Imagine the founder of an exciting new startup. Are you picturing someone not yet old enough to vote, or perhaps just past the legal drinking age?
Probably not, and for good reason. Nationwide
, 0.9 percent of workers aged 16 to 19 were self-employed, as were 3.6 percent of workers between the ages of 20 and 24. By far, these cohorts had the lowest percentages of people who worked for themselves.
But a growing number of Philadelphia-area teens and adults under the age of 25 are becoming entrepreneurs. These statistics are harder to come by. For one thing, agencies that work with new business owners often don't know how old their clients are. But Therese Flaherty, director of the Wharton Small Business Development Center
, says University of Pennsylvania students' interest in working for themselves is skyrocketing. Programs that educate high school students about entrepreneurship are also popular in the city.
"It's really exciting and interesting and fun," Flaherty says. She also credits popular culture, with TV shows like Shark Tank
and heroes like Facebook's 27-year-old CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.
Flaherty says young entrepreneurs have certain advantages over those with more experience. As a rule younger people are fearless and have energy and stamina to spare. Just look at these young adults.
CEO: Craig Dwyer, 23
In 2008 Eric Diamond and a few other students had to write a business plan for a class at Bucknell University. Then he learned about the university's venture competition
and asked his Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers if any of them wanted to help him enter the solar-energy business idea into the contest.
Fraternity brother Craig Dwyer's bank account inspired him to sign up. "The grand prize was $5,000," he explains. "I was extremely poor at the time."
He and Diamond placed fourth in the 2009 event, just missing a cash prize. But Dwyer says some investors at the competition encouraged them to refine their business plan.
Perhaps the guys had something after all.
Unable to secure funding from banks or angel investors, they turned to a source available through Diamond's service in the Army National Guard: A $25,000 loan through a financial-services company
that serves troops and their families.
That paid for MainLine Solar's office in West Chester, near where Dwyer's family lived. The partners installed some panels at relatives' homes and an apartment building their landlord owned, gradually getting referrals for other jobs.
In the fall of 2009 Diamond had to leave the business behind for Army training and Dwyer headed back to Bucknell to complete his senior year. They recruited fraternity brother Rich Potocek to run MainLine
. Dwyer earned credit for an independent study on starting a business as a college student, juggling emails and phone calls around classes. Some might question why Dwyer would even stay on to finish his degree, but he explains, "I never wanted anyone to look at me cockeyed because I just did three years."
MainLine benefitted from the PA Sunshine Program
, which gives rebates for solar energy projects. But Dwyer says that market began to slow down because of saturation in the market for energy credits, so the company looked for places to expand.
Massachusetts looked promising. That state, like Pennsylvania, requires that utilities get a certain amount of their power through solar energy. Massachusetts also designed its system to maintain a gradually growing market for solar power and allow projects to be financed with income from renewable energy credits.
MainLine brought in students and expert consultants from Wharton SBDC to research the Massachusetts market for solar power and looked for customers from images on Google Earth. And a Bay State custom home builder who saw a MainLine blog post
led the company to more business.
This year the company is on track to hit $30 million in sales. Dwyer, who is MainLine's CEO, and Potocek, its COO, have eight employees split between West Chester and their new office in West Bridgewater, Mass. Diamond serves as CFO while attending Army flight school.
Founder: Dylan Kenny, 21
When Dylan Kenny the high school student wasn't doing his homework, he was probably playing World of Warcraft.
For the uninitiated, World of Warcraft is a keyboard-heavy online game with devotees worldwide. Its more than 11 million subscribers create characters that inhabit an elaborate fantasy world, completing quests and fighting monsters.
Kenny was pretty good. He was often in second place. "I was tired of being second, and I wasn't going to drop out of high school to try to be first," he says.
Instead, he thought, he should figure out a better way to manipulate the keyboard.
Kenny unsuccessfully asked a computer-lab manager at his school, Father Judge High in Northeast Philly's Holmesburg neighborhood, to help him learn how keyboards worked. So for the next few years his idea became a project he'd pick up in his free time. "I was under the impression that the information I needed wasn't available to me," he says.
Then he took an entrepreneurship class at Drexel University. One of the group assignments in this class was a feasibility study for a new business. As Kenny tells it, his group wrote a study of his GamerGlove because they couldn't think of anything better. Kenny, a computer science major, learned to sew so he could make first GamerGlove prototype and brought it into class on the last day of the term.
The glove makes use of the three segments on the human finger. It has a button on each finger segment, allowing a player to press different keys by stressing different parts of the finger. One can wear the GamerGlove on the left hand, right hand or both.
After taking that course Kenny thought the GamerGlove could turn out to be a successful venture. He connected with Drexel's Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship
, founded OutPlay Technologies
and won first place in the 2010 Baiada Center Incubator Competition.
That victory netted OutPlay $10,000, plus expert assistance in the marketing, sales and legal sides of running a business. Kenny recruited a Drexel fashion design major to make the latest GamerGlove prototype. He hopes focus groups can start trying it out by fall.
He does all this on top of his full-time work as a co-op employee at PJM Interconnection
in Norristown, an evening class and managing two unpaid OutPlay interns. Kenny says he sleeps between about midnight and 5 a.m. – ironically, leaving little time for World of Warcraft.
Kenny's still trying to figure out what to do after he graduates in two years. He's interested in computer network security but loves seeing his side project grow.
"I'm still that high school kid who wants a better tool," he says. "But now I have the knowledge to make that tool."
REBECCA VANDERMEULEN is a freelance writer based near Downingtown. She also contributes to Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.
Commercial install by MainLine Solar
Residential install by MainLine Solar
Outplay Technologies founder Dylan Kenny (JEFF FUSCO)
Dylan Kenny takes us through his process (JEFF FUSCO)