Pick of the Week

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Ben Casnocha is on the board of a company he founded, works for a venture capitalist and has written a book about being an entrepreneur. He has traveled on business in Asia and Europe, has his own blog and is on the lecture circuit.

While these accomplishments are impressive at any age, Casnocha has achieved all of this at only 19 years old.

Take a look at his blog and you'll quickly realize Casnocha isn't a typical teenager. One of his recent posts reads: "Book Review: John Adams by David McCullough." He writes, "I finished winding my way through another 500-plus page biography as I continue to try to satisfy my appetite for vivid portrayals of America's founders."

Scroll down a bit, and you'll find intelligent and insightful commentary on business, education, books, media and current affairs. The San Jose Business Journal named his blog as one of the top 25 blogs in Silicon Valley.

In one entry, Casnocha poses the question: Would you rather be rich or influential? You might scratch your head for a moment over this one, but Casnocha answers clearly: "Choosing between being rich or being famous, I think most people would choose rich. Between being rich or being influential, I think most people would choose influential. At least I would."

Casnocha's influence on the business world is clearly seen at the local-government level. He founded Comcate, an e-government software company, at the age of 14. Business Week named him one of America's top young entrepreneurs.

"We sell technical products and services to local governments around the U.S.," he explains. Comcate helps "manage customer service. From requests for the city council agenda, reporting potholes or tree limbs down ... they are tracked and routed through the software." Casnocha says Comcate works with 75 local governments.

But Comcate wasn't Casnocha's first company. " I had businesses from an early age. I sold gumballs, pens, random stuff from 7 to 10 years old ... anything I could organize and run. I didn't think twice about it. It wasn't serious."

At 12, he decided to start a dot-com company. Years later, the idea for Comcate was born out of a high school class. "I learned (local governments) were not good at handling customer service."

Casnocha is modest as he talks about his success and even admits that he learned "by being a bad salesman at first. ... I got my ass kicked the first couple of years." He says that a lot of what he learned was by self-education.

He had the help of his father, a neighbor and retired business and technical people in the Silicon Valley. But the advice of a venture capitalist from the San Francisco Bay area stands out in his mind five years later.

"This was a friend of my neighbor. He was the first adult businessperson I met in my life. He told me, 'A lot of people will tell you to stop doing what you are doing and to be normal. ... Don't listen to them. Good things come from the desire to make things happen.' That came at the perfect moment. I often think back to that comment."

Casnocha was 14 when he had that meeting. He was in the throes of high school, and was the editor of the school newspaper and captain of the varsity basketball team. He recalls a number of times when he had to leave class, put on a suit, fly to San Diego, speak at a conference and fly back--all in time for a basketball game.

Casnocha writes about his experiences in a book to be released in May by Jossey-Bass. My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley includes his experiences, practical lessons and contributions from business leaders. Casnocha says it is aimed at all ages and even those who don't want to be a business CEO. He stresses being CEO of your own life.

"Have clarity, and know what your goals are. Take the entrepreneurial approach to living. Take risks. Ask questions. Don't respect the status quo. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Have a vision."

What advice does he have for people who don't know what they want to do? Casnocha believes you don't have to have a sexy answer to that question. Not knowing is OK.

"I say: Fantastic! Now you have the whole world at your fingertips. You can sample from a large buffet."

Next on the table for Casnocha is college at a California liberal arts school in the fall. He'll probably be the only freshman on campus called CEO.

Ben Casnocha speaks about business principles, becoming the CEO of your own life and answers questions at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 3, at UA's McClelland Hall, 1130 E. Helen St. The lecture is free and takes place in the Berger Auditorium. Visit his Web site for information.

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