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"A lot of people ask me, 'Why don't you just be a normal teenager, live a normal life?'" says 15-year-old Ben Casnocha, having lunch on a cloudy January afternoon at a crepe place in Cole Valley, the neighborhood he's lived in since birth. He speaks in an earnest, articulate baritone, and his vocabulary is devoid of the "um"s and "like"s that riddle most teenagers' conversation. His face has already shed its boyish roundness, and at a sturdy 6-foot-3, he's tall enough as a sophomore to play center for the vaunted University High School basketball team. He has a game later this night, in fact, and he's dressed in loose-fitting warm-up attire: stylish sweat pants and complementary sweat shirt, high-top sneakers, and a baseball cap pulled over his wavy brown hair. But even with his size and his clean-cut looks, he evinces a thoughtfulness at odds with the stereotypical high school jock, and a lack of pretension that sets him apart from most adolescent intellectuals. "I don't want to be normal, I want to be something else," Casnocha says, his broad, friendly features curling into a frown. "The emphasis people place on the classroom," he grouses, shaking his head. "It doesn't offer nearly enough for me."
Suddenly there's a buzz at his side. With a sheepish grin, Casnocha reaches into his pocket and fishes out a BlackBerry handheld e-mail device. Immediately his posture stiffens, his tone becomes more professional, and he is no longer the precocious high school student bemoaning the futility of math and science courses -- he's a businessman.
"It's tricky with retired city managers," Casnocha says, reading his e-mail with a gleam in his eye. "They feel uncomfortable trying to make a dime off a buddy, a former colleague, but at the same time they want to stay active."
Typing a quick reply to his correspondent, Casnocha explains, "I have this BlackBerry to keep me connected to the world when I'm in class." He realizes he's said something he shouldn't have, so he offers a self-deprecating chuckle. "Freshman year, I brought it to class. Yes, I did that, and it was wrong of me." He replaces the BlackBerry in his pocket. "This year I'm not going to do it."
Then, grinning, he says, "But when it vibrates, how can you resist?"
Casnocha, after all, is the founder and chairman of Comcate Inc., an e-government company he started in his bedroom that now has more than a dozen clients throughout California, including the cities of Burbank, Menlo Park, and Cupertino. It's not a lark, either: Comcate has a downtown office, a chief operating officer with extensive start-up business experience, and a burgeoning reputation in the e-government industry. Comcate's technology enables cities to receive, process, and organize citizen messages via the Internet, and allows residents to track their queries as they progress through the government. Casnocha's company has been able to carve a niche among the large consulting and software firms competing for e-government contracts by targeting midsize cities, which often have the most need but the fewest resources for electronic citizen-government interfaces.
But for all of Comcate's success, its most notable aspect will likely remain the story of its founder. Though still not old enough to drive, Ben Casnocha is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and in e-government panel discussions, writes a monthly advice column for teen entrepreneurs, and last year popped up on PoliticsOnline's annual list of the 25 people or businesses most likely to change the world of Internet and politics. Casnocha was sixth on the list, behind the BBC, America Online, and Al-Jazeera, and was lauded as a "pioneer in Silicon Valley for sparking the e-government vision for many California governments." Not bad for a kid with marginal HTML skills.
"What's unique about Comcate is that it allows both the government and the citizen to see where their queries lie within the bureaucracy," says Steven Clift, a Minnesota-based expert on e-government who was ranked No. 8 on the PoliticsOnline list. "I've spoken in 24 countries now, and his Menlo Park interface is one of the top examples in my slides. The whole idea of the platform -- a dual-transparent communication system between citizens and government, where both can manage their correspondence -- is very different from writing a letter into the big black hole of Congress and never hearing anything back.
"We need more Bens. I just didn't realize he was 15."
Ben Casnocha's interests in government, technology, and entrepreneurship emerged in sixth grade, when he received a semester-long assignment to build a community service Web site. With the help of a mentor at his private, technology-centric middle school, Casnocha taught himself rudimentary HTML-coding skills -- just in time to see the Web site languish when the semester ended. But Casnocha was suddenly fascinated by the ideas he'd developed at the age of 12, and from the ashes of a defunct sixth-grade project rose a Web site called complainandresolve.com.
Run out of Casnocha's bedroom, complainandresolve.com performed a lofty, if impossible, service. As Ben describes it: "If you didn't know who to contact, you could e-mail us," and Casnocha would then forward the complaint to the appropriate state or local agency.