Teen life: Hanging out and starting companies
High school students starting businesses might seem unusual to many people, but they are becoming more visible these days. These young entrepreneurs are developing computer software, distributing goods on the Internet, making homepages and selling farm products. Some even set up corporations.
According to the Small and Medium Business Administration, more than 250 businesses are run by high school students or clubs, involving over 32,000 students.
Two months ago, Lee Hyun-woo and Chae Kang-min, both 17-year-old sophomores at Sunrin Internet High School, opened a computer assembly shop, Hera PC, in the Wonhyo electronics market in Seoul’s Yongsan district. They receive orders online, purchase computer parts and then assemble them according to customer specifications. They also sell computer accessories, working from 5 to 10 p.m. every day.
Almost as an afterthought, they also go to school.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future. I wanted to start a business when I’m still young and find out what I want to do,” said Hyun-woo. “I just wanted to have experience. It is not about money.”
They obtained 3 million won ($3,140) each from their parents to invest in the business. Though they have not yet broken even, they aren’t losing money, they say.
Most student entrepreneurs mentioned by the administration attend vocational high schools rather than mainstream schools, where students spend all their time preparing for the college entrance examination. Vocational school students learn specific skills, such as mechanical techniques, computer languages and agricultural techniques. What type of business the student does, not surprisingly, is closely related to what kind of school he or she attends.
Some of the schools have “business incubation centers,” equipped with personal computers, as well as fax and copy machines. Teachers help out the students by giving them instructions and taking care of legal issues such as filing for business registration. While there is no age restriction in registering a business, there are legal matters in selling goods online ― their parents are liable for it.
An important reason the students start their businesses so early is that they want to see whether they can survive and learn from their mistakes and failures. Better to fail now, they reckon, then later on when they’re older.
“Even if I fail, I want to start a company early. It’s better to found a company and fail than to do nothing at all,” said Kim Tae-hoon, a 16-year-old freshman at Sunrin Internet High School. Tae-hoon sells custom-designed caps through a skateboard store. The caps are sold under a brand he created, and bear its logo on the front, Stunt B, the name of a professional skateboard team.
He said he invested all the money, 3.5 million won, in his “piggy bank.” He recently received an order for 50 caps and expects to earn 21,000 won from each cap he sells at 35,000 won. Tae-hoon said he “focuses on quality” and does not sell cheap products.
He also has employees, who happen to be his classmates. They have all signed employment contracts, requiring that they work 24 hours a week. He pays them each 150,000 won a month.
After they graduate from college, they say, they want to set up bigger businesses and own “larger” companies. No matter how small the scale of their businesses, they take them very seriously. They want to become employers, maybe even CEOs.
“I don’t want to be employed by other people,” said Park Soo-min, a 16-year-old freshman at the school.
Soo-min used to sell school uniforms online in the first semester of the freshman year, and now he sells imported watches on Internet retailers. “I thought I’d better put what I learned into practice,” he said, explaining why he started the business.
This may sound easy and even glamorous for high school students, but for a 16-year-old, doing business or founding a company is not so simple ― some people find it hard to take them seriously.
“It was difficult being a student and running a business at the same time,” Tae-hoon said. The first time he and his friends visited a cap manufacturer, they wore school uniforms, which they though would make them look more appealing. They were wrong: A guard prevented them from entering the building. It took them a week to persuade the company executives to supply them with caps.
Song Jun-heon, a teacher at Sunrin Internet High School, said that a few years ago it was more difficult for high school students to say they were in business, though that seems to be changing.
“We got cold receptions. People thought it was some sort of joke,” Mr. Song said. Social prejudice against student entrepreneurs is still their biggest barrier to success, he said.
The teacher said the biggest advantage of starting a business so soon is that they can have an early start in their careers. “There is a big difference between those who are doing nothing and have no idea of what to do in the future and those who thought about it early on,” Mr. Song said. “The reason for going to college is only to study to enhance their chance of success.”
Kim Kyung-ah, 20, an Ewha Womans University sophomore, may be a good example of that. Ms. Kim began making homepages when she was a high school freshman. When she was a sophomore, she formed a limited liability company, Inus C&C; only those companies can win government contracts. She then developed mobile software programs through which people can upload job applications over their mobile phones, but the programs never took off. She realized that major telecommunications companies had already developed similar programs.
“There is no place for a small venture like us in the information technology sector,” Ms. Kim said. She said that was something that she learned in high school.
She later changed her company’s name to Mount Jiri Organic Agricultural Product Distribution and began buying farm products directly from farmers and supplying them to large restaurants in major cities. Unlike other middlemen, she sold them at the same prices year-round.
Ms. Kim agreed that there are certainly advantages to starting a business in high school.
“I had a lot of experience. I already have five years of experience in business and am ahead of all my friends, who just started exploring their career options,” Ms. Kim said. “Being one step ahead means a lot.” Most of all, she said, there is no such thing as a “simulated business.”
Lee Dong-hoon, a junior at Kyung Hee University, tried to create an online shopping mall with his friends while he was in high school, but the site never actually opened. He is currently the manager of the Kyung Hee University Association of Stock Forecasting, a student club that acts as a registered company.
Although the experience certainly helped him, he said, there were limits to what highschoolers can do. “I feel that I was a ‘frog in a well,’” he said, speaking of the time when he was in high school. The metaphor is commonly used in Korea to denote ignorance of the outside world.
He also said it was very difficult to study and be involved in a business at the same time. “As a student, if you don’t have enough time to study, there’s no need for you to go to school,” he said.
Ms. Kim also mentioned several disadvantages to early business careers. The enormous effort required to run a business means high school students could lose their once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be kids, she said. “It’s too great a sacrifice for a student,” she explained. The risks are also serious. “They might regret it later, especially if they fail.”
There are disadvantages as well as advantages, but high school students starting a business is nothing to fuss over, or something to criticize or be surprised at, she said.
“[Hyundai founder] Chung Ju-yung started his own business when he was a teenager. There were a number of periods in our history when teenagers doing business of their own was common,” Ms. Kim said. “It’s only in our time that there are few teenage entrepreneurs.”
by Limb Jae-un