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Like a lot of teens, Milun Tesovic spent countless hours listening to music. But the 16-year-old took his interest a step further, developing a Web site that provides a library of music lyrics. Now 24, Tesovic has the third-largest music site in the world, has developed partnerships with some heavy hitters in music and the Internet, and is fielding offers to buy his company.
Tesovic, of Vancouver, British Columbia, recently took the top honor at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards competition that drew some 1,500 applicants—all of them college students who run their own businesses. He was among 30 semifinalists competing in the global finals in November during National Entrepreneurship Week at the Kaufmann Foundation in Kansas City, Mo.
The GSEA’s purpose is to help young entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level. Run by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global network of more than 7,300 business owners, the competition provides a chance for young entrepreneurs to network and be mentored by seasoned pros. “It’s all about multiple generations of entrepreneurs supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs,” says Kevin Langley, GSEA global chairman.
But there’s a higher objective, too. “Supporting and encouraging entrepreneurs is critical to the success of our world,” says Janice Reals Ellig, a judge and E.O. member. “They are the true builders, the lifeblood of innovation spurring the growth of our country.”
Adds Peter Thomas, a judge and chairman emeritus of E.O.’s international advisory committee: “I am in awe of the students. The world depends on entrepreneurs.”
Almost 40 percent of the U.S. gross economic product was generated by small businesses formed in the last 20 years, says Carl Schramm, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, the largest foundation devoted to entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship channels talents in ways that will improve all of human welfare, connecting people across the globe. These young entrepreneurs are inventing the future.”
Past participants say the relationships formed with E.O. members are invaluable. Dominic Coryell, the 2008 GSEA global champion, says these successful entrepreneurs have assisted him in his personal and business development. This mentorship helped Coryell formulate his five-year plan for Garment Valet, a laundry and dry cleaning valet service. “In 2015, I see my company operating in 10 major cities and having franchises in a dozen others. That will put us at a revenue mark of $35 million.”
Competing businesses this year ranged from sole proprietorships to businesses with a few dozen employees. Some had not yet turned a profit, while others already had revenue in the millions. Businesses included high-end fashion, Internet gaming, a grocery store and Web hosting. With more than double the number of participating countries since last year, student entrepreneurs for the fi rst time came from countries including Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea.
After making their individual presentations, contestants each had 10 minutes to field judges’ rapid-fire questions, which ranged from challenges they had overcome, financial business models, sustainability of their businesses, as well as their future plans. Many of the winners said their biggest challenge is their age—and being taken seriously. But clearly none have any intention of letting their age stop them.
Milun Tesovic MUSIC & TECHNOLOGY LEADER
Milun Tesovic's MetroLyrics.com is one of the most popular and complete online lyrics properties in the world. His flagship product, MetroLyrics.com, reaches more than 35 million unique monthly visitors, receives 100 million monthly page views, and hosts more than 20,000 music fans on its site during peak hours. His largest competitor is trailing behind him by more than 50 percent, and advertising revenue made his business profitable from Day One.
"Lyrics are the emotional connection between the song and individual," Tesovic says.
As a 15-year-old researching lyrics online for his own curiosity, he discovered lyric searches were among the most popular on the Web, but nobody seemed to do it comprehensively, accurately or legally. "All of the existing players were doing a poor job at maintaining an up-to-date database and good offerings," says Tesovic, now a full-time student at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.
He researched copyright laws and realized other sites weren't licensing lyrics provided to users. His site doesn't allow users to copy, paste or print lyrics. "Lyrics are copyright and the result of hard work. We don't feel it's fair and right to benefit from somebody's work without proper compensation back to the individuals," he says.
The integrity of his decisions built his credibility, and big companies took notice. MetroLyrics.com is now the exclusive lyrics partner for all AOL Music properties and Billboard.com. "AOL actually approached us once they realized that the lyrics space is a specializing space that requires a specific way of thinking to grow it. Working together, we get the best of both worlds," Tesovic says.
In addition to lyrics, Tesovic's MetroLeap Media offers widgets, games and mobile applications for users to share lyrics for free.
"Tons of people have made offers to buy us," Tesovic says. Right now, he's weighing his options and thinking of potential new ventures. "I can't wait to see what the future holds."
Richard Littlehale REUSE & REPURPOSE
When a new version of the iPhone was released in June, Yale student Richard Littlehale dressed up as a human iPhone and walked outside the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York City to encourage people not to throw away their old electronics, but rather to sell for reuse. He did it to market his business, YouRenew.com, specializing in the reuse and recycling of used electronics.
“My Web site is like the Kelley Blue Book for electronics,” says Littlehale, 23, GSEA first runner-up. “We believe reuse is the highest form of recycling, so we promote reuse first and recycling as a last resort. We aim to get used devices back into the market—primarily to people who cannot afford to buy new devices.”
The judges were impressed by the social impact of his business—helping both the environment and people who might not be able to afford new electronics.
Being socially responsible was a driving influence for Littlehale, even before founding YouRenew.com in 2008. An earlier entrepreneurial venture was Party For a Cause Foundation, a nonprofit that helps college groups host parties for charity, using its tax-exempt status to help the groups get the money where it is needed. The organization is national now, with thousands of dollars raised for various charities on multiple campuses.
Littlehale, of Norwell, Mass., has led YouRenew.com through a successful round of venture funding and is looking forward to his company’s continued growth.
Lawrence Kim TECHNICAL INSPECTION SOLUTIONS
Lawrence Kim decided to become an entrepreneur to take control of his income. “People looked down on me and thought I was stupid because we didn’t have a lot of money,” Kim says. “So, I told myself, I want to get out of this; I want to be known.”
Kim, who is from Singapore, was 17 when he founded Ebenezer Print Solutions Pte. Ltd. in 1999, with a $2,000 investment he earned working as a part-time waiter. His company bought and sold reams of paper and provided basic printing services. He obtained 100 corporate clients and made more than $165,000 in annual revenue after three years.
But his business suffered because he was a student and unable to devote sufficient time to it. He sold his company in 2006, and invested in his father’s then-stagnant marine inspection business, Ebenezer NDT Services Pte Ltd. He converted it into a quality technical inspection company for oil and gas, marine, petrochemical plants and power stations. His business has grown into a multimillion-dollar company with operations all over Southeast Asia.
The judges were impressed by his resiliency and ability to come back, which resulted in his being awarded the Lessons from the Edge award.
Lawrence has also founded a research and development house, HTT International Pte. Ltd., which has one patent pending. He recently celebrated his 27th birthday by starting a nonprofit, Eliezer Pte Ltd., which provides more than $100,000 in funding and scholarships to help other entrepreneurs in Singapore.
Julie Thatcher ALASKA WAFFLE RESTAURANTEUR
Like many college students, Julie Thatcher used to get hungry late at night, but there was no place to go. Everything closes early in her hometown of Juneau, Alaska, she says. She made waffles in her dorm room until she realized she could turn it into a business. “I looked for some space to rent, and I found a garage filled with old cars and junk. I thought, ‘It’s perfect.’ ” The bank was so impressed that she had already saved $15,000—the 30 percent down payment needed to start her business—that she Thatcher, 25, wanted to create a cozy coffee shop but differentiated her business by offering waffles. “They are easy to make, cheap and everyone loves them.” She also set herself apart with her long hours, 6 a.m. to midnight, as well as comfortable couches and free Wi-Fi, appealing to students at nearby University of Alaska Southeast. Her restaurant, Southeast Waffle Company, is also near the local elementary school, where teachers bring the kids in groups for a treat. Thatcher managed to pay off her loan in her fi rst year of business and now makes more than $500,000 annually. “I found a need and I went for it.”
Jonathan Manzi WEB SERVICES PROVIDER
When Jonathan Manzi was 6, he was selling painted rocks. By 11, he was brokering baby-sitting and landscaping services. He had $8,000 in capital by eighth grade.
Today the 18-year-old owns Vintage Network and has two offices in his hometown of Boston, where his company, Vintacore.com, offers tailor-made advertising solutions and helps publishers and other businesses monetize their Web traffic. He recently moved to California to attend Stanford, but he hired two managers to run his business while he’s on the opposite coast.
Manzi recently launched an investment firm, where he’s starting off by managing his own assets.
He says GSEA was an eye-opening experience. “I never knew there were so many people like me,” he says. “It shows me I am not crazy.”