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For teen entrepreneurs, work is more than play

By YILU ZHAO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000


When Mike Nowotarski graduated from Lakewood High in St. Petersburg in June, he had more than a high school diploma under his belt. The lanky 18-year-old runs his own video production business.

"I want to do all the things that normal kids cannot do," the young entrepreneur said, "and one of them is to have more spending money." And not just pocket change. Since he incorporated his company in November, he has taken in more than $10,000.

Nowotarski is no fluke. A small but growing crop of tech-savvy teenage entrepreneurs are applying their precocious technological skills to work, not just play. Some have performed impressively.

Brad Ogden, a high school junior in Michigan, made $540,000 last year from his Web design company. Rishi Bhat, 15, of Chicago sold his security software for $40,000 in cash and stock. Teen magazine YoungBiz, in its first survey of junior entrepreneurs age 8 to 18, found the four highest-earning moguls had six-figure incomes.

Nowotarski is not alone even in St. Petersburg. His friends and former classmates, Craig Brandys and Justin Griego, who run a Web site design company, expect to have revenues of $30,000 this year. And both companies' customers, who don't seem to mind the entrepreneurs' ages, largely are satisfied with their work.

But Nowotarski's parents were concerned. He started his company during the last year of high school. SATs were to be taken (or retaken), and college applications were due. Would their son's business aspirations hurt his academics?

"I was worried," said Maureen Nowotarski, Mike's mom. "Mike already had a long day at school. Then he came home to work on the company projects. Could he handle it?"

Mike Nowotarski's love affair with video production began in his sophomore year at Lakewood High. A student in the Center for Advanced Technologies, the school's magnet science program, he joined the school's crew producing a teen TV news program.

"It was more than an activity. It was my life," said Nowotarski, who for the next three years spent at least three hours a day after school at the center's multimedia lab working on projects. By his senior year, he was producer of Fast Forward, the school's daily morning news show that aired on a closed circuit TV system.

By then, Nowotarski knew he was good enough to get paid. "So instead of talking about it," the confident 18-year-old said, "I just did it."

His dad, Mike Nowotarski Sr., loaned him money to buy a basic video camera and an editing system and hooked up the 12th-grader with the family lawyer to establish his company.

Only two months earlier, his friends, Brandys and Griego, had incorporated their Web design company. Brandys said the idea came to him when he was doing more typical teen labor the previous summer.

"I was working at Long Horn Steakhouse as a host for six bucks an hour. The shifts were eight hours and sometimes I had to pull a double shift of 16 hours," Brandys said. "I was sick of it. One morning, I was in bed and really couldn't motivate myself to get up and go to work. I called Justin up, and said, "Hey, let's found a company to design Web sites and make a lot of money.' "

Griego, a classmate, was working at a summer job designing Web sites in Seminole. He knew their designing skills were much better than those of many professionals. Besides, both had computers at home. There was no need to buy more equipment.

Although their companies are independent, the friends share a brand name, Premier Productions for video and Premier Design for Web design, and a Web page, www.premierworks.com.

Without deep pockets for marketing, the kids used the Yellow Pages to cold-call local businesses and tapped into family friends and acquaintances.

The reviews generally have been positive.

"Mike's work helped the company a lot," said Richard Mastry, owner of Mastry Engine Center, who hired Nowotarski to make a tape demonstrating a diesel engine for yachts.

But the teens' work is sometimes too high tech for their customers.

Brenda Puglisi, a customer relations director at Mac's Sports, a Clearwater scuba diving center, was dismayed to find that she couldn't update the Web site that Brandys and Griego made for her.

"The site is very good and I'm satisfied with their work," Puglisi said. "But the system they use is too sophisticated for our computer."

As Brandys and Griego grew busier, they occasionally hired schoolmates to help for $10 an hour even though the teen entrepreneurs charge an average of $110 an hour. Are they exploiting their peers?

"No, not at all," Brandys said. "We pay better than Gap. They are happy to work for us."

Almost a year after starting his company, Nowotarski, who finished high school with his high grade point average intact, is studying video at the University of Miami.

Brandys is in the business honors program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Griego is studying business administration at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

All plan to maintain their businesses while they're in college.

"Telecommunication," said Brandys without giving it a thought. "That is going to be no problem at all."

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