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

If his hobby hasn't brought him much increased attention from his peers -- with whom, in his spare time, he's leading the revitalization of the once-dormant campus radio station -- it has brought the occasional snicker from a teacher. One science instructor told a friend of Ben last year that the young executive should "spend less time on his cell phone and more time studying." (Casnocha says he was grateful for the feedback.)

But Casnocha never expected Comcate to take off this quickly, and he never thought the company would demand this much of his time. When Comcate was officially incorporated in September 2001, funded by family and friends, Casnocha ran it from his bedroom, content to take it slow and learn from his mistakes. He and his father put in a lot of legwork and face time with city managers, researching cities and working to refine the business plan. Casnocha continually consulted with the overseas programmers who were coding his product line by line. He also broadened his education, persuading Golden Gate University to let him audit several summer courses on management and marketing.

Then, out of nowhere, Burbank called. The city manager there had heard of Comcate from a colleague in Monrovia, who had seen one of the company's postings, and was wondering if Ben could come down and give him a presentation. Although his father had accompanied him on previous business trips, Ben Casnocha, perhaps sensing the symbolic importance of this journey, visited Southern California's media capital by himself. His mother dropped him off at the airport, and Casnocha -- wearing a tie and a beige suit, carrying a briefcase -- was a hit at City Hall.

"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.

"Everyone thought this would be a nice, fun hobby, and suddenly, the city of Burbank signs up," Casnocha says, still sounding a little awe-struck. "Wow, the city of Burbank is putting its credibility on the line. Now we have corporate fiduciary responsibilities that we have to fulfill. That was a wake-up call, and whether we liked it or not, we had to go forward."

After Burbank, Menlo Park soon followed. "We had some credibility issues in the beginning," says Casnocha, alluding to some city managers' concerns about his age. "But having those two big-name cities allowed us to expand to the rest of California."

The model Comcate sold to Menlo Park and Burbank is essentially unchanged from the one it offers today. Comcate is an application service provider, a third-party entity that provides services via the Internet to its clients, who are essentially outsourcing their technology needs. (Think of Web sites that kick customers to other Web sites to process credit card payments.) Comcate rents technology and support services to its clients on a monthly or yearly basis, at a price that varies according to population, but almost never is large enough to rise to the attention of city councils. When residents click on the link on their city's home page, they are transported to a Comcate Web portal that offers them a dizzying array of communication options: They can fire detailed questions at city departments, lodge complaints with specific personnel, or check up on previous queries. Every message, phone call, and letter that arrives at City Hall is also fed into Comcate's database, giving government and its citizens a better picture of which problems or issues are most prevalent in the community. "For a city like Lancaster, some of their employees didn't even have e-mail," Casnocha recalls. "We were their first baby step toward using technology in a smart way to better government."

Soon, it became clear that Casnocha's age and school schedule would prohibit Comcate from growing as quickly as it could. Ben and his father had assembled an advisory board of respected former city managers, but the board members couldn't perform the company's day-to-day tasks or sell Comcate to cities around the state. Early last year, Comcate decided to hire a chief operating officer from outside the company -- the first non-family member with a stake in the firm's future. The idea unsettled Ben Casnocha for a while.

"When it got down to the nitty-gritty of bonuses and stock options, there was a period where I thought, 'Do we really want to be committing $150,000, at least, and elevate this to something where I couldn't just put it on the shelf and be satisfied with a half-dozen clients? With a COO on board, the company's moving forward. Does this really make sense?' Ultimately, I yielded and supported it 100 percent -- after a deep breath and a lot of journal entries."

More than 200 résumés found their way to Casnocha's bedroom, but in the end, only one candidate struck the teen entrepreneur as right. "A lot of the candidates looked at me like, 'Who are you, an intern?' Dave was the only one who came up and tried to build a relationship with me."

The 39-year-old Dave Richmond arrived with an impressive employment history. He had worked for two strategy consulting firms before running his own 90-employee health services company, then briefly served as entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm. His background in the VC world -- that he was neither a techie nor a salesman -- was a major consideration for Comcate, which will probably seek outside funding in the not-so-distant future. Richmond came away from his first interview equally impressed with the company.

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