It was an average Sunday morning in the small town of North Augusta, South Carolina. Jeremy McGee took his usual spot high above the congregation, prepared to work the church projector. Accustomed to enjoying this task alone, McGee was startled when Roger Brown, a local freelance author of children’s books and comics, bounded up the stairs to do the same.
After making formal introductions, Brown and McGee became engrossed in conversation. They stood over the projector, sharing opinions about the burgeoning Internet economy and comparing notes about emerging technologies. By the end of the service, the two had sparked the idea for an innovative business that would grow up to become TwoToads — McGee’s second entrepreneurial venture before his senior prom.
Few teenagers know the finer distinctions between a Sony PlayStation and a Nintendo 64, much less the intricacies of building and repairing an operating system from top to bottom. But McGee is not your average teenager. His technical dexterity, coupled with a natural affinity for computers, led him to begin repairing and building computers for friends and family at age 14. After pulling in several projects, he realized that this after-school hobby had astounding potential, so he welcomed a small staff into his North Augusta garage and began building custom computer systems, repairing networks, and creating Web sites for a roster of clients. In its first year, JM Computers grossed $200,000 and earned McGee the Young IT Entrepreneur of the Year award from Junior Achievement. And that was only the beginning.
North Augusta showered its young Bill Gates with attention following the presentation of the Young IT Entrepreneur award. McGee toured Atlanta, Georgia, appeared in the local newspaper (more than once), and became something of a small-town celebrity. And somehow, McGee found time to continue running the church projector. It was then, in the first months of his new-found fame, that McGee first met Brown in the First Baptist church.
Brown and McGee currently run TwoToads.com, a Web site that filters profanity and sexually explicit content out of email messages. TwoToads offers an ASP service that provides existing Web sites with established customer bases an email-filtering component within the sites’ own look and feel. McGee and Brown are currently completing a feature that will filter Web browsers as well, censoring pages for profanity and pornography.
“Not many Web-based email components specifically target kids,” McGee says, “And right now, children are the fastest growing population on the Internet. The future of the Internet lies in their hands. We saw that and took it as our golden opportunity.”
McGee may not lead a sitcom-worthy teenage life, but he still attends class every day at North Augusta High School, socializes with friends, and plans to attend college. He calls his work-life juggling act “an art form” — a craft that McGee has mastered with the poise and eloquence of someone twice his age. In the following Fast Company interview, he discusses the technology behind TwoToads, the business strategy propelling its current and future growth, and his plans for attracting additional investors.
How do you juggle the demands of high school, TwoToads, and your family?
Carefully. The Internet business moves quickly, and things always need to be done yesterday. It is challenging, but I love it. And it is so important to be doing something you really enjoy. I see my friends in the late afternoons, and I always leave time for my family on the weekends. Success means nothing unless you can share it with those you love. At a young age, I think it is easy to overlook the importance of work-life balance when getting deeply involved in a business or a first job.
How did you acquire the skills and knowledge to run a company at such a young, age?
I was on my own with JM Computers, and I hired and managed the staff myself. The best learning comes from real experience, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and trying not to make them again. Most recently at TwoToads, we’ve put a great emphasis on building a solid board of advisors to support our mission. Already, I’ve learned a great deal from our employees. They believe strongly in our product, and it’s that kind of dedication that will help us, and myself, grow.
How do you deal with age discrimination from outsiders and potential investors?
I certainly don’t have 20 years of experience, an MBA, or even a high-school diploma to back up what I preach. But TwoToads does attract a good amount of attention due to my age, and we have a good product. All told, my age has become more of an asset than a liability for this company because the press coverage I have received has helped our name recognition. We welcome any coverage that sets us apart from the tons of other Internet companies searching for capital. I don’t think my obstacles are larger than those facing any other entrepreneur, especially in this industry. But, in the event that someone doubts me, I just blow it off and prove them wrong.
Jeremy McGee and Roger Brown still run the projector at the First Baptist Church of North Augusta. When he’s not there or at school, McGee can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org .