Toby Carr was just 14 when he started his tech company DeXTech. The teen entrepreneur is one of the young innovators speaking at next month's Festival for the Future in Auckland.
1 What's it like being an employer at age 18?
In New Zealand you can't actually employ people until you're 18 so until now we could only contract people. It's amazing the number of things you can't do until you're 18. You can't register a company and you can't get any form of loan. So until I turned 18 last August, DeXTech has been fully bootstrapped. It is a bit ageist but it's probably valid. Being an employer is a lot of responsibility and 90 per cent of companies started by people under 18 don't succeed. I always make sure we've got a buffer so we can pay the people working for us. At the moment we're in a big growth stage so we're seeing how many of our 25 contractors can become full-time staff.
2 Do you ever feel like you're in over your head?
All the time. I always say that if you're comfortable in what you're doing, you're not growing fast enough. Last year we doubled revenue from the year before. This year we'll multiply it by 10.
3 What is DeXTech's biggest growth area right now?
Second-hand American phones. Americans refuse to use phones that aren't the newest generation but New Zealanders couldn't care less. Second-hand still works fine and we save money.
America can't get rid of them fast enough, so we're importing bulk ex-leased phones, testing and refurbishing them and selling them with a warranty. There's huge opportunities internationally. It's about who can move the fastest and develop the best quality controls. 3 Recycling phones sounds quite green?Yes, e-waste is a huge problem. The chemicals in these things are terrible for the environment. Most are going to landfill or sitting in US warehouses when they could be funnelled into new economies. We also do a lot of work going into large organisations like universities, taking out their old IT gear, refurbishing it and putting it back into other organisations eg from high decile to low decile.
4 DeXTech also advises schools on what devices to buy. What are schools doing wrong?
Too many schools are blowing far too much money for what they're getting. We've consulted with 47 Auckland primary schools so far. One school we visited the other day had bought 50 ex-lease devices for $1500 each. They had wasted $40,000 by not shopping around. Or they'll spend a huge sum on devices that have to be replaced in a year or two when they could have spent a bit more on devices that would last five years.
5 Should all schools have an IT expert on staff?
Yes, too often it's the principal, a 55-year-old male who hasn't kept up with what's happening in tech. They think a successful Bring Your Own Device scheme is putting a device in front of every kid and "bang" they're going to get smarter. But that doesn't happen without proper staff training in how to use technology for educational purposes rather than just being a gimmick. We provide an affordable on-site tech support service to help with trouble shooting.
6 Growing up in West Auckland, what sort of a child were you?
I've always been a thinker - needing to understand the whys and hows. Apparently when I was 2 or 3 I would stay up till midnight in bed just thinking. I got bored at school because the things I was interested in weren't core subjects. Schools need to teach kids how to think, not what to think. Doing a paper run was one of the best things I've ever done. It taught me a work ethic.
When I was 14 I saw some tech companies started by young people and thought, "That would be so cool to do" so I started DeXTech. It's unusual for a youth start-up to be in hardware because it's so competitive. Most are software.
7 Who are DeXTech's competitors and what's your edge?
We compete with parallel importers selling bulk phones cheaper than anyone else. Our customers are young middle to low income New Zealanders who want good bang for their buck. Our edge is that we're happy to help customers with any issues, even if it's just setting up the phone, they can flick us an email and we'll get back to them straight away.
8 You've declared that our education system is inherently flawed and needs to be "hacked" - so why bother finishing high school?
I do still think that but if you start an argument in an area where you're not capable it devalues your opinion so I wanted to tick the boxes. Also Liston College has been hugely supportive of me making my start through the Young Enterprise Scheme and I had promised my principal, Chris Rooney, I would stay. Last year I was at school an average of 10 hours a week, enough to pass NCEA level 3 while running the business.
9 Why don't you like universities?
Tertiary education is useful if you want to be a doctor but not for business. I met some university students recently who had spent five years doing business studies but had no concept of how business operates in the real world; where your money goes, how stock is managed. It's atrocious. Business is best learnt by doing. I spend a quarter of my week mentoring young entrepreneurs because others did that for me when I was starting out. I think of it as being like a sponge. You've got to feed down to the next generation but you've also got to get water poured in the top. Last year I went on an amazing trip to the Silicon Valley with a group of young entrepreneurs. It's easy to make a name for yourself in New Zealand so it was timely to visit companies like Apple and Facebook and come home inspired to get as big as we can.
10 Have you had any spectacular failures?
When I was 15, a large corporate client asked me to supply them with $10,000 worth of i-Phones. When the order landed we discovered they were network locked and useless in New Zealand. We had to take the hit which was massive at that stage. I knew I would make a mistake but mistakes don't mean you're bad, just that you're learning. We finally got rid of that stock last year ... Now I'm much more detail orientated and I manage risk better. I still take big risks but never ones that would break the company or me.
11 Why don't you wear a suit?
If people genuinely care about what you're trying to achieve it doesn't matter what you wear. I'll rock up anywhere in jeans and sneakers. This watch was $8. I don't spend a lot on myself because I've reinvested huge amounts in the company - although I have bought myself a nice car.
12 So what drives you to succeed?
I think money can give you a false sense of achievement. For me it's about having the freedom and agility to grow and create wealth. Taking time to invest in friends is really important to me. I've got a core group of old friends that have seen me at my worst so they deserve to be with me at my best as well.
• Festival for the Future, August 4 to 6, Aotea Centre, Auckland.