And a Teen Shall Lead Them

How 15-year-old Ben Casnocha brought e-government to Cupertino, Menlo Park, Burbank, and other cities across California

"It starts with collecting all the scraps in the house and announcing, when you're 5 [years old], there's going to be a garage sale outside your bedroom door," says David Casnocha. "He sat there in a chair and sold stuff we gave him. My other kids don't have that entrepreneurial element in their personalities."

Casnocha doesn't find it the least bid odd that the youngest of his sons should gravitate, at an early age, toward such complex interests as business, technology, and government. "When you have a series of kids, various turfs get claimed," he says, in a rumbling baritone that puts Ben's to shame. "When you have older brothers, the musical turf, the athletic turf, is claimed. When the third one comes along, and he's looking for a niche, he realized technology and entrepreneurship -- doing something independent -- wasn't covered in the household. It was up for grabs, and Ben grabbed it."

It helped, of course, to have a father who talked about his work with local governments around the dinner table, and a supportive mother. But the soft-spoken, reserved David Casnocha, who has a bushy gray mustache and salt-and-pepper hair, insists that he merely advises Ben, usually via a red editing pen across the first draft of a letter or business plan, and that Comcate is entirely Ben's own inspiration.

"A lot of my peers are smarter than I am," says 
15-year-old Ben Casnocha. "They just can't express 
what they're thinking as well."
Paolo Vescia
"A lot of my peers are smarter than I am," says 15-year-old Ben Casnocha. "They just can't express what they're thinking as well."
Ben Casnocha and his 53-year-old father, David, 
share many of the same interests: government, 
business, and a desire for their company, Comcate, to 
Paolo Vescia
Ben Casnocha and his 53-year-old father, David, share many of the same interests: government, business, and a desire for their company, Comcate, to succeed.

"If you go on Ben's wish list on, which I had to do at Christmas, you'll see that these are all very intellectually demanding books," David Casnocha says. "Books on public policy, on the mind, books by Richard Posner. He subscribes to the Harvard Business Review, Atlantic Monthly. He's on a mission. He has things to do, things he needs to find out. What he's severed from his day are the trivial wastes of time, which so many of us spend in front of the television or pine away saying, 'I'm bored.' Ben doesn't have a concept of boredom."

Part of Casnocha's responsibility, of course, is making sure that Ben doesn't become too alienated from his peers, that he remains, in the words of his father, "a well-adjusted person who could probably spend more time on his homework." Casnocha makes it a point to watch Ben closely during family and social functions, and says his son seems to get along with everyone. "But I'm sure there are component parts that are the same as any 15-year-old, anxieties and stresses that only 15-year-old boys have," the father says. "It's easy to forget he's so young, when you look at him physically and hear him speak.

"I mean, he's running a business. So he's at our country house in Ben Lomond, and if you heard him answer his cell phone, you'd hear a very professional tone, 'Hi, this is Ben Casnocha at Comcate, what can I do for you?' If you heard him answer the student line in our home, it would be a dull, lazy, 'Hello?' Typical with young people -- there's a doppelgänger personality there."

But the duality works both ways: David Casnocha, as the president of his son's company, is no longer a typical father -- he's a business partner. Indeed, before responding to a question about the pressures on Ben, he asks if he should answer from a " business" or "father" perspective. He admits he'd like to see a return on his investments, but insists he wants the company to succeed mostly because it's important to Ben.

"I check the 'Doing a great job, Dad' box, because how many dads would have spent the money I've invested, the time I've put in, to allow a kid to play this game?" Casnocha asks. "And now, as a father and son, we talk about which shoeshine guy is the best at the airport, which car-rental agency to use. It's an opportunity for a father and son to have a relationship that is uniquely based."

Ben Casnocha has just finished an after-school tutoring session on Louis XIV and genetics (for different courses) in a study room at the University High School library. The room is cramped and stuffy, its walls lined with rather suggestive materials: college brochures, ranking guides, and SAT prep books. Casnocha's eyes flicker back and forth between the shelves and his Western civilization textbook; he doesn't know who Goya is yet, but there's an examination on him later in the month. "These tests are stuff you've never ... it's unbelievable," he says, sounding utterly forlorn, and he gets no greater comfort from the other books he's shoving into his backpack. "We're reading Wuthering Heights. I'm 90 pages into it, and I don't think I know a thing about the book." He sighs. "I love learning, but when you look back on your high school years, I think most people would say they learned the most not from books, but from things outside the classroom -- building relationships, meeting goals -- and I'm getting all that from Comcate."

Indeed, his thoughts drift so naturally to Comcate that he's developed a daily schedule that forces him to work on the company only during select periods of the day (including first thing in the morning before school). He always does his homework; it's how well he does his homework that's the issue. "I don't think anyone really understands the depth at which I'm engaged, in the real world and in my mind, and how much idle time I spend thinking about Comcate," says Casnocha, who insists most of his fellow students are smarter than he is. "High-schoolers are so self-absorbed in their immediate world, it's a weird concept to my peers that I'd be doing this. By now, I just joke around about it, say I have a top-secret government meeting after school, and it's hush-hush."

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