Cambridge, Massachusetts : Walk into Seth Priebatsch’s corner office and you have to step over a racecar mat -the kind little kids use to race toy cars and crash them together.The obstacle is no accident. Priebatsch, the 21-year-old founder of a smartphone app called SCVNGR, placed the mat there to make visitors wonder whether he pulls some of the dozens of model cars off his shelves and plays on the floor when no one’s around.He doesn’t. But he wants to throw people off balance.Is he really that young, visitors will wonder.”I’m an engineer,” he said, looking down at the mat, which was slightly askew so it would look like he’d been playing with the toy cars on his bookshelves. “I’ve got enough OCD to know things should be at right angles.”
Priebatsch — a likeable guy who talks in a slightly robotic voice and always has trademark orange sunglasses perched on his fuzzball head of hair — seems to have learned something important about the topsy-turvy world of tech start-up companies: Youth matters.In the age of Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded Facebook at 19, it seems a dose of youth is almost necessary for success in a tech start-up.But is this archetype of the hyper-young, sweatshirt-and-sandal-wearing, dropout-turned-CEO starting to wear a little thin?
Or, in extreme cases like Priebatsch’s (he founded a Web company at 12 and employed people in Russia and India to code for him), is there something about genuine youthful determination and endurance that promotes straight-out-of-the-womb innovation?CNN spent a day with Priebatsch — running with him near MIT and chatting about his life at SCVNGR’s headquarters — to try to find out.A timeline view of his life helps make sense of his unique 21 years.
Age 5 to 9 ‘You just start moving’Seth’s dad stood over him with a stopwatch.”It was, ‘Get your mile time down,’ ” Seth remembers.Priebatsch’s childhood was all about challenges and improvement. He took to running partly because his dad, a marathon runner, encouraged it, but also because it reinforced an axiom: If you try harder, you’ll do better.Seth grew to love that philosophy. And it’s one that drives his app, SCVNGR, which aims to make real life more fun by infusing it with constant challenges.At age 9, his dad upped the ante. Instead of running laps, he would teach his son to windsurf. And instead of offering lessons, Norman Priebatsch dropped Seth off, with a life jacket, in the center of the Charles River in Boston, as Seth remembers it. (Norman said he was always nearby in the water and keeping a close eye on Seth).
Seth said he panicked at first, but the lesson was a good one: He just had to try harder and he could make it work.”Everything’s possible as long as you’re really working like hell to make it happen,” he said in a recent interview.It’s an idea that a 5-year-old Seth also learned on a ski trip.Seth’s dad took him to the top of a black diamond run and skied down about 100 feet to wait for his unprepared son. Seth threw a fit, cursing up as much of a storm as a 5-year-old could muster. But then it clicked.”He wasn’t going to come get me,” he said, “so at a certain point, you just start moving.”Age 12: Outsourcing to India
By 12, Seth had gotten used to waking up at 3 a.m.He started an online company called Giftopedia, a digital shopping list of sorts that automatically searched the internet for the world’s best prices and made purchases for its users.The only problem: Seth didn’t really know how to write code for the site.So, after searching the internet, reading up on outsourcing and talking with his parents, he hired workers in Russia and India to do the coding for him.Because of the time difference, the preteen would wake up in the middle of the night to conduct online meetings with his employees. (This wasn’t always enough: In one instance, Seth recalls abruptly leaving a middle school math class to take a business call on his laptop) – Cnn