Is the Future of Tech in the Hands of the Extremely Young?

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 16, 2012

From The News Desk

The Valley has long championed entrepreneurs in their early 20s...but what about a 20-year-old VC?

Mike Hirshland -- formerly of Polaris Ventures -- is in the process of raising funds for his new firm Resolute Capital. He can't (won't) talk about that. But he can talk about hiring 20-year-old Irish phenom James Whelton as "hacker in residence."

Whelton founded CoderDojo, an organization that pairs mentors with kids wanting to learn to hack. One of its alums is a 12-year-old who built Ireland's most downloaded iPhone app.

Whelton will still be heavily focused on Coder Dojo, but he'll be spending part of his time as an ambassador of sorts for Resolute, tapping into how teens are using technology to change the world and spotting new talent there.

"He is a child prodigy who taught himself to code at six," Hirshland says. "What he's done at 19, a lot of people do at 40. An order of magnitude more entrepreneurs from that age group are going to be making stuff happen [in the future] than in the past. He's helping me make sure we are learning how they work and what they are doing, and having visibility where the most exciting stuff is coming from."

Bill Gurley of Benchmark recently published a post detailing why hiring young partners was important for any firm wanting to understand where tech was going. I don't think anyone would argue with his observations that young people are change agents in technology. It's a cliche -- and a cliche for a reason. There is a correlation between youth and the largest, most disruptive Internet companies.

But how young is young? Gurley meant early 30s in his post; Hirshland is talking about 19-to 20-year-olds. Lately it seems like the idea of "young" is getting younger.

Look at Gurley's own examples. They mostly descend in age as the Internet age has progressed:

Larry Ellison, 32

Pierre Omidyar, 28

Jerry Yang, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, all 25

Mark Zuckerberg, 19

Part of this is because the capital intensity and technical demands of starting Web companies has gone way, way down. With platforms like the iPhone and Facebook reducing that even further, will the average age of entrepreneurs get into the teens as well? Will teen hackers start to become less of a cute novelty at hackathons and a force that could actually result in a large company?

Much like a Shredded Wheat commercial, the old woman in me says, "Of course not. It takes more than coding to actually build a company." But there's another part of me that says, "Well, with the right mentoring, why couldn't they?" That mentoring caveat is crucial, clearly. It has been for all early-20-somethings who create companies too.

But it's something I'm living. I hired two 19-year-olds as part of our founding team, and I've been blown away by how well they've done and how quickly they're progressing. They absorb advice and criticism like sponges, getting dramatically better week-by-week. Perhaps it is because giving a 22-year-old a shot in our world has become de rigueur, but a 19-year-old is still hungry for a shot?

The idea of young hotshots getting younger was on my mind over the weekend for a few reasons. Friday, I watched the videos for our PandoList of top UC Berkeley computer science students. Now that it has become lucrative to be a coder again, I was expecting to see that 1999 phenomenon of the gold-digging entrepreneur come through. But the students Amanda selected to honor couldn't have been further from that. They were just kids in love with technology and what they could make it do. Ditto, our Stanford list from a few weeks ago.

If you want to know why Silicon Valley continues to give rise to great companies wave-after-wave, watch those videos. It has nothing to do with valuations rising or Y-combinator demo day term sheets getting bid up out of control. It's all in the eyes of those students.

Saturday, I was blown away even more, when I stopped by the Thiel Foundation's ceremony for its 20-under-20 finalists. These are the students who created so much controversy when they dropped out of college a year ago to take a grant from Peter Thiel to start a company instead. The point of this event was to match up the entrepreneurs with mentors from the tech community. They only gave two minute intros of what they were up to, and then went somewhat awkwardly to sit at tables and let the mentors who were interested come to them.

The whole thing had a vaguely surreal high-school feel about it. It was held at the auditorium of the Palace of Fine Arts. With a podium and a stark black curtain, the stage looked somewhat like a high school auditorium. Awkward teens from all over the world trotted out in silence one-by-one and talked about their idea, before leaving the stage to some applause. The nerves were evident. More than one looked like Napoleon Dynamite in this scene:

But then, when each of them opened his or her mouth everything changed. Over-and-over these teens gave their audaciously ambitious pitches, that were ever bit as stunning and unexpected as the dance moves above.

One of my favorites was the 17-year-old girl from Israel who said in a tiny yet self-assured voice, "I'm now seeking a solution for global warming and hope to solve some other problems along the way." They actually brought out a box for her to stand on so she could reach the microphone.

There was the kid who wanted to use RFID chips and mobile payments to eliminate check-out lines in stores. "I've wanted to be an inventor since I was three years old," he said.

There was another girl who took the mic and said boldly, "Thousands of people are dying from health-related problems everyday, and I can't let that happen." Her idea was using smartphones to empower community health workers to gather real-time analytics on patients in the emerging world.

There was the fifteen year old Nigerian-American who had a spec for solar-powered smartphone glasses.

Then there was the 17-year-old applied nuclear physicist who built a reactor in his teens for fun. He had ambitious plans for using nuclear science to combat disease and terrorism.

I didn't quite know what to make of it, to be honest. With only two minutes allotted it was impossible to know how much of this was wishful thinking and how much of it was actually achievable. But I loved two things about it.

The first was that no one in this crowd wanted to be "the next Mark Zuckerberg," even though they applied to a fellowship bankrolled by Zuckerberg's first institutional investor. I expected a room full of what we used to get a lot at Disrupt -- another derivative play at social networking, gamification, and badges. There was none of that. This was about trying to truly change the world.

The second was that everyone was taking them completely seriously. I can't imagine any other place in the world where that would be the case. A room of technology executives and entrepreneurs cleared their Saturday to come listen to the ideas of teenagers and help make them a reality.

Of course there's no guarantee that any of these young founders will succeed in changing the world. But given the way things are trending, you'd have to be a fool not to at least hear them out.