|Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo by: Vojtěch VlkHow young is “too young” when it comes to running a business? IT students and other technically savvy teens are turning their love for computers and the internet into profit-making ventures, and becoming entrepreneurs before they’re old enough to drive.
Jan Rambousek (17): Meet Mr. Pixel
This native of Plzeň, who fought his way to the finals of the Peugeot global designers’ competition with his design of a car for the future, became addicted to the computer world at age 12. Star Wars started his career.
THAT WELL-KNOWN sci-fi adventure film of the late ’70s was the initial inspiration for Honza Rambousek, alias Mr. Pixel. He was interested in how the special effects were created, so when he was 12 he plunged into 3D graphics. The amateur soon became a professional, and today he makes his living (with some assistance from his parents) from graphics and web design. Although he’s only in his second year of electrical technology vocational school, he works seven hours a day and up to fifteen hours on weekend days. “It’s ideal that I can work from home. All I need is a computer and the internet,” he says with delight. His monthly income ranges from CZK 10 to 30 thousand depending on how many jobs he has running. He’s 17, and doesn’t have a business license yet, so he’s paid either in kind (he recently got a camera for his work) or through work contracts.
He sees his career milestone in his decision to create his own web site and present his services on the internet. Clients found him, and his job orders grew rapidly. For example, he worked on a project for Nike and Česká spořitelna, and his most marked success to date was his design for the Peugeot of the future. It’s the first time in the competition’s three-year history that two Czechs made the finals (the other is 19-year-old Michal Vlček, a student at the Zlín Institute of Applied Arts). Rambousek, who designed a computer-controlled ATV called Tery, succeeded in the competition, which had nearly 4,000 entrants. The inventiveness and audacity of youth certainly helped. But he sees his youth as more of a handicap. “Some clients don’t pay a young guy as well as they do an older professional,” he complains. “But fortunately I’m getting older, so this is slowly changing,” says the young designer. “In the future, I want graphic design to be only my hobby. After six years I’ve already had enough of it,” Rambousek laughs. While he hopes to graduate in two years and then study abroad, for now he isn’t thinking about what will come next.
THEY ARE UNUSUAL, yet ordinary. Guys who play sports, listen to hip-hop, go to pubs, chase girls. Nevertheless, they have experience that many don’t get until they’re thirty. “I’ve lived the American dream, but I paid for it – an initial lack of faith from my parents, envy all around, and a total collapse of partnership relationships. That was much worse than the obstacles I had to overcome in business,” says Lukáš Codr (25), a ČVUT (Czech Institute of Technology) student and computer games designer who appears regularly on Czech Television as co-creator and host of GamePage, a computer games program.
Codr is typically representative of the teenagers who were born in the eighties. These are young people who didn’t live through the rigidity of the planned socialist economy, but were hurled into a capitalist arena where only the most capable survive. This is a challenge, and an opportunity for them to show what they’re made of. While still in school, many achieved what their counterparts in the former generation never dreamed of. But it isn’t just youth that sets today’s teens apart from their elder competitors, it’s also their business field of choice. They’re making ventures into areas that reflect their generation – modern, dynamic, sexy. “We’re witnessing a clear tendency to abandon traditional manual production and switch to business in the field of information technology and services,” says Vendula Mráčková, the executive director of the Junior Achievement organization, which Tomáš Baťa founded to teach business to children.
Today’s young people use computers on a daily basis, surf the internet like it was second nature, and create websites, graphic design, or marketing presentations just as they would complete a class assignment. Computers are their preferred tools for both entertainment and generating income. The flexible world of information technology attracts new entrepreneurs, because they’re typically in high school or college, which leaves them with no time and little money. “So they’re mostly drawn to fields that don’t require fixed work schedules or large start-up investments,” explains Ondřej Bartoš, executive director of the Tuesday Business Network association and a member of the international Entrepreneur of the Year competition panel. “Quite logically, they dive into business in IT, communications, and especially the internet,” he adds.
What is the maturing, potential future Czech Bill Gates like? He spends his days in school, which frustrates him, as he’d rather spend his time on the internet. After school he heads home, turns on his computer, and handles missed calls from clients. Late at night (sometimes near dawn) he falls, exhausted, into bed. In the meantime, his parents wag their fingers at him, warning that if he neglects his studies his future will suffer. Not surprisingly, parents play a large role for a beginning entrepreneur like this. For one thing, he generally has his company headquarters in their apartment. He saves on office rent and can work in the most leisurely environment possible. “I prefer doing more creative work in the bathtub,” Codr explains. “In a time of water-proof notebooks, amplified hands-free, and Wi-Fi connections, it’s no problem to manage five people from the tub.” he laughs.Youth versus experience
Thanks to his youth, an aspiring Czech Bill Gates is generally creative and is willing to take chances and break down ingrained stereotypes. “But a disadvantage of youth is that young people can slip up on their dreams due to insufficient foresight,” Bartoš warns, pointing out that a lack of communication skills may put a young entrepreneur at a disadvantage against more experienced competitors. Mráčková agrees – she sees assertiveness and competitiveness as the keys in business. She says young people must not only create their products or services, they must also sell them successfully. But most schools don’t teach such skills, and furthermore, young people with no business background or contacts don’t have sufficient credibility with clients. Youth itself often becomes an impediment in personal contacts as well.
” Being young is seen as an obstacle. I’ve often arrived for a meeting and people were taken aback by my age,” says Jiří Peterka (17), who founded the Business For Youth (B4Y) platform, an association of young IT entrepreneurs under 21 years old. Jan Bárta, the founder of B3net, comments, “I decided to let my beard grow, so I’d look older. Now, fortunately, I have a bald spot, too,” he jokes. Jan Rambousek (17), a high-schooler and graphic designer, describes his personal “handicap” that comes with his age. “Some clients thought I’d be satisfied with a lower fee because I’m so young. But I do the work just as well as older experts,” he insists. Many teenagers face similar problems, and that’s why they like doing business over the internet – no one sees them when they’re communicating electronically, so the client needn’t know how old his business partner is.
In spite of these and other differences, there isn’t necessarily an antagonistic division between young and older entrepreneurs. Those with more experience can lend a helping hand with capital for new start-ups. This is similar to what investment company Benson Oak does under the leadership of Gabriel Eichler. He thinks the level of Czech and Slovak programmers is very high and deserving of investment. Benson Oak supports Grisoft, an antivirus company that competes locally with foreign firms. “It’s important to support young people in IT, because they have new ideas and new solutions for problems. And it’s important to the country that they not go abroad,” Eichler explains. “But for now their creations aren’t financed, so they have no backing.” One way to resolve this situation, according to Eichler, would be for the state to create suitable conditions and infrastructure for such companies, thus attracting investors. He also advocates the closest possible ties between firms and technical schools.
Business versus books
Diligent students with eyes on the entrepreneurial prize may choose to run a business while attending school. “It’s like having two jobs,” Peterka says. Codr has a similar arrangement. “I work about twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and I only take one weekend a month off to clear my head,” he explains. But Codr doesn’t talk much about his extracurricular activities when he’s at school. His ČVUT professor, Gustav Tomek, the chief economist in the electrical technology department, didn’t know about Codr’s work until he saw him by chance on television, speaking about computer games. He wasn’t surprised. “About 80% of the students in our department are involved in business. I’m not against it, but I don’t like it when they neglect attendance because of their work.”
Setting limits and priorities is necessary to handle the potential overload of working and studying at the same time. In that respect, most of those we spoke with are responsible about their education, as well as with their money. Instead of wowing their classmates with expensive cars or fancy electronics, they prefer to invest in their future. They’re aware that falling behind in such a rapidly developing field doesn’t pay, and that starting an IT firm requires enormous investments in equipment and technology. So they plow the money they make back into their businesses. Zdeněk Cendra (19), whose firm, SuperNetwork, has monthly revenues of over a million crowns, says “It never occurred to me to set aside, say, thirty thousand. We put almost everything we earn back into the company.” Hearing this strategy, many managers and directors twice Cendra’s age would certainly smile, and nod wisely. performance now.”
Jan Řežáb (18): In the right place at the right time
Redboss, which develops and sells mobile games, has monthly sales in the millions of crowns and employs several dozen people. All of them are older than their director, eighteen-year-old student Jan Řežáb. A PERFECTLY tailored suit, the demeanor of an experienced businessman, well arranged priorities, and the enthusiasm of youth. This is the impression Jan Řežáb makes when you meet him. He owns one of the largest mobile games vendors on the Czech market, but his route to success wasn’t linear. “At first my parents were skeptical of my activities and shooed me away from the computer,” says Honza, recalling his start in business with a smile. He fell under the spell of computers – computer games in particular – at age nine. He wanted to learn to create some games himself, but got sidetracked by his interest in mobile phones. At first he distributed free image SMS messages to mobile phones through his server. Gradually he built up contacts with similarly focused enthusiasts. “I had friends from the internet, and we exchanged various services. It was a closed world to which our parents had no access, and I enjoyed it,” Honza recalls. In 2000 he and a friend created an internet portal for mobile entertainment and mobile phone games – www.redboss.cz. Customers paid for games using SMS messages, and in December 2002 the firm posted CZK 150,000 in sales.
Today redboss has 25 full-time and 60 external employees, monthly sales of about CZK 1 million, and a new office in Slovenia. It is developing several products, including 3D JAVA games and various action strategies that it sells through mobile operators. “We want to become one of Europe’s largest firms in this field,” says Řežáb with conviction, adding that he’d like to at least earn his engineering degree, because society still judges people more by the titles on their business cards than by their accomplishments. This third-year student at a private gymnazium in Plzeň sums up his success in a few words: “I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Jan Bárta (19): A trade in two cities
He founded and ran a successful firm, B3net, which he sold at a profit last year. Then he graduated from high school and went to study in London. Now he’s planning another business.“WHEN I WAS in high school I worked from 3 to 9 at night, I slept on Saturdays, and on Sundays I was back at work,” says Bárta, who started in business at age 15. “I knew a good team is the basis for success, so I got three partners together who had real e-business experience and we founded B3net.” Jan, a minor, owned 50% of the limited-liability company through his mother, and the other partners owned the rest. In 2001 they started as an internet advertising agency that represented several websites for advertising sales. But competition in on-line advertising was becoming stronger, so Bárta switched to mobile marketing. “We bought the nabit.cz service, which allowed logos to be sent to mobile phones over the internet,” he explains, adding that B3net acquired many interesting customers like Škoda Auto, Toyota, Unilever, and Tipsport, soon becoming one of the most sought-out mobile marketing firms. “We made good money, but it was important to me to see the company grow, so we reinvested everything in development. CZK 15,000 a month sufficed for financing my life as a student,” he recalls.
Last summer disagreements arose concerning the company’s further direction. This resulted in Bárta and one partner leaving after splitting off part of B3net’s assets (the nabit.cz brand, the business.nabit.cz technological platform, and some clients), which they sold to ATS Praha, the largest mobile content firm in the Czech Republic. With a clean reputation and a good profit, Bárta is making new plans. “I’m working on a project that deals with distributing mobile content to mobile phones in an entirely unique way.” As he is now in his first year of studying economics at University College in London, he’s planning on establishing a joint-stock company with a subsidiary in England.
Naďa Rysková (21): One-way ticket to success
Starting a company isn’t easy; doing so when studying for your high school examinations is even more challenging. But this is what Nad’a Rysková successfully achieved when she set up Net Travel, a Prague-based online travel agency.FOUNDED IN 2003, the firm is one of the top three internet travel companies in the Czech Republic, with a staff of 23. Rysková founded the company with her boyfriend and fellow director Richard Cvach (30) when she was 19, although she had already thought about setting up her own company at the age of 15. “I worked at a travel agency, on a student job, which inspired me to set up Net Travel. I had the feeling that in my firm I could do things far better,” she says. Rysková also had a clear vision of her future. “I imagined that at 20 I would have my own business, where I would work in a managerial position,” she explains.
As a director, she is achieving this goal. “I constantly bring enthusiasm and optimism to the company,” declares Rysková, but despite the dynamism and energy of youth, being a young entrepreneur can have its problems. “Because of my age, it wasn’t an easy task to command authority and respect in employees,” she says. Perhaps most difficult of all was the balance of study and setting up the firm. “I left study to a minimum and devoted myself to setting up the firm. A year later I successfully passed the leaving exam and continued at Net Travel,” recalls the entrepreneur.
Shortly after the company was founded the other two of the four directors, Petr Staněk (27) and Jan Staněk (29), who were friends of Rysková and Cvach, joined Net Travel. They brought their internet and management skills to the company, which in turn has been beneficial to Rysková. “Working with the partners gives me the chance to develop my knowledge and experience,” she says. Rysková has her later career mapped out, and she is thinking about investments in the years to come. “Then I would like to devote myself to a family and children,” she concludes.
Zdeněk Cendra (19): Setting his own train in motion
This teenaged entrepreneur, who runs a firm with six employees from an apartment in Vinohrady, completed his formal education with high school. “In the real world, no one asks if you were the valedictorian, it’s more a matter of your abilities,” Zdeněk says. It seems that he’s clear about where his priorities lie.
He wasn’t even 15 when he started with projects on the internet. He enjoyed distributing SMS information messages to mobile phones, but his allowance from his parents didn’t cover his financial needs, so he started a business that didn’t require a large initial investment – webhosting. He started out alone in his parents’ apartment in Liberec. They initially saw his business enthusiasm as a brief aberration, but when they saw that he was going to sleep at 2 am and getting up at 6 am, they started trying to dissuade him. “They were afraid I’d neglect my studies,” recalls Cendra, adding that his daily attendance at an electrical technology vocational school slowed down. “It was a pretty critical problem,” he laughs. He no longer has such problems: he graduated from school, rented office space in Prague, and went into business big time.
SuperNetwork, of which he’s the sole owner, offers webhosting under the name SuperHosting.cz to several thousand customers, including Oskar, Toplist.cz, Kasa.cz, Tyden.cz, and many others. The firm, which last December posted turnover of more than CZK 1 million, employs guys Zdeněk’s age. “We have a flexible approach to customers, and we work when it’s necessary,” Cendra says. On the other hand, he admits that it’s not all so idyllic. One problem, somewhat determined by his age, is internal management. “I never studied it, and I have no experience with managing people. I always worked alone, but suddenly I have six people here, and I have to deal with it,” he explains. When asked if skipping college meant giving up a bit of his youth, Cendra says, “I don’t mind. I’m doing what I enjoy. I don’t want to jump off a moving train.”
Marek Antoš (25): A knack for writing and IT
At age 14 he started writing software reviews, at 16 he published a book on the internet and worked full time as an editor, at 18 he gave his notice and went into business to have time for studies at three colleges. The story of Marek Antoš (25) shows that age plays little role in IT fields.
” Today there are more young entrepreneurs than there were when I started,” Antoš observes. “But is it easier or harder for them today? I think it’s about the same – you have to have a good idea and the desire to realize it, you have to be persistent, and you also need a little luck,” he adds with a smile. He could be describing the story of his business. In elementary school he started writing for PC World magazine. At the same time – around 1994 – he first encountered the internet, a new phenomenon that so captivated him, he wrote a book about it. Thanks to this he wasn’t unknown when he went into business, which helped him in negotiations with his first business partners.
In February 1998 he and his friend, Petr Tesařík, founded Internet Info, and in April they launched the Lupa.cz website. The basis of its content was evaluations of the quality of internet service providers (ISPs), supplemented by daily articles on Czech Internet happenings. The firm’s revenues came from the sales novelty of the day – banner advertisements – and sales of ISP evaluation results. In less than a year in 1998 they took in CZK 300,000, and a year later they made a million, as they added ISP market studies, which were of great interest at the height of “net fever”, to their portfolio. Until 2000 they operated as a “bedroom firm”, both working from their homes. Then they decided on the next step – renting an office and hiring employees. They also added to their activities. “We had Lupa, which was well established, but we knew that our business would be more stable with more media,” says Antoš, explaining why they set up Měšec.cz, a financial website that is today the largest of its type.
And the firm grew: the number of sites managed by Internet Info is now ten, it has 20 employees, and 2004 sales amounted to CZK 15 million. Today the content websites are supplemented by two on-line shops and by the firm’s most rapidly growing activity – the “Dobrý web” project, which provides consulting for website operators.