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Beyond Babysitting

by Jay Jacob Hornick
Some South Jersey kids are going into business for themselves, moving past burger flipping and developing an entrepreneurial spirit early on.

Cherry Hill resident Tyler McIntyre started selling on eBay in the seventh grade. From the sale of his toys and other household items that no longer held his interest, McIntyre discovered his fascination in both the potential of the Internet and the excitement of the deal.

During the next seven years, he kept the thrill alive by starting and operating successively more lucrative and innovative businesses—not just one lucky break, but several. At 20, McIntyre—now a senior at the University of Miami—is on the brink of creating voice recognition software intelligent enough to understand some 300 American accents. His latest company, VR Labs, is a voice-activated concierge service that allows users to make a free call and get a spoken response from a computer.

And like other enterprising young South Jerseyans who have created and run their own companies, McIntyre never thought of his young age as an obstacle.

While entrepreneurial-spirited kids throughout history have managed to make their mark early, the Internet has been a real game changer. Nowadays, anybody smart and creative enough to run with a good idea can make it happen. No one needs know that the person selling webhosting capabilities or an Internet-based phone service is actually a middle-schooler who worked up his business plan after completing his social studies homework.

Among the many advantages kids have today is their ease and comfort with Facebook, Twitter and other social media, says Jennifer Regina, creator of The Marketing of Everything, a social media consulting company in Sewell.

“There are so many resources out there, you don’t need a public relations marketing person,” says Regina, who also is a professor of marketing at Rowan University. “You can just promote yourself.”

Another advantage is that young innovators often approach business issues from a fresh perspective, says Gary Rago, director of the Small Business Development Center of Rutgers University in Camden.

“If there’s one key component to entrepreneurship, its innovation,” says Rago, who leads a competitive, two-week summer camp annually for entrepreneurial-minded high school seniors. “It’s the innovation that creates a whole new opportunity for wealth for both owners and investors. I’m always impressed with the ideas young people come up with. They’re very creative and see things in a new way.”

Such is the case with Taylor Cheng, a Moorestown teen who was given a Rubik’s Cube by a friend during his sophomore year. Cheng solved the cube without too much trouble, but not before straining his fingers. The classic cube, he thought, was too difficult to turn, so he took it apart, loosened its axels, applied silicone spray and viola! The teenager ended up creating a better, faster version of the plastic cube puzzle. Next, he turned the new and improved gadget into a successful business.

“I had an urge to try this out and to see where it could take me,” says Cheng, a recent graduate of Moorestown Friends School. “I got into this not thinking about making money but as a learning experience. I was hoping to break even.”

SlickCube was indeed a learning experience. After making his modifications, Cheng looked up how to manufacture the cube and studied the market. For his next step, finding a factory in China to manufacture the cube at a competitive price, Cheng had to either stay up past midnight or wake up around 5 a.m. to make phone calls.

“I don’t think anything would have happened if I couldn’t speak Chinese to them,” he admits.

Only when he had a solid business plan did Cheng tell his mother of his intentions and need for several thousand dollars. With his mom’s blessing and startup funds, Taylor received his first order of 2,000 cubes about six months after he first solved the puzzle. His cubes, which come in bright colors, sell for $12.99, the same price as the original. He started selling them on eBay, then moved to Amazon.com before eventually selling them on his own website, SlickCube.com.

With favorable reviews in gaming communities, SlickCube continues to sell. A measure of success came when Rubik’s Cube sent him a cease and desist order, accusing him of violating the company’s trade patent. But Cheng wasn’t deterred. He did some research and talked to some lawyers before writing back asking for more information. He never heard from Rubik’s again.

Now a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, Cheng has hired a relative to take over the day-t0-day business, as he sets his sights bigger.

“I know there’s only so much I can do with SlickCube,” says Cheng, who spent last summer as an intern at a venture capital firm. “Right now I’m trying to learn as much as I can about starting businesses.”

For McIntyre, the jump from selling odds and ends on eBay to entrepreneurship happened right before high school. The idea behind his first venture, a telecom business called Vigor Tel, was to use the Internet to transmit calls, undercutting the price of giants like Verizon and AT&T. With seed money from his grandfather, he either ordered everything online or by phone, starting in 8th grade.

“Nobody asked how old I was,” he recalls. “I seemed like I knew what I was talking about.”

From its launch, Vigor Tel grew big very quickly. McIntyre had customers in Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam and the United States. Some 54 retail locations were reselling it. But even as much of the business was automated, practically running by itself, it grew time consuming during his sophomore year. And so, McIntyre happily jumped at an offer to sell his customers off to a similar company and the branding to another business.

The following year, McIntyre started TMcProHost, a Web hosting business. Within months, he was managing e-mail campaigns for senators and websites for college groups. Within a year, he sold that company off and graduated from Cherry Hill East a year early. His next company, Lucid Messenger, started as a prize-winning entry in the University of Miami’s Elevator Pitch Contest. He used the $40,000 worth of prizes and services to create a cross-platform messaging application for Blackberry, iPhone and Android. The company is thriving even as McIntyre has moved on to VR Labs.

His latest work, pioneering speech recognition technology, can be grueling and frustrating at times. It takes up a good chunk of McIntyre’s time. Sometimes he forgets to eat while working, though he doesn’t let the business interfere with his studies or a normal college social life. Time management is essential, he says.

When asked about starting a business at a young age, he advises aspiring entrepreneurs to set sights high and be willing to learn along the way.

“You shouldn’t decide not to do something because you don’t know how to,” McIntyre says. “I saw an article that said artificial voice intelligence is going to become a billion dollar industry and decided I wanted to ride this wave.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 2 (April, 2012).
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