeting with some Apple exec to go to, or he’d say, ‘I’ve got to go to this Bloomberg thing,’” Louis said. “He’s incredible at networking.”

* * *

“I love Ryan’s energy!” Danielle Strachman said. “He embodies the go-getter.”

Strachman is the program director of the Thiel Fellowship, which annually awards $100,000 each to 20 young people to pursue their innovations or businesses. The first year, there were 400 applicants, and this year there are around 550. Among them was Ryan, who is a semifinalist. The winners will be announced in June.

Even over the phone, Ryan impressed Strachman so much that she invited him to do an introductory talk at Thiel’s fourth “Under 20 Summit,” held in November in New York.

Team Thiel doesn’t say that college is bad for everyone, but rather, that having a degree doesn’t insulate people from economic tumult. Young people with talent and ideas should “strike while the iron is hot,” as Strachman put it.

Economists who study education largely agree that college matters greatly to future financial gain. In general, college graduates find better jobs and earn higher wages than those with only a high school degree, said Sandy Baum, an education scholar at George Washington University, though she acknowledged the economic uncertainty for many graduates. “But that’s so much more true of people who did not go to college,” she said.

Dan Finnigan, chief executive of Jobvite, which helps tech companies find talent, said a tech sensation might not last. “You may be hot for now, but we live in a fashionable society,” he said. When the economy softens, or a startup or two fails, “it’s going to catch up to that person.”

* * *

“I’m scared that my parents were right when they wanted me to focus completely on school, but I deeply believe I’ve done the right thing.”

Ryan wrote that as part of his Thiel Fellowship application, in answer to a question about important truths in his life. He also wrote 11 college applications, including one to Stanford, his dream school. His grades, however, had dropped further; last fall, he received two D’s.

It’s not clear what he will do next; it depends, he said, on where he gets in. In the meantime, he and Michael are pushing ahead with “Finish.” Just this month, they relaunched it as a free app — but with paid add-in functions — and got more than 50,000 new downloads in just 48 hours.

Louis is committed to college, a view that solidified in the fall, partly after bearing witness to the experience of friends in the working world. “Their Facebook posts are all about work,” he said. “Their lives don’t seem that interesting.”

There was another reality check. Last summer, after he spent the better part of a year designing a beautiful app to show the changing tides, Apple changed the design specs, and Louis had to scrap his project.

He applied to Carnegie Mellon. He also applied to Georgia Tech. Louis said he wants “the full college experience.”

“I want to have fun,” he said. “I still feel like a kid — kind of.”

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