Meet the whiz kids: 10 overachievers under 21

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, 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."

2. The Youngest 'Old Pol'

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, 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 Whateverlife.com, 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, Whateverlife.com 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!"

4. The Quiz Master

Andrew Sutherland, 17

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."

5. The Junkyard Genius

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, 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 and is shooting for revenues of $1 million by the end of this school year. 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 Salesforce.com'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."

7. The Chair Man

Sean 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 BizChair.com to sell office furniture direct to businesses. Now, six years later, Belnick occupies the number 2 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, 19

You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to get the better of Matt Wegrzyn, of Bodis.com. In fact, you might not want to go to bed at all. The creator of Bodis.com 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."

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