White Collar Reset: Oh to be young again

I will say this about the recession: At least it has a sense of humor.

As I mentioned last week, I've taken on some freelance writing assignments to help pay the bills while I continue to try to excavate a second career from beneath the pile-up of 6.5 percent of people over the age of 45 who've lost their jobs in recent months. So wouldn't you know, my very first assignment out of the box was about a society of 200 of the world's most successful entrepreneurs under the age of 30.

There's the 27-year-old who negotiated the sale of a web-hosting company for $1.5 million while taking his final exams in high school. There's the 24-year-old who runs the second-largest email marketing company in the United States, with 160 employees, 40,000 customers and $30 million in annual sales. And the 22-year-old chief executive of Tatto Media, a world leader in what's known as "behavioral advertising," with close to $100 million in annual revenue.

For several days over the past few weeks, as I weighed the relative merits of cashing out my depleted 401K versus selling our house and moving above a falafel shop in Queens, I'd call these new masters of the universe and interview them about their business strategies, the stresses that go along with being so young and successful, and their optimism about the future.

It's amazing what three beers with lunch and a double dose of Xanax won't get you through. And I must admit, these conversations were fascinating, in a man-looking-at-a-CAT-scan-of-his-own-inoperable-brain-tumor sort of way. It was as if I was watching my whole life pass before me and could now understand with sudden, piercing clarity what a colossal mistake I'd made by not being born in 1988 (which would have put my mother in her 50s at the delivery, but I hadn't figured that part out yet, obviously).

The most illuminating of these little pep talks may have been the one with Joel Holland, CEO of a company called Footage Firm. A few years ago, when I first lost my job as an editor at a national magazine (and before I allowed myself to get sucked back into the publishing industry right before it imploded), I hooked up with a pair of TV producers in their 50s to get into the growing field of online video. As it happens, a few years earlier, Holland had decided to do the same thing. Of course, he was 16 at the time, and had a far better sense of how to make a killing at it.

"I was working for a local television studio, and I realized there really was no good cheap and easy source for b-roll footage," he recalled. "So I thought, 'Huh, I could make a business out of this.'"

Holland took a year off between high school and college and with his early-generation portable prosumer Canon in hand, roamed the country shooting most of his initial footage himself: the national monuments in Washington, DC, the sun setting over the Grand Canyon, bikini-clad Roller Bladers in Miami, snow blowers blasting away in Green Bay, pretty much anything you can imagine that a producer somewhere might want to use as an establishment shot for a TV or video segment. At the same time, Holland also began researching all of the best Internet search words to ensure that people would be able to find the footage he was compiling.

But perhaps his biggest breakthrough came in the technology required to transmit and store his inventory. "Bandwidth wasn't great at the time, and it would take literally terabytes and terabytes to store this stuff," he explained. "That was one of the main reasons no one else had gotten into it, but I'd been working for six years with Nortel Networks Kidz Online. A few of us figured out the right codec and compression techniques to store the video in a way that was doable and didn't take forever to download, and that's when we knew we really had something."

Holland graduated from Babson College in May 2008 (where he was friends with Tatto's chief executive Lin Miao, AKA "Chairman Miao"). Since then, Holland's company has taken off. "What a difference it makes to be able to devote 12 hours a day to the business instead of trying to do it between classes," he marvels. Today, he has a network of 60 core and 1,800 freelance videographers around the globe. His 30,000 clients include NBC, ABC, MTV, Comedy Central and virtually every other major cable and network outlet on television or the web. Revenues for 2009 "should be at least $10 million, although I'm hoping it'll be in the low teens."

Speaking of teens, I asked Holland to put into words the competitive advantage his generation seems to enjoy over, say, mine.

"That's a really interesting question," he said. "I think it comes down to the fact that from the time we were kids we were always using some gadget to figure out how to do things faster or easier. That's one of the reasons tech is progressing so fast. If there's a way to get anything to work faster or more efficiently, we're going to find it and use it.

"I think we also just have a different attitude toward technology. I can't tell you how many times I'm approached by older people asking me, 'We have this idea of what we want do, so we need you to tell us how to do it and who to hire.' People in my generation would be more likely to say 'I'm just going to do it and figure it out myself.'"

Before hanging up, I made a self-deprecating quip referencing the fantasy of fixing the mistake with my birth certificate.

"Oh, I'm sure your generation has a lot of things we can't do too . . . "

There was an awkward silence as we both contemplated what that might be. ". . . Well, great talking to you, Joel," I said, cracking open another can and the child-safety tab.

Later, though, I did think of one thing. It was really more a fleeting association than any kind of concrete generational edge. I thought of my old friend Pat Jordan, who, long after the rest of our industry had shifted to PCs and laptops, used to bang out his stories on a typewriter, and the pearl-like sentences that would occasionally take your breath away between the Wite-Out and Scotch-taped-together pages. Is it possible that in their focus on faster, easier, more efficient, Holland and his generation have lost sight of the fact that some things are taken better slow?

I almost called him back, but then decided to keep my barely coherent musing to myself. That and $3.50 should buy me a falafel.

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