Erik Finman felt school was holding him back. So he dropped out. At 15, he worked in Silicon Valley. Now 17, he’s been hired in London – and touted as the future of the internet. William Leith meets the superteen
The entrepreneur Erik Finman is telling me about money. “There’s US dollars, and UK pounds, and euros, and they’re backed by the government,” he says. “But the government can be unreliable. They can print however much they want. I don’t find that backing very serious, or very trustworthy. I like bitcoin.”
Finman, who has recently turned 17, used to be known as the “bitcoin boy”, because he once made $100,000 on a trade using the online currency. Trading bitcoins is one of his income streams. He has several, including Botangle, a start-up he founded, and SmartUp, a start-up that is very smart, and which Finman keeps trying to explain to me.
People are always telling stories about Erik Finman. For instance, he’s the future of the internet. That’s one story. He’s supersmart. That’s another. People say that he grew up in rural Idaho, that he dropped out of school, that he worked a couple of years in Silicon Valley. But hang on a minute – he started working in Silicon Valley at the age of 15? Actually, yes. Then he left because he didn’t like the “work-life balance”, which is tilted way too much towards work. Anyway, before that, he was into designing robots. But that was when he was, like, seven years old.
All true. When Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “Young people are just smarter” he was, in an important sense, right. After you’ve read this article, you’ll see why. But the thing about Erik Finman is that he makes the Zuckerberg generation look old. I mean, Zuckerberg is 31. Sean Parker is 36. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the kids who started Google, are – hard to believe, right? – in their forties. By definition, they knew what the world was like without Google. Erik Finman, of course, doesn’t. He just knows that it sounds pretty weird.
We’re still talking about how he trades bitcoins. “Like anything, it takes work, and then once you become good at it, it becomes easier,” he tells me. Is he good at it? “Yes.” He buys low and sells high, having made smart observations about patterns of volatility. Knowing that bitcoin isn’t actually real enables him to see that money itself isn’t real, something older people can’t quite get their heads around. He won’t tell me how much he’s made trading bitcoin. Or how much he makes from Botangle, although he uses that money as an emergency fund. For his contribution to SmartUp, he makes around £1,000 per week. At the moment, he rents a flat in West Hampstead.
The first time I saw Finman, he was at a forum for young entrepreneurs. He was one of the panel speakers. He often gives talks. People were complaining about school, and how lame it is. One guy, a teenage entrepreneur called James Anderson, said that he asked his teachers for a day off to meet some investors.
The teachers didn’t understand what he was talking about. Everybody in the room under 25 knew exactly what he was talking about; teachers have no idea. Worse: they try to fill your head with information that is useless, or possibly worse than useless. “I created Botangle to replace my teachers,” said Finman. “I solved my problem by dropping out of school.”
At this point, I had a light-bulb moment. The people who run the world don’t know how it works. That’s scary. Soon, the world will be taken over by kids. That’s scary, too. After the talk, Finman introduced me to his girlfriend, Catherine Moolenschot. She’s 21, and has just finished her second novel.
She’s a writer and motivational speaker from Melbourne. Finman met her there when he was visiting his brother Scott, an internet entrepreneur. The couple had a lot in common. For instance, they had both given talks at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. Finman’s subject: “Be something for a day”. Moolenschot’s: “Living your funnel of greatness”.
The next day, I meet Finman in his London office. He works at Founders Forum, which is run by some ancient guys who were around at the time of the original dotcom boom, if you can imagine that: Frank Meehan, a brilliant coder who is on the board of Spotify, and who used to design mobile networks for Sony Ericsson; and Brent Hoberman, who sold his website Lastminute.com for £577 million in 2005. You could describe the office as both extremely grand and very minimal. It overlooks Kensington Gardens. Finman takes me into a meeting room. He’s dressed very normcore – jumper and beige cotton trousers. Short hair, glasses.
“Everyone tells me, ‘Oh, I thought you’d be a quiet nerd’,” he says. “Actually, I’m very talkative, very expressive. I like to communicate ideas. And I constantly like to improve my storytelling skills. I have a plan in my mind.”
That plan is to change the way people think about education. His website, Botangle, connects people who want to learn stuff with people who want to teach stuff – a pedagogical dating agency. “My passion is: school needs to change. And right now, what school looks like today, I don’t think anyone should go.”
I ask him to tell me the story of his life.
“I absolutely hated school,” he says. “I went to eight different schools, and it was not fun. So I left. I moved to San Francisco. I started working on my site, Botangle. I really enjoyed San Francisco. Then I got sick of San Francisco. I started travelling the world. I eventually made my way to London, and I found Frank and Brent. And they shared my vision. That’s my one-minute pitch.”
Erik Finman was clearly too smart for school. Which suggests that soon, we will have to deal with a whole generation of kids who are too smart for school; people who understand the world better than their teachers, and who won’t want to sit in classrooms memorising the dates of ancient battles. And who will cater for them? People like Finman, of course.
He was born in 1998, the year Google started, the year the blog was invented. eBay already existed, and Shawn Fanning was about to launch Napster. So when Finman was a baby, CDs were dying. He never knew the world before file-sharing.
His parents, Paul and Lorna, met at Stanford. Both were doing PhDs: Paul in electrical engineering, Lorna in physics. They moved to Thousand Oaks, California, to work at Hughes Aircraft, and then to Boston. Then Paul and Lorna set up their own company. They were poor for a while. Then they set up their own tech company, and got rich. The story is that they bought a big house in Post Falls, Idaho, and started a llama farm.
Finman tells me about his parents. His dad “was your stereotypical reserved, nerdy guy. He would be, like, blowing stuff up. My dad’s name is Paul, and he’s from St Paul in Minnesota. So it’s kind of funny.” Lorna is Scottish. Her parents moved to Canada when she was a kid. She is an expert in telescopes.
Finman’s parents are inventors. They have invented devices with military applications – one that neutralises bombs by blocking the signals that cause them to detonate, and another for the remote control of drones.
“It amplifies the system. You know Google Loon?” I don’t, because Google Loon – a project to provide internet access to rural and remote areas, using balloons – is at the testing stage. But, says Finman, the concept is similar. In any case, the blocking device is “in every Humvee in the US military”. Hence the big house. Hence the llama farm.
He is the youngest of three brothers. Scott, now 29, was a prodigy. He went to the prestigious Johns Hopkins university, at 16; now he runs a recruiting business. Ross, also a prodigy, works in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Finman says he has more in common with Scott. Ross, he says, “has middle-child syndrome”.
“Put me in a robotics area, Ross’ll beat me,” Finman says. “Put me in a recruiting area, Scott will beat me. Put me in a marketing-type thing, or a community-building thing, I’ll beat the both of them.”
Both of his brothers were home-schooled. But Finman was forced to go to school when his parents’ business took off. This is the dark part of his life. “I just find schools have … a battle to the lowest,” he says. “Bullies. Just a cesspool of bad people. You know when you put two kids next to each other in primary school? You put the good kid next to the bad kid, and the good kid’s supposed to influence the bad kid, right? But it never works that way. The bad kid always influences the good kid.”
He tries to describe the incidents of bullying. “There was this one girl who, like, slapped me. If someone punched me … I’d try to avoid it. Like, words I can handle, right? But if someone’s punching and slapping me, I punch and slap back. Luckily, that happened only, like, two times. I let it go, one time. And then they would just continue to push and shove me. And then I just pushed and shoved back. And then it stopped. So.”
There is more. “Oh, there was a ton of verbal abuse. And I think that really affected me. From teachers! In fourth grade, everyone hated me. It really got me down for a long time. I was always honest about my feelings. Not in a passive-aggressive way. Just being myself. And no one liked that.”
He was in Idaho. Scott was in Melbourne, running his business. Ross was designing robots in Pittsburgh. And then, one day, a package arrived in the post. It was a copy of Without Their Permission by Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit. The book tells you that, if you really want to, you can go your own way. Ohanian tells you that, if you go your own way, you might own the future. Right at the beginning of the book, he says, “Whatever you think of the world’s youngest billionaires, Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook crew, they’re just the beginning.”
Finman was 12. He’d only read one book in his life: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Finman’s hero, Steve Jobs. He loved this new book his brother had sent him. It made his head spin. He thought, “The solution to my problem is starting a business.”
A few days later, I come back to Founders Forum to meet Frank Meehan and Brent Hoberman. They will tell me about what they see in Finman. I already know his legend. He read Ohanian’s book. He dropped out of school. He bought $1,000 worth of bitcoins; he sold them when they were worth $100,000. He saw that Ohanian was offering an evening of his time, for a price: $8,500. Ohanian took him to dinner, and a Brooklyn Nets basketball game.
He describes Ohanian, who sold a business for $1 million when he was in college, as “a very upbeat, positive guy”. Later, Ohanian said, “The whole time I had to check myself and remind myself I was talking to a teenager. He’s very driven, far more driven than I was at his age.”
Finman started Botangle, his education website. He developed the idea by sitting in Starbucks and explaining it to people to see what they thought. He’d buy them coffee.
At 15, he left home and moved to San Francisco. He got involved with Start X, a mentoring system for start-ups. For a while, he worked for Sprayable Energy, whose signature product is a sort of energy drink that you spray on your skin. (It also makes Sprayable Sleep.) Finman had an idea about how the intern system works. He set up a network to connect people who want to be interns with people who need them, based on the idea of speed dating.
As a lonely kid, he had understood, better than anybody, the value of connecting with people; as a furiously ambitious teenager, his mind kept devising ways to do it better.
One day in late 2014 he gave a TED talk in London. He said, “By most metrics, I’m a stupid person. Let’s just get that on the table now.” The talk was really about how Finman was not a stupid person, and you’d have to be a stupid person yourself to think he was. Frank Meehan wasn’t at the talk. But he invited Finman to his office for a chat. Then he hired him to work on SmartUp.
“We don’t get talent like this turning up in London every day,” Meehan tells me. We’re in another spotless meeting room. Meehan, who is Australian, is like a top football manager who has made a new young signing. “London is attracting talent like Erik more and more. But still, in the UK, entrepreneurs don’t think big enough. In the Valley, they do.”
I can see why Meehan likes Finman. Meehan is smart. But he’s not a teenager. He doesn’t have the eyes of a teenager. He’s 44. For Meehan to keep up with the rapidly changing world, he needs to be able to see it through Finman’s eyes.
As I’m thinking this, Brent Hoberman walks in. He’s 47. He sits down. “I’m quite ageist about entrepreneurship, and always have been,” he says. He wears a smart suit and uses expansive hand gestures. “The best time to start is when you’ve got nothing to lose,” he says. “There is this amazing change in the future and nature of work. When I was at university, to become an entrepreneur wasn’t a career choice. Now it is. It’s passed the parent test. Which is a big zeitgeist change. In other words, if you tell your parents you want to be an entrepreneur, they think, ‘Great.’ Whereas previously, they thought you were nuts.”
Finman, Meehan and Hoberman explain how SmartUp works. It’s like a cross between University Challenge and Moneyball, which stealthily turns into Dragons’ Den.
Actually, that’s not quite right. People take quizzes, and feed their answers into an app which measures how smart they are, and how efficiently they learn. It’s a tool for employers to see how valuable, or otherwise, their employees are, and for entrepreneurs to show off their raw intelligence to possible investors. As a business, it may be extremely lucrative. Who knows?
“I didn’t do an MBA,” says Hoberman, formerly of Eton and New College, Oxford. “I didn’t do an MBA,” says Meehan, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Sydney, and a master’s in fluid mechanics from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “I didn’t do high school,” says Finman.
After he left home, and before he came to London, Finman tells me he spent some time thinking about the larger questions. He decided that he is an atheist, and also a libertarian, and that he believes in Adam Smith’s insight that, if everybody acts in their own self-interest, the world will be a better place. “Selfish is just a tainted word for self-leadership,” he says. Looking back, he thinks he went through an egotistical phase for about three weeks. “One of my good friends said, ‘Dude, you’re getting an ego’,” he says.
Life had been moving so fast. So Finman turned his thoughts inwards. And he learnt something. “I’ve learnt to be myself,” he says. “I think I’ve really become my own man.”
The superteen power list: the 15 smartest kids on the planet
Coding at primary school and changing the world before they can vote – the Mark Zuckerbergs of the future
1. Ben Towers, 17
An entrepreneur from Kent who started his digital media agency, Towers Design, at 11. Towers has a staff of 15, more than 700 clients, and expects to turn over £500,000 this year. To drop out of education legally, he hired himself as an apprentice. He will appear as a mentor on the BBC series Pocket Money Pitch.
2. Catrina Carrigan, 19
Carrigan was a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Ireland when she created Piano Rock Star, a tool now used in British schools to teach coding. This year she co-founded Leanú Technologies, which helps businesses to continue during an IT crisis through the use of mobile applications.
3. Ollie Forsyth, 17
When Forsyth, who is dyslexic, launched his online gift store, Ollie’s Shop, at 13, he made a profit of £13,000 in a year. Today it pays him around £30,000 a year. Other ventures include University Bell, a swap shop for students, and UNBXD, a creative consultancy. He says he will be a millionaire by 20.
4. Trisha Prabhu, 15
TEDxTeen speaker who designed a multi-award-winning tool to prevent cyberbullying. ReThink trains adolescent brains to make better decisions on social media. It uses context-sensitive filtering technology to determine whether a message is offensive and prompts people to reconsider their actions.
5. James Anderson, 18
Although he learnt to code at seven, Anderson was awarded an E in his computing A level. He was too busy developing his Thinkspace app, a student-led tool to teach coding tricks that received backing from Sir Richard Branson and Stephen Fry. Recently launched Zest, an app that allows users to bypass café queues in London by ordering and paying in advance.
6. Easton LaChappelle, 19
At 14, he made a Lego robotic arm. By 17, he had built one using a 3D printer and electronic programming. The brain-powered limb, which has shaken hands with Barack Obama, cost less than $400 and could revolutionise the prosthetic-limb industry.
7. Ocean Pleasant, 18
A digital-publishing big shot who earlier this year was offered $100,000 by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, to skip college and pursue her online youth-culture magazine and media agency, REAL. Pleasant is also working on a “Tinder for social activism” that will match socially conscious millennials with volunteering opportunities.
8. Eric Chen, 19
Chen began cancer research at the University of California when he was 15. He discovered game-changing flu medication in his penultimate year of high school, won the grand prize at the Google Science Fair and Barack Obama has told him, “This could be the start of saving millions of lives.” He studies at Harvard and is a research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
9. Joshua Browder, 18
A London student who had a light-bulb moment after receiving a string of parking fines, Browder launched donotpay.co.uk, a website and app that lets you appeal against parking tickets free in under a minute. It attracted 50,000 users in its first week and has branched out into compensation for flight delays. Now studying at Stanford University.
10. Camille Beatty, 15
An American roboticist who builds robotic equipment for museums and science faculties, having made a miniature, fully functioning replica of Nasa’s Spirit rover by the time she was 13. She is a speaker at the Business Innovation Factory, an offshoot of TED, and, with her younger sister, Genevieve, runs her own company, Beatty Robots.
11. Amy Mather, 16
A Mancunian coder who goes by the handle @minigirlgeek on Twitter. Mather’s game designs and homegrown software led to work experience at Raspberry Pi, the coding app, when she was 14. She is working on Electri-City, a gender-neutral toy that teaches kids about electric circuits. She gives talks with tech tycoons such as Martha Lane Fox.
12. Xavier Di Petta, 19
An Australian internet entrepreneur who designed a fitness app called Fitspiration when he was 15. Today he runs Swift Fox Labs, a lucrative mobile development firm, and his Twitter accounts have more than four million followers. Last year his business development company, All Day Media, raised $2 million.
13. Jack Andraka, 18
At 15, he invented a quick test to detect early-stage pancreatic, lung and ovarian cancer. Michelle Obama subsequently invited him to the 2013 State of the Union address. His memoir, Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator is Changing the World, was published in March.
14. Nina Devani, 16
At 14, London student Devani developed an app to help people remember their passwords. Today, she runs a multiplatform software company called DevaniSoft, where she employs her sister Anisha as head of finance and her father as non-executive chairman.
15. Kelvin Doe, 19
A self-taught engineering prodigy, now a celebrity in Sierra Leone, where he grew up with his single mother. He has spent the past three years presenting his inventions, including a home-made generator, to MIT students, and lecturing at Harvard College.