Vancouver Courier: The Network Hub launched to meet demands and challenges of young entrepreneurs

A tall and lanky William Zhou climbs up the squeaky, carpeted staircase of an aging Richards Street building near Hastings until he reaches the third floor where it opens into a bright, contemporary office space.

An exposed brick wall provides a stylish backdrop for a small seating area to the right. A bookshelf, stocked with computer, marketing and finance texts, is positioned near a compact coffee station. Zhou passes the reception desk on the left and heads into a sparsely decorated meeting room where his business partner,  David  Kim, quietly types on a MacBook.

A cracked-open window does little to cool the space on this warm July morning.  The pair seems nonetheless relaxed despite working on details of a key web application for their business, Design Vetica, before Zhou leaves for China on vacation. They launched the web design and media production company in early 2009. It’s already created websites for local businesses and charitable organizations.

Silicon Valley venture capitalist and popular blogger Guy Kawasaki—one of the Apple employees responsible for marketing the Macintosh in 1984—tweeted about the duo last February after reading a blog en- try about them. More recently, the company landed a job designing the website for Internet entrepreneur and blogger Jason Calacanis’s Launch Conference next year.

Designing the website is a major coup. While Zhou and Kim aren’t being paid, they hope to be compensated in exposure.

The company’s profile is slowly emerging in the lucrative tech world thanks to the co- founders’ ingenuity and hard work, which is all the more notable given they’re teenagers living at home. They started the business while attending Point Grey secondary.

Kim, 17, enters Grade 12 this September. Zhou,18, graduated in June and heads to University of Waterloo to study computer science next month. The small business, which expanded this summer, employs three staff—all 20 or under.

The two teenaged owners embody an enviable combination of youth, intellect, ambition and self-confidence as they sit at a board table at The Network Hub, a shared office in downtown  Vancouver where Design Vetica  rents  space during  summer months.

“I know a lot of students who want to start a company, who are totally capable of doing it, but people are telling them not to,” Zhou says. “They’re almost at the edge [of starting] but people are saying, ‘OK you want to start this but what you should really be doing is studying and going to university and taking a job from there.’ It’s almost like the traditional thinking.”

The traditional route to corporate success doesn’t appeal to either of them. “That would take too long,” Kim says from behind his laptop.

Kim, the quieter of the two, works on his computer while fielding an occasional question. His youthful appearance is hard to reconcile with  his businessman status, but age is increasingly irrelevant in a world where teenagers are the most at ease with  the dizzying  pace of technological  advances. Kim acknowledges more companies are looking for young talent who are on the cutting edge of the industry.Zhou was born in Beijing where his interest in computers surfaced thanks to tech-friendly parents and grandparents. His father bought a personal computer in the late 1990s. “That’s the first time I touched a computer at home. I kind of fell in love with it and I took a lot of courses back in China,” recalls Zhou, who moved to Vancouver in his pre-teens. “Of course when I started using it, it was strictly for games, but now I’ve just found so many possibilities.  We’re starting a business based on computers because it kind of leveled the playing field for people like us who are young.”

The partners’ business relationship has its origins in Grade 10 IT class. Zhou had built a student discussion forum for  the high school’s website and the principal later asked him to redesign the entire site. Zhou enlisted the handful of gifted tech students from the school and the administration created a web design course so they could get credit for the assignment. Zhou led the class with teacher/supervisor Michael Enns.

“Basically, in a short period of time, he learned how  to use an operating system that he wasn’t familiar with and designed a website with some help from some other guys, but he was really the go-to guy,” recalls Enns, who was impressed by the teens’ business acumen.

“They know all about process, hierarchy, chains of command, ways of doing things. When we were building the web page, they would introduce me to programs on the Internet so that you’d post what jobs you’re doing and stuff like that.

“William, in particular, is totally into the business [side] and the flow of information,” says Enns. “I’ve never seen anybody who thinks that way—definitely not a student. I’m not a business teacher, so maybe these kids are out there, but it was a pretty unique experience for me to work with them.”

Enns witnessed the two playing off each other’s strengths and describes Kim as “a very calm, cerebral, intelligent young man” who served as the perfect counterpoint to Zhou’s “go-getter” attitude.

“What   makes William so productive is he doesn’t see anything as an obstacle because he feels like there’s always an answer to everything on the Internet. He just knows how to access information in a way that, being around him, I’ve learned.”

Enns suspects their age may present difficulties for some clients reticent to work with teenagers, but conversely they don’t have to deal with financial responsibilities most business people face. “Being youthful, you’re living at home. You don’t have any real overhead, you don’t need to make $40,000 that year to pay for your rent and your food, so that way they can establish themselves and slowly grow.”

Growth was at the heart of Design Vetica’s business objectives this summer. They expanding the team to include developer Michael Norton, 20, Colorado-based de- signer Carson Kahn, 17, and project manager Michelle Pham, a 16-year-old Sir Winston Churchill student. Zhou and Kim also focused on a web application called Draftboard. It’s expected to keep their company afloat when they return to school and are forced to scale down projects. Draftboard allows clients to log in and view mockups of sites. If clients want something changed, they can annotate the specific area with  a comment such as “Please change the colour.” Ultimately, De- sign Vetica envisions 500 paying users for the application monthly.

“In terms of services, there’s only  so many hours in the day we can provide ser- vice. That’s why we came up with [Draft-board]. That’s pretty much our next step to elevate our status,” Kim explains.

They’re also working on a website for UBC and with a variety of other clients, but “corporate sustainability,” as Kim calls it, is important too. The team is developing a website for the local Red Cross office in the refugee claimants area. They’re being paid and are donating the money back to the charity. Previously, they produced an International Women’s Day web page for Am- nesty International on a sponsorship basis.

Zhou, meanwhile, continues to brush up on the mechanics of running a company. A day earlier, he attended a payroll seminar. Financial matters, however, are secondary to the technical and practical knowledge they’re acquiring from the venture. “It wasn’t like, OK we’re going to make x amount of dollars in x amount of time. We didn’t do it as money- making [scheme]. We wanted to create this group as a company and half way we kind of blurted out, ‘Let’s have an office.’ Not to sound cheesy, but ‘Just do it’ actually makes sense,” explains Zhou, while acknowledging at their age they can afford to, and want to, take risks. “Right now a lot of us are in it for the experience, so money’s almost a bonus.”

Their attitude doesn’t surprise Catherine Swift, chairwoman, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Toronto-based Swift suspects Zhou and Kim are much more driven than average teens and likely have a higher independence streak—both common traits in entrepreneurs

“There’s a lot of research on entrepreneurs, in general, that shows it’s the self-reliance and the desire for independence that drives them. It’s not even money. Money is never in the top 10 motivations of entrepreneurs. It also tends to be the desire to make a difference in some way. We all have to make money, obviously, but the people that think [entrepreneurs] are just blindly pursuing the almighty dollar—it’s not true. It’s all these other almost intangibles—their happiness, being proud of doing something for them- selves, being in control of their own lives.”

According to Swift, business people are starting companies at younger ages and entrepreneurship is viewed positively by high school students, and particularly students in post secondary.

“We’ve seen a real change in  the last 20 years,” she says. “The notion of the old job for life is right out the window in my generation, let alone my children’s generation.”

The fact web-based businesses have low overhead costs makes them especially attractive to young tech-minded entrepreneurs, she adds, calling technology the great equalizer. “It’s a perfect fit for them. You don’t need a huge investment and you can have an international business online much more easily that you could in the days before the Internet.”

Swift considers their youthful self-confidence an asset. “A certain amount of  naïveté is not  a terrible thing because you don’t talk yourself out of everything. I have two kids in their 20s, so I see they definitely have self-confidence, maybe sometimes over-confidence, but the real world will take care of that soon enough.”

With her hair tied back in a ponytail, “Rebel Revenge” T-shirt and flip-flops, Van looks younger than her years, yet she runs The Network Hub a few doors down.It’s 11 a.m. and Minna Van is sipping an iced coffee in Waves at the corner of Richards and Hastings. The hour is early for the petite entrepreneur who worked till  6 a.m. on her computer before grabbing a short nap to make this appointment.

Van gave Zhou and Kim a break on their rent because her life has followed a similar  path. She launched a web development company called Atomic Media as a “creative outlet” with her brother John Van and friend Jay Catalan while she attended Templeton secondary. Four years ago, the threesome opened The Network Hub, partly in recognition of challenges facing young entrepreneurs.

“As a young person, it  was really hard to rent space. You need credit, you need to go through an application process, you need lots of references, but if you’re in high school what reference can you really get? [Do you say] ‘Mom, tell them what a really great child I was,’” laughs Van. (Zhou and Kim encountered similar obstacles while arranging a corporate bank ac- count—a parent had to sign for them initially. They’ve since incorporated their business and opened a business account on their own.)

When Van, who put herself through university, launched her business a decade ago, she had to turn down clients because of her high school schedule.

“A lot of times I had to hide under the table [and talk]. Clients might hire you because you’re young, but they aren’t aware that you’re still in school, so there are a lot of challenges. Today, you have email, which is great—clients email you or there’s management software where they enter in their opinion, but in my day people would call you up during class… I was constantly either running to the washroom or hiding in the back [of the classroom] trying to answer my phone. I usually had to pretend I was in the library,” she explains, laughing at the memory.

“That was the reason I loved the Design Vetica kids because I know what a struggle it is to start your own business while you’re that young in school. While you’re in school, especially high school, it’s a completely different ballgame. Your schedule is so fixed, so structured.” Although  young  entrepreneurs aren’t unusual, Van considers Zhou and Kim unique because they “had their stuff   together.”   When they showed up at The Network Hub, they had existing clients.

“The difference between them and other high school entrepreneurs, for me, is their mentality. They think of themselves as a full-on business with responsibility, with accountability to clients, whereas there might be some that are just starting out, but are less aware or they don’t take it as seriously,” she says.

“They’re way better than me— they’re so much smarter. They’re so much more nimble, so much more efficient, so much brighter.  They’re so good at marketing. I would never have thought to approach a newspaper. I was hiding in my basement doing my work.”

Work is something the pair won’t be able to escape if Design Vetica is to become a financial success, although Van says youth is on their side.

“The kind of world they exist in, and to a certain extent I exist in, is the kind of world  where people are willing to stay up 48 hours to code, to program, to launch anything. That’s how intense and anxiety-driven this industry is. You miss a day and you feel like you’ve missed a lot.”

Entrepreneurship, however, is more of a calling than a career, according to Van. “It’s just something you need to do. You need to get it out there like a musician needs to write or play a song. An entrepreneur needs to start a business. I don’t even think we say it’s a business. It’s an outlet. It’s the same thing with The Hub. We didn’t think about it as a business, we thought of it as a necessity. We needed to do it, otherwise we would have just died with regret.”

Source: Vancouver Courier

Back to Press Page