It’s a tried and true trope of startups: the 21-year-old college dropout founder with a brilliant idea. These days, however, 21 just ain’t that young.
A startup accelerator called the Tardigrade Group wants to push future founders to get started earlier. The startup incubator for teens, by teens, recruits and supports entrepreneurial high-schoolers that want to get serious about their ideas.
“We wanted to create a company that would reinvest its time and money in the future generation,” said Bear Matthews, a 16-year-old based in Aspen, Colorado who co-founded the accelerator with his friend Sebastian Rodriguez.
“We wanted to create a company that would reinvest its time and money in the future generation.”
Tardigrade, like any other accelerator, provides marketing resources, development and design expertise, and general guidance in exchange for a stake in the startup. To build its own financial resources to be able to provide all of this, the group’s staff does paid work building websites for other clients, like a local pizza place in Aspen.
Its team of about 50 employees—all teens—are paid and have their own knowledge in marketing and coding. An advisory board of adults provides guidance, too. The staff is represented by their Bitmojis on Tardigrade’s website.
Matthews and Rodriguez first tried to launch their own startup when they were 13 and 14 years old. Their location-based behavioral analysis algorithm—it never made it to the app stage—would have suggested places to go based on you and your friends’ past movements. They presented it to potential investors who gave them credit for coming in, but didn’t move their idea forward. That’s when they thought about developing an accelerator instead.
They realized how much they had to learn—and then to teach their startups—when it took them three months to file for an LLC.
“We always loved working on out-of-school projects,” Matthews said. “We realized that teenagers are never really taught the core concept of how to run a business, like what’s in an NDA.”
Now, they have five startups under their wing and they’re hoping to add three more in 2018 and 12 by 2020.
A lot of these startups are founded by people Matthews and Rodriguez already knew. One of them, an app called Scouter that sends users alerts about historical landmarks and attractions they’re nearby, is their own project. But they have a recruiting team working, and they’re hoping to bring on more startups outside their immediate networks.
“As a teenager, it’s difficult to start a business,” said Javier De La Cruz, a freshman at Colorado Mountain College who launched the streetwear brand Lost Generation with help from Tardigrade. “They have guys that know what they’re doing in terms of starting a business. They give the right advice and they support me.”
“Working with people the same level as you—we’re all learning things.”
The for-teens-by-teens ethos is key for some of the first-time founders who might not have been convinced to give their ideas a shot otherwise.
“Working with people the same level as you—we’re all learning things,” said Max Gregori, a 17-year-old working on launching DaDaFund, an app that will round up your purchases to donate the change to charity. “Everyone has a field of expertise. It’s a lot of fun to be working with people my age who are gifted coders or great marketers.”
Along with helping out early-stage startups, Tardigrade puts on events teaching high-schoolers about business and tech concepts. Putting on 35 of those events by 2020 is part of their mission, too.
“Talking to adults about something like this—they don’t feel as comfortable and they hold back on what they really want to say,” De La Cruz said about his streetwear startup. “Working with kids my age, it’s been great. I feel like we’ve really understood each other.”