Most Likely to Succeed Tyler Dikman runs the kind of profitable small business most entrepreneurs dream of. Now if he could just get to class on time.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – Tyler Dikman seems the very model of the modern successful CEO. CoolTronics, his three-year-old Tampa computer-supply company, has $1 million in annual sales. He hobnobs with luminaries such as Bill Gates and Michael Dell, stays at the Waldorf-Astoria, and sports a gold Rolex. And just this June he added a new item to his growing list of achievements: He graduated from high school.
Dikman was just 15 years old when he started CoolTronics, after an internship at Merrill Lynch taught him how to fix computers. Now the company is in growth mode. In September, Dikman launched CoolTronics' Silicon Valley office--in his freshman dorm room at Santa Clara University. A friend bound for New York University opened a New York City outpost this summer as well. We spoke to Dikman about the most efficient way to clean one's room (hint: outsourcing) and why he feels like a late bloomer.
How did a kid like you attract initial investors?
We didn't have any. There weren't huge startup costs. I was working out of my house. The answering machine would ask if you'd like to leave a message for the house, or for Tyler and his company. I didn't even have a car. My clients would pick me up and take me to their place. We're still in the house. I moved my dad out of his study and turned that into the headquarters. The living room became shipping dock A.
How do your parents feel about that?
When we started taking it over, they added a room onto the house. I made it up to my mom. She had my employees walk the dog and water the plants and mow the lawn. I had to pay them. They also cleaned my room.
How did you go about persuading your friends to do that?
I paid them more than the grocery store or car wash. The best job any of my friends held was at the mall information desk, and even there you have to work evenings and miss going out on Fridays.
Did you have a health-care plan or a 401(k)?
No, but employees got free trips to Las Vegas for the Comdex trade show. It's not like they were living off this money. They lived with their parents.
How did you manage high school and a business at the same time?
I was late to class a lot, but teachers cut you a little slack when you're fixing their computers for free. My teachers would ask, "Can you help me with this?" And I said, "Sure, but that's going to take a couple of extra hours. Do you think you can give me an extension on my paper?"
So what was it like to meet Bill Gates and Michael Dell?
My mom went right up to them and blurted out, "I need you to tell my son why he needs a good college education." I was thinking, "Mo-o-o-om, it's Bill Gates!" She didn't know they had both dropped out of college. They agreed that if your business is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and you have to take charge at that moment, drop out. If not, go through school. I agree. But I don't think that CoolTronics is quite that opportunity yet.
Is there anything you wish you could have accomplished and didn't?
I wish I would have started the business earlier. You can what-if yourself forever, but I do wish I had started when I was 13.