The Real Teens of Silicon Valley
Inside the almost-adult lives of the industry’s newest recruits
“Do you know Zach Latta?” asked Fouad Matin, 19, on the roof of San Francisco’s unofficial tech teenager headquarters one recent night. “You know he rebuilt Yo’s backend. He’s baller.”
We watched the sun set over Twin Peaks, and Matin told me about his high school dropout friends like Latta, 17, who served as lead engineer of Yo, a viral messaging app that simply sends the message “Yo.” A large steel vent, on which someone had written the words Boob Mansion, pumped out hot air and the smell of tortillas from a vegan Mexican restaurant downstairs. Matin warmed himself under it.
When I’d arrived that afternoon, Dave Fontenot, 22 and the group’s elderly leader, met me at the door of a dingy-looking building in the Mission District. He led me up the narrow stairs, past pink salt lamps and a fog machine left over from a Himalayan sunset–themed party the previous weekend. The stairs open to the first of two expansive living rooms with utilitarian decor. Residents, who pay between $950 and $1,450 and range in age from 18 to 23, keep their mattresses on the floor with plain white sheets tangled at the feet. They stack their few personal effects (deodorant, sports shoes) in plastic drawers along the wall. Fontenot told me that all his stuff fits in a single backpack; others, hanging out on worn-out sofas, claimed to have smaller backpacks. They all wanted to show me. Scattered on the tables were business self-help books like Make Yourself Unforgettable, a guitar with a sticker that read fuck it, ship it, a projector, and some chocolate wrappers. On the wall was art that their property-management company, also started by a teenage entrepreneur, had picked out for them, like plastic stag heads and photos of ostriches. They call their house Mission Control. As I stood surrounded by a coterie of teens, I didn’t have the heart to ask if they knew about the nearby, internationally famous sex club, Mission Control.
Jared Zoneraich, 17 and finishing some high school assignments, was sprawled with his laptop on a couch. He asked Fontenot if he could come along for the tour. “Not until you finish your homework,” Fontenot chided.
We walked past empty beer bottles and chalkboards scrawled with 7.5m > 250k, the words energy, control, status, and eco, and drawings of squids. Fontenot — who wears his hair in a faux-hawk and said he’s famous for his pajama bottoms but had put on trackpants for my benefit — led me up a metal ladder to the gravel-and-tar roof where we met Matin, who had dropped out of school and moved to the Bay Area on his own when he was 17, to watch the sunset, as is their ritual.
“We don’t consider this a hacker house,” Fontenot said, handing me a fake mustache on a stick designed as a prop for selfies. “We don’t consider this a frat house or a co-working space. This is our home.”
As the demand for tech labor grows, ambitious teenagers are flooding into San Francisco. There’s no official tally of the number of teens who work in tech, but Fontenot estimates that there are as many as a hundred recent high school dropouts working on startups in the city. Some were too distracted by programming projects and weekend hackathons to go to class. Others couldn’t pay for college and questioned why they should go into debt when there is easy money to be made. Still others had already launched successful apps or businesses and didn’t see why they should wait at home for their lives to start. In Facebook groups for young technologists, they saw an alternative: teens lounging in sunny Dolores Park (dolo, as they call it), teens leasing expansive South of Market office space, teens throwing parties whenever they want. And so they moved to San Francisco, many of them landing in houses like Mission Control.
Their parents watch from afar, some more supportive than others. “We just miss him. We miss him a lot,” Tanya Latta, Zach’s mom, told me. “But the ultimate goal for us as parents is to have our kids be able to be self-sufficient and happy. So when we saw that he’s reached out a little early, we were really happy that he’s in his element. But it happened so fast.”
Fontenot isn’t an entrepreneur right now so much as the Peter Pan to these Lost Boys — and they are mostly boys — a playful leader and evangelist. At one point, he wanted to build a startup called Doork and even bought Doork.com. “Door with a k for knowledge,” he said, laughing. He told me he’s in a creative period of his life, trying to apply the “growth mind-set” to everything, which in his case right now means playing ukulele, recruiting young talent for companies, and hosting enormous national hackathons. One of Fontenot’s acolytes made T-shirts with a stencil of Fontenot’s face and the words: Do You Know Dave? He uses his Facebook URL shortcut (bit.ly/helllyeah) as a business card, coded in such a way that adding more l’s will still lead to it.
“Hackathons are technological Woodstock,” Matin said, using a phrase repeated by many of the young programmers when talking about these events, which have become increasingly powerful tools for recruiters to find young talent, as well as for teens across the country to meet one another and gin up the courage to move west. “Woodstock was a beacon for an ideology. Janis Joplin — ‘Look to your right, that’s your brother.’ That’s what hackathons are, too.”
As it got dark, Fontenot left to go to a Y Combinator event for female founders. Matin left for something called Nerd Night. I climbed back down the metal ladder to the living rooms, where a party was starting. I met Latta, the soft-spoken and brilliant son of Los Angeles social workers; Jackson Greathouse Fall, a dapper 19-year-old who moved here from Oklahoma; and 18-year-old Ryan Orbuch, handsome, outgoing, and geared up for the startup hustle.
“I would compare it to a very extended family,” said 19-year-old Max Wofford, who wore a baggy startup T-shirt and recently moved here from Southern California. “In this sort of house, in this environment, I get to do what I like, and I excel.” He hesitated for a second and gestured around, his messy hair falling in his face. “But I can’t really say I know exactly how living works here. Since I’ve just been sleeping on a beanbag.” (Wofford, who is 6 foot 3, has recently upgraded to a sheet of memory foam.)
Fontenot came back with a platter of cheese and grapes and a box of wine left over from the YC event. Matin put mounds of truffled brie into a loaf of bread and baked it. The guy at Bi-Rite Market had explained the difference between cow and sheep cheese today, he said, pouring himself a drink. Some teens wandered over to start snacking. “Don’t eat all the cheese before people get here!” Fontenot said.
Their teen world can be all-consuming, even isolating. When I met up with Ryan Orbuch at the Ferry Building a few weeks later, we watched a woman push a stroller past. “One thing about living here is I forget different sizes of people,” Orbuch said. “Like babies — I haven’t seen one in months. I forget how many sizes they come in. Old people I see more. I had an old Lyft driver the other day.”
Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and radical libertarian, stoked San Francisco’s latest Peter Pan moment. In 2010, his foundation launched a fellowship that awards $100,000 each to 20 young people per year who skip or drop out of college. One of his slogans: “Some ideas can’t wait.” The fellowship attracted outsize attention, instantly becoming an elite brand around which other dropout teens began to rally. “The fellowship is a flag, like a beacon,” said Matin. “Even if you don’t do the fellowship, it legitimized our work.”
Danielle Strachman, the Thiel Fellowship’s program director, seconds this notion. “Peter Thiel, PayPal — these are things [parents] understand,” she said. I met her and Michael Gibson, the fellowship’s vice president of grants, in a conference room inside the Thiel Foundation’s sleek, modern headquarters in the Presidio, a former military outpost, many of whose old whitewashed buildings have been converted into startup space. When the fellowship was announced, “it was a media maelstrom,” said Gibson. “One of the biggest fears these young people have is being unintelligible to their parents — and to everyone, really. One of the things the fellowship did was make it intelligible.”
More than 430 people applied the first year. By 2014, thanks in part to a shortened application, that number increased to 3,100. “When the fellowship first started, it was young prodigies, geniuses,” Strachman said. “But there are so many people dropping out now, it’s more normal-looking teens.” Of the 84 fellows so far, only eight have gone back to college, and two of those later dropped out again. Alums include the founders of Streem (acquired by Box), Propeller (acquired by Palantir), and Flashcards+ (acquired by Chegg).
The fellowship officers, meanwhile, have come to see themselves as a protective layer between the teens and talent-hungry venture capitalists. They worry that many of these suitors aren’t looking to develop original thinkers, but to recruit programmers for their existing portfolio companies. “We really want [the fellows] to be entrepreneurs,” Gibson said. “Teens have a greater risk tolerance. They can live in conditions we would find inhospitable. They have a fresh mind; they have so much optionality, youth, and stamina.”
Teens have also proven to be exceptionally creative coders, the Thiel officers said. Eighteen-year-old Conrad Kramer, a current Thiel fellow and co-founder of the file-transfer service DeskConnect, is famous among his peers for winning the two most prestigious collegiate hackathons in the country while still in high school. Kramer won the University of Pennsylvania’s PennApps in the fall of 2013 and, together with his team, the University of Michigan’s MHacks III in 2014 for a task-automation app called Workflow. When it launched, Workflow was the most purchased iPhone app for four days. By charging up to $5 per download, Kramer and his co-founders, 20-year-old Ari Weinstein and 19-year-old Nick Frey, have so far mostly managed to avoid taking venture-capital money.
But despite their success, young founders face challenges the fellowship officers might not have expected. “We have young people email us with all sorts of things, from ‘I need help figuring out what to do here,’ or ‘I got dumped,’” Strachman said. “One kid raised $40,000 and had a first date on the same day.” In certain cases, she and the other officers will step into a parental role, mentoring the fellows in personal finance, etiquette, how to write an email, how to set up health insurance. Sometimes the guidance is more granular.
“I recently had a whole meeting with one young man just for table manners,” Strachman told me. “We had a bowl of chips and salsa for the table, and he starts out by salting them so much — I mean, beyond anything normal.” She explained that it was polite to ask before salting communal chips. She has also talked to fellows about appropriate cologne use.
Jackson Greathouse fall stood out at the Mission Control party, dressed as he was in a tight gray blazer, tie, and selvage jeans, with slicked-back hair. I was sitting on a couch jammed between teens who told me that the 19-year-old Fall dresses everyone for meetings with venture capitalists. I buttonholed him in the kitchen. He said his role in the extended family of teenage tech workers is fashion consultant, the trusted tailor of the Lost Boys. His friends send him before-and-after selfies, and Fall will recommend outfits — he’s a fan of the linen blazer — as well as shopping services like Trunk Club. “First impressions matter here especially. That day you could run into a million-dollar funding deal,” he said. Most of the teens wear “free T-shirts from hackathons. … It’s about self-respect.”
There are other motivations for requesting Fall’s services. “Jackson dresses me for girls,” Orbuch said.
When I visited Fall at his cliff-side shared home in Bernal Heights a few weeks after the party, he made himself an espresso in the kitchen, which has a sweeping view of the city and the water beyond. Fall grew up in Oklahoma City — “where the wind never stops rushing down the plains,” he sang to himself — and got into tech through friends he made online. At age 12, Fall kept a blog where he posted video podcasts with tech celebrities like the writers Leo Laporte and Gary Vaynerchuk. At 13, he discovered a Facebook group called Millennial Generation Entrepreneurs, and he saw something astonishing: People his age were dropping out of school and moving to San Francisco.
At the end of his junior year, Fall left high school and worked various design jobs. He moved to L.A. last year, when he was 18, and took a bus to the Bay Area to visit a friend who was interning at a startup called Relcy. While he was there, Fall came up with a new design strategy for the startup. His friend’s CEO was so taken with his idea that Fall was told to cancel his bus home — “like a fairy tale,” he said.
Fall’s current house has five permanent residents and usually two people crashing; he estimates that the average age is 21. There’s a pool table, a Nespresso machine, a wooden piano against the wall, a bookshelf with inspirational business books (the usual suspects: Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup, assorted Dale Carnegie), an Xbox 360, and two fireplaces. With the exception of some scattered beer cans, it’s pretty clean.
“Everyone here is a dropout except Flavio, who made the Swiss Groupon,” Fall said, opening a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. At night the housemates have friends over and listen to music, mostly hip-hop. They order food from Postmates — they especially like the grilled cheese from a bar in the Mission — or they’ll walk to a nearby taqueria. Every once in a while they host drunk pitch nights. “People come in from out of state for it,” Fall said. “Anyone can pitch, but they have to be drunk.” He’s also gotten very into brunch and has recently started eating gluten-free.
Mostly, though, Fall works. He designs for Pivit, which does outcome tracking and found him on LinkedIn, and has worked with Eaze, the Uber for pot. Fall leans heavily on the teen network. “If I need work or help there’s just always someone there,” he said. “Everyone who’s here knows they’ve gone through a lot to get here — the fact that they haven’t gone home is a testament to the tenacity and the community.”
Most people have their parents’ support, including Fall, but every now and then, he said, “you do hear of some runaways. One kid, maybe 15 or 16, came out here for a hackathon and didn’t book a ticket back. He was staying with us. His parents called up one of my roommates, and we had to convince him to go home.” But their door is open. “I want people to know this community exists,” he said. “We love everyone. We’re here.”
As I was leaving, I realized I hadn’t asked him about his finances. Does he support himself independently? Does he need me to bring him snacks?
“Oh,” he said, surprised. “I help pay my mom’s bills. I played Santa this year to my sisters. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Across town from Bernal Heights, in a South of Market warehouse one February evening, Ashu Desai, who dropped out of college at 18, was trying his best to build a replica of the college-dorm common-room experience. He’d set up cards for poker on long work tables and had rigged a projector for Super Smash Bros. Over soda, a dozen kids played Texas hold ’em and the fantasy card game Coup.
While some teenagers come to San Francisco with hit apps already under their belts, most arrive with just ambition and a blind faith that this booming industry will shape them into the workers it needs. So Desai co-founded Make School, a two-year degree program to replace college. “It’s not that there’s no need for education, it’s just not the right kind,” said Desai, who’s now 22.
“For the first time in human history, high school students can build something that impresses not just peers but adults,” says Jeremy Rossmann, Desai’s co-founder. “You’re used to being a high school kid that’s subordinate to a college kid that’s subordinate to an adult. But half the winning teams at the collegiate hackathons have a high school student on them.”
Desai, while still in high school, made an iPhone game that sold 50,000 copies. “Who cares about grades after that?” he said. He enrolled at UCLA but struggled to focus, skipping classes and eventually dropping out, much to his parents’ horror. “My parents were both from India, and since we were kids, their goal for us is HYPS,” he said. “Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford.” But along with Rossmann, a friend from high school who dropped out of MIT, Desai was accepted to the incubator Y Combinator. That helped on the parental front. “YC was a license to drop out,” Desai said. “It’s a credential.”
Now, with investments from Andreessen Horowitz and Tim Draper, Make School, which has been in beta this past year and officially launches in September, has developed a curriculum meant to span the software-developer skill set. Classes including Version Control, Etiquette and Process in the Open Source Community, and Applying to Y Combinator are taught in person in the warehouse where Desai was hosting game night. Students this past year have stayed in a house in Palo Alto, but starting in September they’ll live in San Francisco. Between the two years of instruction, they’ll do a six-month internship.
Teaching students how to make apps has turned out to be the easy part, Desai said. His challenge is filling in for everything else college does. “How can we socially prepare people for the real world?” he said. “How do we teach the soft skills — networking, pitching, speaking?” Nutrition and Exercise is a required class.
Make School students pay nothing upfront but commit to paying for the program later. Desai assumes that his graduates will make about $100,000 each of their first two years out of school, plus $45,000 during their internship. The school skims a percentage off this total to make about $80,000 from each student. “But we only charge if you see returns,” Desai said.
Masakazu Bando, 20, joined Make School’s pilot last year and got a dream job, while still in class, at a social bookmarking startup called Papaly. He hasn’t gone back to MIT. Another pilot student, 19-year-old Lynne Okada, said she was having trouble imagining being back in school at U.C. Santa Cruz: “The life I’m living right now is just so much more fun.”
One young man came to the game night with his dad, who peered around the room as everyone settled in. But with a look from his son, he sneaked out to wait in the car.
Zach Latta, of Yo fame, lives with eight roommates, including three other teenagers, in the Castro. Not long after the Mission Control party, I stopped by his old Victorian, above a coffee shop and next door to the Castro Country Club, an LGBT community center. It has seven bedrooms if you count the closet (“it’s an expensive closet,” Latta said, suggesting I check out the Business Insider story on it).
Latta wore black jeans and a gray zip-up that hung loose on his lean frame. Growing up in L.A., he learned HTML while he was in the third grade and was always a star student, taking computer-science classes at a local community college. At 13, he was making money on contracts he got through the code-sharing platform GitHub and was skipping class for hackathons. One day, a few weeks into his sophomore year of high school, he told his parents that he wanted to drop out. He tried taking online classes, but they were too easy. He started talking about moving to San Francisco. “We were like, ‘What?’ We didn’t know any other parents who’d let their kids do that,” says Tanya Latta. “And we said, ‘OK, present it to us: Where would you live; what would it look like?’”
Latta already knew dozens of teens in San Francisco’s tech scene from hackathons, young-entrepreneur Facebook groups, and a Y Combinator interview, and he knew where he would live. Tanya agreed he could go up for a trial, so long as she took him and inspected the place. They drove up, and Tanya met his future housemates. “Some of the guys were older and some were younger,” she says. “It’s like a little family.”
She helped him move into his new apartment, which the residents call Castro House. Only after he was gone did she realize that he’d taken almost all of his things. “It was really, really hard to let him go,” she says. “All along we thought it would be temporary, but now, it’s like maybe it’s not. Maybe he’ll be up there for a while.”
Tanya is happy to see her son thriving in his new setting, “but other parents do question it,” she says. “Like, ‘Is it legal to let him live there on his own?’” Latta took and passed the California high school equivalency exam, but he and his parents agreed it was too much of a hassle to become legally emancipated, so he just moved. “If I want to do as much as possible in my life, there’s no better way than to move up to San Francisco and do my own thing,” Latta said. “It’s been amazing to have this community where it’s just like — let’s forget everything we’ve been told in our lives.”
At around 9 p.m., when I visited, his house was quiet, with entrepreneurs working on their bunks and in the living room. I sat in the kitchen on a wobbly Ikea chair. Aashna Mago, 19 years old and from Newtown, Pennsylvania, came out to join us and perched on a table. She moved into Castro House in April, after leaving Stanford to work for Rothenberg Ventures, a VC firm with a focus on virtual reality. At the firm, she works with portfolio companies, writes code, and stitches together video to create virtual-reality scenes. “I have to act like I’m not 19,” she said. “The other day after work, everyone went to drinks.” She went home. “Earlier this week we had a really big VR event, and I walked all the way there, and then it was at a bar.” She went home again. “So that was kind of hard.”
Mago says she probably wants to go back to school. “My parents aren’t so excited,” she said. “At some point there’s a diminishing return on defying them.”
“I feel you, bro,” added Jonathan Leung, Mago’s roommate and Latta’s current co-founder. Latta nodded. He took me to his room, which has a bunk bed over a three-screened computer command center that serves as the headquarters of his startup, hackEDU, which is working to start coding clubs at high schools around the country. Latta and Leung founded the company in August and have secured $130,000 in funding from friends as well as a grant from the Logan Foundation. Max Wofford, the tall fellow who recently upgraded from a beanbag to memory foam, met Leung at a coder retreat called Hacker Paradise and joined the team in January, when he was 18 years old.
In their shared room down the hall, Leung and Wofford have glass lanterns full of dollar bills. One of the things the three boys have been trying to get better at is sticking with commitments, so they began setting up an MIT — a Most Important Task. “Like follow up with an investor, and then for every minute we’re late, it’s a $1 penalty,” Latta said. “We really want to trust everyone’s integrity. We went to the bank and all got $300 in one-dollar bills.” That system lasted for only about a month, but the cash-filled lanterns remain. Outside, the boys set up a wall of sticky notes with goals like “April 12th — $100,000” and a smiley face with money signs for eyes.
While Latta’s day-to-day life is similar to that of many young Bay Area engineers — wake up to code, read inspirational books, try to work out, go to entrepreneur mixers — he runs into unique obstacles. “Every gym I’ve been to has turned me down because I’m not an adult,” Latta said. He showed up at one recently at 6 a.m., wearing his workout clothes, only to be, again, turned away. “I went to the bank the other day to start a bank account because we’re fundraising,” he said, “but I can’t open a bank account. I can’t sign up for medical care.”
When he was at a coding competition in San Francisco, the organizers wouldn’t let him leave the building alone because he was a minor. “So here he’s living in San Francisco on his own,” Tanya says, laughing, “and he called and said, ‘Mom, they won’t let me go home!’”
Behind this movement is money. A lot of money. These teens aren’t operating in a vacuum; they’re part of a new, ever-hungrier venture-capital ecosystem.
This past February, some VCs took them skiing.
Over a four-day, most-expenses-paid weekend at Lake Tahoe called Interact, partners from a group of powerful firms put on private dinners and arranged boat trips for 100 particularly special young entrepreneurs (average age around 21). They held office hours in the lobby of Basecamp Hotel, a boutique resort that looks like a Wes Anderson set, with reclaimed-wood walls, retro camping lamps, and one room with a tent to sleep in and a fake fire by the wall. They took the entrepreneurs on long walks along the beach to talk about startup funding. They tried to tuck conversations about scaling a company into chairlift rides.
Interact started two years ago as a casual meetup for young entrepreneurs at the SXSW tech conference. The brainchild of Maran Nelson, a 23-year-old who co-founded a virtual-assistant startup called Clara, the meetup attracted VC sponsors immediately and this year became its own stand-alone retreat. Teens in Tahoe, many of whom had been at the Mission Control party the night before, played coy with investors. They weren’t sure about taking venture funding but were definitely sure they liked getting to know one another, skiing, and eating good food. At least one attendee learned how to open his first bottle of Champagne.
Julie Deroche, director of university recruiting at Greylock Partners, spent time in Tahoe with Conrad Kramer, one of the star Thiel fellows. “When you come into contact with people like Conrad, you do want to stay close to them,” she told me. Kramer seemed ambivalent about the wooing, saying that he and his co-founders weren’t yet ready to take venture funding.
Deepak Jeevan Kumar, a principal at General Catalyst Partners, led sessions at Interact, encouraging attendees to work in unsexy enterprise industries like cloud computing, which he thinks need new ideas. “The way that I would sum it up is that the intellectual curiosity of humans goes down as we start aging,” he told me. “Intellectual curiosity is correlated with imagination and ability to take risk. So that, combined with the fact that experience is mattering less and less to be an entrepreneur” in enterprise industries means that “the only thing standing between young people and entrepreneurship was lack of experience. Now, experience is a liability.” When I asked Kumar how old he is, he joked that he identifies as a 15-year-old. He appears to be in his 30s.
There is something odd about this fetishization of teen talent and how far venture capitalists will go to get it, as well as how skeptical they can be of anyone over 25, given the fact that most billion-dollar startups today — Uber, WhatsApp, Slack — were founded by seasoned adults.
Even the teens think it’s a little strange. “I want people to think of me for my merit, not my age,” Latta says. “I almost feel like my age can be distracting. I’ll often lie about it.” But he did admit that he’ll sometimes “pull the age card.”
Kristina Varshavskaya, who moved to San Francisco four years ago, when she was 17, usually tries to avoid the age conversation. She didn’t particularly want to be a teen entrepreneur, but dropping out of her New Jersey high school was practical. “People I met at the time thought I was fearless, but I wasn’t doing well in school, I was worried about getting into a good college, and I didn’t know how I’d pay for college,” Varshavskaya says. Her older sister was living in San Francisco starting Wanelo, an online shopping network, and asked for Varshavskaya’s help. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, something I can do with my life,’” she says. Her parents, though initially skeptical, were supportive.
For eight months, Varshavskaya slept in her sister’s closet in the Mission and worked on almost every aspect of the new company. When Wanelo closed a seed round of a few million dollars, Varshavskaya moved into her own apartment. The company needed an iPhone app, so Varshavskaya, who’d built websites when she was a kid, taught herself how to design one. It was a hit. In 2013, Wanelo was valued at more than $100 million.
But there were challenges. “When I was 17, nobody took me seriously. Most people, I think, wrote me off, wrote off the company,” she says. “It was hard to make friends because of that, and because I couldn’t get into bars.” She knows the tech teen posse but has her own friends outside of it. “I’ll either meet people who will fetishize it or will dismiss it. The fetish is kind of weird,” Varshavskaya says. “The group of young guys here. A lot of them are treated like gods and wizards and heroes, and all the venture capitalists are waiting for their next magic thing, but they’re not doing anything that special. They’re just really young. I include myself in that.”
As Wanelo grew, Varshavskaya became in-demand talent. Now, at 21, she’s a product designer at Facebook, a coveted job. “I’m mentoring a new grad, like a university grad designer,” she says, “which is really funny because I’m a few years younger than him and never went to school.”
Ryan Orbuch didn’t exactly run away from home, but he came close. A broad-shouldered, wide-smiling 18-year-old who looks like a hometown football star, Orbuch grew up in Boulder and was entrepreneurial since the third grade, when he started a gardening business and his own little newspaper called The Crest View Times — “and then I went through my lemonade-stand phase,” he says. By seventh grade, he’d jailbroken his iPod Touch and was getting into iOS. Along with a friend, he launched his first app, a productivity tool called Finish, in 2013, when he was 16 years old. The app swiftly rose to number one in its app-store category, eventually winning an Apple Design Award and getting him featured in The New York Times and TEDxTeen.
Orbuch didn’t get into Stanford or the Thiel Fellowship, nor did his app do particularly well after its initial pop, but he made a good bit of money off it and gained a huge amount of confidence. Maybe he hadn’t gotten good grades, but he’d created something. He heard about Interact when he was a junior in high school and the event was in its first year, organized around SXSW, and asked his mom if he could go. She said no, because he wasn’t doing well in school, but he bought a ticket to Austin, Texas, anyway. Nelson, the event’s organizer, got a call from his mom.
A year or so later, Orbuch visited San Francisco for a conference organized by the Thiel Foundation. “My world exploded when I first came out here,” he said. At 17, he made the move. By then, his parents were cautious but supportive.
Today, Orbuch lives with another teenage entrepreneur in an apartment on the Embarcadero, with a full view of the bay and a 9-foot-long fireplace in the building’s lobby. The apartment was scattered with some not-yet-assembled Ikea furniture and two air mattresses for friends. In the fridge were ginger kombucha and cold cuts. “We’re starting to get food like adults,” Orbuch said. “Have you tried Soylent?”
To Orbuch, starting a company as a teenager makes more sense than starting one later in life. “People are always saying, ‘Oh, you’re so young to be taking such a risk.’ I’m amazed when people start companies in their 30s!” he said. “If I mess up, I go home and go to college. The worst that can happen is minimal.”
He doesn’t keep in touch with his old friends much — “I kind of feel bad, and I kind of don’t” — though he did recently try to sneak onto a local high school campus to ask students questions for field research for his company. “I learned if you’re going to sneak onto a high school, you should have a map so you know where the cafeteria is and they don’t get suspicious,” he said.
Now, as the co-founder of Volley, a mobile-learning startup, Orbuch finds himself facing all sorts of responsibilities he hadn’t expected when he first moved here. “Did you know you needed insurance for your office? And health insurance? I’ve never been to the doctor without my parents before,” he said. “All these adult things are coming way too quickly.” But he’s figuring it out. “Zenefits is dope,” he added.
On his balcony, we settled into deck chairs. Orbuch pointed out palm trees and the Mozilla building. He watched the boats and said he can’t figure out why his neighbors keep a hummingbird feeder.
He had fun at Interact this year, but he worries sometimes about how small his world is. “One thing I’m really bothered by is the insularity of tech — it’s narrowing,” he said. “It’s pretty much all white dudes. It’s a fake bubble with a bunch of money, and we just go with it.” He’s thinking of going to a mixer a friend of his runs called Tea with Strangers. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t in tech. And sometimes it’s like, are there any of them? Are there girls? How do you find them?”
Some of the young entrepreneurs who attended Interact's trip to Lake Tahoe this winter paid a portion of their own travel expenses.