By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
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By Leif Haven
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By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
"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.
Anywhere in California.
During the previous summer, Casnocha had compiled what he cheekily called the Book of Authorities, a compendium of contact information for public officials throughout the state. When he received an e-mail from a resident, he dutifully looked up the appropriate agency and made sure the message got through; if he encountered an unresponsive government official -- or one who didn't want to discuss his city's problems with a middle-school student -- Casnocha handed the phone to his father and listened silently on another line. Cities that didn't at least listen to their residents' complaints could earn a negative notice on the site.
After a few months, word of the site -- and Casnocha's admirable efficiency -- began to spread to other Web sites and listservs, and a few local television stations and newspapers carried items about the service. Soon, Casnocha's inbox was being jammed with more than 100 e-mails a day, including missives from the occasional "psycho from Rhode Island," as Ben puts it, who demanded he expand his scope beyond California. But that was impossible: His family members were pitching in to help him handle the heavy flow, but the volume of e-mail quickly outpaced their ability to lead a normal life.
"The more well known we became, the higher the expectations were," says David Casnocha, Ben's father and a municipal bond lawyer at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. "We walked away from it because it was just too time-consuming."
But Ben was determined to take another stab at improving the connection between citizens and government. He devoured book after book about financing, corporations, and technology and persuaded his father -- an attorney who assists local governments in securing bonds to build schools and hospitals -- to introduce him to some city managers around the Bay Area. The teenager grilled them on what they desired from an e-government program and asked how he could better help taxpayers relay their complaints and suggestions via the Internet.
"Governments are 10 years behind the private sector when it comes to using the Internet -- they still use Post-it Notes and yellow pads to track things," Casnocha says. "There's a big market to bring efficiency to government."
To find out how big, Casnocha held a series of focus groups for the next eight months. Encouraged and aided by his father, he met with lawyers, consultants, city managers, and venture capitalists. He pitched them on what he thought was an unexplored market: an e-government system aimed at midsize cities, where local government plays a vital role in ensuring basic services but is often woefully underserved by technology companies. "Bigger cities have IT departments that can build something internally, and small cities don't have enough citizen demand to warrant a system," Casnocha explains. "No one was looking at midsize cities."
E-government can be loosely defined as the performance and delivery of government services through electronic means. More than just posting paper forms online, e-government can encompass everything from online permitting to bill- and fee-paying capabilities to citizen complaint interfaces. After talking with city managers, Casnocha was convinced that midsize cities had specific, idiosyncratic needs that could only be served by individually tailored systems. He designed a model that would allow citizens to submit complaints, compliments, suggestions, and questions, but would also enable officials to process and organize the information in internal databases.
"The first focus group was with the city manager of Antioch," Casnocha recalls. "The reaction was very open and helpful, but when you're actually trying to sell them something, it got more serious. They ask, 'Who's going to answer the phone 9 to 5 when we have a question?'"
It was a fair point: Could Ben Casnocha, full-time high school student, run his own company?
"For a while, my parents were concerned. Am I going to be able to maintain social connections? Yes. Am I going to be able to continue with basketball? Yes. Am I going to keep up with my schoolwork?" He flinches, as if he cannot tell a lie. "Well, yes, I am, but 'Yes, I am' means 'I'll continue to try.' As for the actual quality ...."
David Casnocha's office, on the 42nd floor of the same downtown skyscraper that hosts Comcate's tiny space, commands a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay, with the Transamerica Building rising in the foreground and Alcatraz lurking beyond. The stacks of boxes and reams of paper cluttering Casnocha's spacious corner office testify to his three decades of work with municipalities. In contrast, it's a single, tidy black binder that bears witness to his son's fledgling entrepreneurial career.
"I'm collecting all this stuff, mostly for myself," David Casnocha says, opening the binder to the first photocopy, a crudely composed news release in large type. "Ben used to write his own press releases. He'd write it, send it to all the newspapers." Casnocha turns the page and smiles wider. "These are fliers for Comcate. We used to go around to towns and hang these up in the library or City Hall. We didn't ask first, we just did it." The binder gives way to more sophisticated documents in the Comcate archive -- Ben's PowerPoint presentations and the glossy brochures the company distributes today -- but it's clear David Casnocha has a special affinity for the lines on Ben's five-page résumé that mark his son's earliest foray into the job market: Ben Casnocha & Associates, Computer Handyman.
"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.
"If you go on Ben's wish list on Amazon.com, 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."
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.
"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.
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 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.
When the girl has passed, Casnocha lowers his voice and says, "It's funny. I was talking to her the other day, and she said, 'I never know what you're really thinking because you're always being such a clown.'" His face reddens a bit, and he drops his head. "I felt terrible, you know? I guess when I'm at school, I'm not very serious most of the time, but it's weird how people here have such a different perspective on me."
Even though he's a basketball player and the chairman of his own company, Casnocha doesn't have a girlfriend. He hits a fair number of high school parties and goes to most of the dances, but if it weren't for basketball -- which he jokingly calls "my link to humanity" -- he's sure most of his peers wouldn't know what to make of his life outside University High School. "Most of them probably think, 'Well, I know he's got that business, but beyond that ....'"
Soon, Casnocha will likely be forced to decide whether he's more a student or a businessman. As his father puts it: "What is Ben's role at the next level? He'll be going to college -- one hopes -- and at some point I suspect he'll become more of an observer [at Comcate]." For his part, Ben says he'd like to attend college, provided his grades and standardized test scores are good enough, if it "makes sense with where I'm going."
"I'm sticking with Comcate until it makes sense not to," he says, after joking he's been looking into some online universities. "It's hard to describe the amount of time I put into it -- not just sitting in front of a computer, but the time I spend thinking about it."
He puts away his BlackBerry, stands, and readies himself for the departing bus. Ahead of him lies a long, exciting night of high school basketball, but most of the time, he'll be thinking about Comcate.
"Once it gets into you," he says with a grin, "it's hard to stop."