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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Really young entrepreneurs

Normally we think of tech entrepreneurs as starting in their late 20s — earlier if their name is Jobs or Zuckerberg — but after they have an education and perhaps some work experience.

Tonight I heard a talk by an entrepreneur who thinks every kid should do a startup (or similar creation effort) before graduating from high school — because he began his own journey in 4th grade — and was shipping his first product through Amazon at age 14.

Anshul Samar spoke a K-12 event of the MIT Club of Northern California, a speaker series that I co-chair. His is an interesting story of technical entrepreneurship that involves science, consumer products, and outsourcing. It’s also a story — unlike child actors — of pursuing his dream part-time while keeping his education as the primary goal.

It was a little surreal having a high school student lecturing a room full of MIT grads (including a couple of PhDs) on entrepreneurship and science education. But he's clearly grown from his entrepreneurial journey and his many speaking opportunities.

Elementeo Chemistry Card GameThe short version is that the once-devoted Pokemon player wanted to make an educational card game. Before having a real chemistry class, he settled on the elements as providing both real science and a basis for strong characters. The result was Elementeo, which is Pokémon-meets-Periodic-Table.

The idea was clearly novel, novel enough that well-meaning grownups eventually introduced him to Peter Adkison, founder of Wizards of the Coast (think Magic and Pokémon cards) who gave him manufacturing advice. Along the way, Anshul spoke at the various conferences: California Association for the Gifted, TiEcon Silicon Valley and the American Chemical Society.

Like any first-time entrepreneur, Anshul had to learn a lot on the job. He knew almost nothing about chemistry when he started, but fortunately library books on the elements were not very much in demand. He had the usual epiphany about financials, PR, logistics, cash flow, distribution.

One 21st century lesson was the power of outsourcing. To make his game look professional, he needed professional artwork, which he was able to outsource using a website and email to create PDFs that were iterated until they were ready for 4-color printing.

He also learned the value of 3F money — dad works at Oracle — rather than professional investors. While VCs approached him after TiEcon, he realized that “If you end up taking the VC money, it’s like 60 hours/day: work work work”.

Instead, he’s going to school, working on the game in the summer and vacations and doesn’t feel guilty about occasionally watching TV. He also plans to go straight to college in 20 months. Unlike Jobs or Zuckerberg or Gates or Dell, he’s not going to put his education aside to pursue his entrepreneurial passions. (Although Woz eventually finished college.)

His story suggested two aspects of the nature of entrepreneurial opportunity. First, users can have creative insights as to their own needs (a user innovation argument) that have not previously been realized. Secondly, although not a dime a dozen, entrepreneurial vision is far move common than entrepreneurial success: the difference is ability to obtain and effectively apply resources to realize that vision.

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