Europe’s teenage tech tycoons meet up
Young entrepreneurs are taking the tech world by storm, but do they get enough help?
Teenage Waterford entrepreneur Jordan Casey is interviewed during a break at a conference on European youth in business in Madrid. Photograph: Carlos Lujan/The New York Times
When Waterford’s Jordan Casey takes to the stage to present his technology business, he jumps onto the platform rather than walking up the access ramp.
Entrepreneurial energy? Yes, but also adolescent enthusiasm. Casey, keynote speaker at a conference on European youth in business, turned 15 in November.
The young Irish entrepreneur has often been reported to be Europe’s youngest chief executive, a status that among other honours has won him invitations to meet EU economic officials in Brussels.
“I feel I’ve got a headstart,” Casey tells the audience here, a group of 200 or so teenage achievers, some of them intent on breaking through what many consider European obstacles to business. “In 10 years, I will be 25 and I will already have 13 years’ experience working in the industry, so that is kind of cool.”
Potential hurdles to the young and business-minded discussed during the three-day conference are a rigid education system in many of the EU’s 28 member states, a cultural aversion to risk-taking in some parts of the region and a stagnant economy in which youth unemployment is a pressing social problem. The role of speakers such as Casey is to provide can-do pep talks.
“I don’t know if I’m still Europe’s youngest chief executive, but I certainly feel I’ve got a headstart,” Casey says later in an interview. “I can’t be doing as much work as I like to, because I sort of have to go to school as well, play football and be a kid.”
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Notably, one prospect the young entrepreneur does not find enticing is attending third-level. “I really don’t see what university could teach me that I can’t learn for free immediately,” he says. “There are a lot of skills that you can learn yourself and just by using the internet.”
In the US, tech industry lore has many teenage touchstones: whether Steve Jobs’s founding of Apple in his parents’ garage at 19 or Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s starting a software-based company while in high school.
However, in Europe young people with the brains and DNA to build businesses from an early age do not often see or seize the opportunities the way Jordan Casey has – or the way that Nick D’Aloisio did.
D’Aloisio was still a 17-year-old British student in 2013 when he sold his news-reading app, Summly, to Yahoo for what some reports said was as much as $30 million.
A young Spanish entrepreneurs addressing the conference, Luis Iván Cuende (19), argues that Spain’s oppressively high youth unemployment – 52 per cent at the end of 2014 – is “because of the enormous gap between our rigid and theoretical education system and the labour market, which means you come out of many years at school without a clue about the outside world”.
Cuende, who started programming on his own when he was 12, complained in an interview that Spain’s education system was run by “people stuck in the past”. He recalled that the technology course he took in high school in Oviedo was given by “a teacher who knew nothing about computing and was about to retire”.
Cuende soon plans to introduce Stampery, an online copyright certification system that will use technology similar to that of the Bitcoin payment system.
“What I most enjoy is just to develop a product,” Cuende says.
But he acknowledges a missed opportunity. He still keeps on his phone a one-line text message – “You should come work with us” – that he received in November 2013 from Jan Koum, the Ukrainian-born American who was a co-founder of mobile messaging app WhatsApp.
The company was acquired by Facebook a few months later.
“I turned down his offer, but since his company then got sold for $19 billion and every employee held some options, it’s a bit painful to think about that decision,” Cuende said.
Endesa, a Spanish utility, was among the sponsors of the Madrid conference. Federico Fea, the company’s chief innovation officer, says he wants to start recruiting to his team employees “just based on talent” and independent of age or whether they have a college education.
Endesa employs 10,500 people in Spain, most of them 45 to 54 years old. Given the high unemployment in Spain and the region generally – nearly 10 per cent in the EU overall – “Europe needs to become more flexible in its approach to the labour market”, Fea says.
The US tech sector has started thinking in much the same way. In some parts of Google, for instance, as many as 14 per cent of employees do not have college degrees.
For Casey it does not seem as if the money matters all that much – so far, at least.
About 50,000 units of the Alien Ball, which he said were generally priced at $1 each, were downloaded, but in terms of his actual earnings, he doesn’t really “know the exact figures.”
Casey’s parents, however, are now firmly behind their son’s business ventures, acting as company directors because he is too young to be held legally accountable. They also take turns travelling with him to events such as the conference in Madrid.
“I used to think university was essential to succeed,” his mother, Louise, says. “But since Jordan has gone on this path, I’ve come to recognise that there really are different ways to get to where you want to be.” – (The New York Times News Service)