Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
By MATT RICHTEL, New York Times, MARCH 8, 2014
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, wondered if he was right. “I briefly thought: Do I have him arrested at the gate?”
But the truth was, she 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 that 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. Ryan was also eager to go because, as he put it: “There were really dope people, and I really like smart-people density.”
Ms. 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, like battle-weary parents everywhere, she let him go anyway.
Credit Nathan Weber for The New York Times
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.
Dr. Becker is assessing this subject from a particularly intimate vantage point. His grandson, Louis Harboe, 18, is a friend of Ryan’s, a technological teenager who makes Ryan look like a late bloomer. Louis, pronounced Louie, got his first freelance gig at the age of 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 this weekend in Austin at South by Southwest. 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 SATs and teenage responsibilities. But unlike their peers for whom college is the singular focus, they have pondered whether to go at all. It’s a good kind of problem, the kind faced by great high-school athletes or child actors who can try going pro, along with all the risk that entails.
Dr. Becker, who studies microeconomics and education, 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 youth, 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 like Ryan and Louis and their families are wrestling with now: 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 Ms. 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, who is 17, met in seventh grade. They each had a pet lizard and liked computers. They were nerdy, but not nerds, and they were complementary: Michael is precise and, like his close-cropped hair, not flashy. In the partnership, he’s the programmer. Ryan is high-energy; he talks in veritable tweets, bursts of slick, hypercasual quips laced with start-up vernacular. (South by Southwest is “South By.” Of the author John Green, he says, “Everyone my age loves him, which is really interesting from a teen sociology product development perspective.”)
But Michael and Ryan shared a goal: “Since middle school,” Michael said, “we wanted to make an app.”
App making, while hardly child’s play, has become easier. It’s not necessary to know intensive programming language to make a simple one. Apple, as well as other phone makers and tech companies, provide shortcuts, like templates that let you drop in images or automate payment methods. But making a complex app is still a big deal, requiring programming expertise and design and business savvy. And competition is fierce, with a million apps in the iPhone store alone.
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 and not feel overwhelmed.
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, who asked, mostly in jest: “What’s your favorite kind of beer?” They drank water.
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 app, priced at 99 cents, 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 Bs and two Cs. At school, he’d break the no-cellphone rule when he saw an incoming call from the 415 or the 408 area code. Silicon Valley, and potential business, calling.
Maybe he was making up for lost time. He was 16, and, at least when compared with Louis Harboe, he was playing catch-up.
First Job at Age 12
As a child, Louis loved drawing, and at age 10, he got into Photoshop. He made a portfolio of designs, like 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. The game maker asked Louis his fee. But he was 12. He had no idea. “Um…,” Louis remembers stalling. “$150?”
“He was like: How about a little more because I really like you?” Louis got $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. The next year, an email came from an Apple talent scout. This time, Louis conceded his age and received this response: “You’re the second high schooler I’ve emailed. What are they teaching you in high school these days?”
In the summer after 10th grade, he was hired by Square, the payment company; he says he heard the predictable “child labor law jokes.” Lindsay Wiese, a Square spokeswoman, said that 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.
Along with his own money, he came back from San Francisco with what his father, Frederik Harboe, lovingly describes as a touch of attitude. Louis, his dad said, developed a taste for high-end coffees, and remarked on the lack of sophistication of his father’s “dinner platings” — the arrangement of food on the plate. At Square, there was free Odwalla orange juice. His family drank Tropicana. He came home after the first summer asking why his parents weren’t matching Silicon Valley’s breakfast-drink brands, recalled his mother, Catherine Becker, who manages a clothing store. “Because Odwalla fresh-squeezed is very expensive!” she told her son.
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, and recalled his son saying, “You want me to go where — to Pittsburgh?”
Last June, Louis attended the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. A year earlier, Apple lowered its minimum age of admission to the annual conference to 13 from 18, owing to interest from young people. 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.
Other student winners, Apple said, have included Puck Meerburg, now 14, from the Netherlands, who has released 10 apps. He gave a TEDx talk at age 11. Lenny Khazan, 15, a ninth grader in Woodmere, N.Y., who started basic programming in fourth grade, has a handful of apps; he says he collaborates with teenagers around the world, including one in Singapore and another in Ohio. Another scholarship winner in 2013 was Larissa Laich, now 18, from Germany, who Apple said has six published apps.
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.”
Ryan kept his conference admission badge, which shows that he is an award winner. “It was like gold,” Ryan said. “You can get a meeting with anyone with one of those,” he paused. “But you can’t get into the over-21 parties.”
“I love Ryan’s energy!” Danielle Strachman said. “He embodies the go-getter.”
Ms. 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 recently learned that he is a semifinalist. The winners will be announced in June.
Even over the phone, Ryan impressed Ms. Strachman so much that she invited him to do an introductory talk at Thiel’s fourth “Under 20 Summit,” held last November in New York. There were 350 attendees, from ages 9 to 19 — double the attendance from a year ago.
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 Ms. Strachman put it.
Or, as Jonathan Cain, 32, president of the Thiel Foundation, which oversees the fellowship, described the situation: “The safe career track is totally broken.” Even lawyers are laid off, he said, and janitors have Ph.D.’s. Young people “need a greater sense of urgency than in the past,” he said, while “college has an infantilizing effect; it’s an extension of adolescence.” He graduated from Yale, but said it didn’t dawn on him that there were other options; Ms. Strachman graduated from Simmons College in Boston.
Other programs are cropping up to support college alternatives. Enstitute, a nonprofit that puts 18- to 24-year-olds in company apprenticeships, placed 11 interns in its first year, 2011, and will place 500 this year. A co-founder, Kane Sarhan, said that 20 percent of interns, making $25,000 a year, come directly from high school. But he also encourages college for many people, saying it’s the rare teenager who is ready for the “work, motivation and time” that it takes to go directly into the real world.
In another sign of the trend, some of the biggest tech companies, including Facebook, eBay and Microsoft, are sponsors for “HSHacks,” a programming talent contest this weekend that signed up 800 students aged 13 to 18. The event was organized by Shrav Mehta, 17, a high school senior. The event’s tagline is “Welcome to the Big Leagues.”
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, and to suggest otherwise is “misleading a lot of people.”
Dan Finnigan, chief executive of Jobvite, which helps tech companies find talent, agreed, adding that 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 start-up or two fails, “it’s going to catch up to that person.”
Silicon Valley, which has long valued young consumers as early adopters of technology, seems particularly drawn these days to the wisdom of young creators and entrepreneurs. Hunter Walk, a partner in an investment firm called Homebrew, met with Ryan Orbuch earlier this year, when the teenager asked for his insights into Finish.
“It wasn’t like he showed up and I said, ‘You’re just a kid,’ ” said Mr. Walk, who knew Ryan’s age. The investor says he benefits from hearing the insights of young people. “The age gap collapses pretty quickly when you’re talking product and design,” he said.
Mr. Walk conceded that there could be a risk of making too much of early tech success. “You start to ask the same questions you do about child stars in Hollywood,” he said. “Did they peak at 17, and never have another great app?”
Waiting for the Future
“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 Ds.
His Thiel application was for something he calls “fixschool.org,” a concept for inspiring and motivating students “in ways that were never before possible” with real-world tasks as opposed to homework.
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 last weekend, 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.
So, last fall, he took a break from heavy design work — though he still wants it to be a big part of his life and plans to develop apps in college — and he picked up his dad’s guitar and taught himself to play. He applied to Carnegie Mellon. He also applied to Georgia Tech, without parental prompting. It wasn’t lost on his father that both schools were far from Silicon Valley.
Louis said he wants “the full college experience.” It’s almost as if he’s been given the gift of seeing an alternate version of his life — that of a passionate developer who leaps into the tech fray — and realizes that the real world is a lot of work.
“I want to have fun,” he said. “I still feel like a kid — kind of.”