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

At first, Richmond didn't realize Ben was so young, and when he did discover the age difference, he admits to having reservations. "I figured if it's a real company, there's got to be more to it than just a 14-year-old running it, and I'm not going to waste my time," says Richmond, whose boyish face and exuberance are a contrast to the more restrained Casnochas. "And I remember in my first meeting, all the advisers were there, and it was a much more challenging interview than I expected. But that was good -- these guys are serious."

Since Richmond joined Comcate, the company has tripled the number of contracts it holds. Over the next year, he plans to make as many as a half-dozen hires and significantly expand the company's client base, but he's still figuring out how to work with a 15-year-old partner. "That's always a challenge for any founder: Are you willing to hand over the reins to someone new and let them grow and build the organization, or are you going to want to maintain control?"

For his part, Ben Casnocha swears he has no intentions of monopolizing the Comcate vision, and seems eager to learn from a new mentor. "I've never been scared about giving up control," he says. "I'm not very good at math, so I don't know how much older he is than me, but like anyone, we go back to our experiences. And in our conversations, he says, 'When I was at this firm we did this, when I was at that firm we did that.' What can I say? 'Well, the Harvard Business Review said this was a good idea.'"

"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.

A city of 50,000 people in the heart of Silicon Valley, Cupertino has one municipal employee for every 3,300 residents; an astonishing 95 percent of its citizens live in homes with Internet access. Simply put, Cupertino is the perfect place for e-government.

"The federal and state governments have their roles, but it's the local governments that fix the potholes and clean off the graffiti," says Rick Kitson, the city's public information officer. "It just doesn't make sense for people to come down to City Hall during regular business hours every time they want to say something."

Two years ago, when Cupertino decided to make its home page a communication portal, officials interviewed several consulting firms, but they couldn't find a program they liked. One day, a colleague passed along a Comcate advertisement, and Kitson did some homework, discovering the president of the company was in high school. "I thought, 'We have to talk to this guy,'" Kitson says.

Ben Casnocha showed up for the Cupertino presentation with Tom Lewcock, introducing him as a member of Comcate's advisory board. Lewcock is a legend among public administrators: As the longtime city manager in Sunnyvale, Lewcock developed the city's pioneering system for budgeting services and rewarding managers based on performance. In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore toured Sunnyvale and hailed Lewcock's achievements, calling the community one of the best-run cities in America.

Despite Lewcock's involvement, Kitson and the other Cupertino officials had some reservations about signing on with a high school student.

"It was like, 'OK, this is great, but what if he changes his mind and decides to become an English major?'" Kitson says with a laugh. "He's got a whole lot of life ahead of him, and we couldn't be changing systems every year."

Around this time, Richmond joined the Comcate team and made the final sell to Cupertino officials. Since introducing the link on its Web site last year, Kitson says, the city has improved its responsiveness immeasurably. Officials are even beginning to compile data that will allow them to target mailings about upcoming ordinances or meetings toward residents whose messages have indicated an interest in those subjects; in other words, if you complain about leash laws, the city will keep you posted on any and all developments about dog walking.

"It allows us to really drill down on the data," Kitson says. "With the old paper system, we'd write down the problem, send it to the department heads, and things got taken care of, generally. But the level of responsiveness was not very reassuring, and you really had no data afterward."

Best of all, Kitson says, he hasn't received any complaints saying Comcate is too difficult to use.

"I shouldn't say this, but like any organization, we have people who don't know how to set the clock on the VCR," Kitson says. "And these people are using this system, which is a real credit to Comcate."

More than two hours after the final bell has rung at University High School on a recent January day, the central quad in the multitiered campus is still bustling. Drama students are rehearsing for the winter play; various clubs and school pride organizations are concluding their meetings; and Ben Casnocha is checking his BlackBerry at a table in the middle of the near-empty cafeteria, killing time before boarding the bus to a basketball game. Suddenly the door swings open and one of the girls who's practicing the play sweeps through; Casnocha looks up and they exchange awkward smiles.

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