The Internet: it's child's play

Benjamin Cohen and Alex Beaton are a pair of netrepreneurs who are making their mark in cyberspace. When they're not busy studying for their A-levels and GCSEs, that is

"Once you get over 25, you're over the hill in the internet industry," says Benjamin Cohen. The 17-year-old is the brains behind the SoJewish (www.sojewish.com) website, recently valued at £5m. When he's not studying for his A-levels, Benjamin likes to spend his time sitting on the SoJewish board and running his other Net business, Cyberbritain (www.cyberbritain.com).

But Benjamin is looking positively wrinkly compared with 15-year old Alex Beaton, the commercial director of shopping portal Nobags (www.nobags.com). Alex spotted the potential of the internet aged only 11 when he entered a Capital Radio competition to win a modem and a year's free net access. Since then, he's been hooked. "At the end of 1998, when I was 13, I thought, there's money to be made here, and that's when I set up my first site - the UK Shopping Zone."

They might not be old enough to have their own credit cards, but this new breed of young UK netrepreneurs certainly understands how the internet business works. Cohen is already doing the kind of deals that would make Rupert Murdoch proud. He launched the Jewish community website, Jewish Net, a year and a half ago. Within a year he'd negotiated a deal to merge the site with the Jewish newspaper the London Jewish News. The result of that merger is the recently launched SoJewish site.

Cohen still owns 17 per cent of the business and continues to come up with the ideas. "It's the same kind of content as on Jewish Net, but now they can develop ideas I couldn't do by myself," he explains. "One of the things I always wanted to do was develop a Jewish TV programme and we're doing that now, it's a current affairs show called Jewish Eye."

The SoJewish £5m flotation plans have had to be put on hold because of the recent problems in the stockmarket, for which Cohen blames oldsters Brent Hobermann and Martha Lane Fox of Lastminute.com. "Lastminute seemed to cause the whole slump, as soon as they floated the whole market collapsed. I kind of knew that was going to happen. Jewish Net has a bigger turnover than Lastminute and it was being run from my bedroom."

But Benjamin isn't too downhearted about the delay. "We're probably going to merge with other sites in the US and Europe. We're trying to build up the brand and the content. We want to wait until the market conditions are more favourable. Then we'll float."

Until then, Cohen has got his Cyberbritain search engine site to keep him occupied and that business is going great guns. "We're going into the content distribution market, we're powering the portals for quite a few ISPs. Our latest deal is with the ISP Blue Carrots."

Alex Beaton hasn't quite reached the wheeler dealer stage yet, but he is used to handling big-money potential advertisers in his position as commercial director for Nobags. "When I come back from school I often have 50 e-mails and tens of phone messages to deal with. The site takes up about four hours of my time every evening."

Clients rarely comment on Beaton's age, although one did offer him a job. "He asked if I could send a CV and come down for an interview. I said I was a bit busy with Nobags and with my GCSE studies. He went very quiet on the end of the phone. He couldn't quite believe he was going to offer a website manager job at 50 grand a year to a 15-year-old."

With A-levels and GCSE exams coming up in a few weeks, it's a busy time for these schoolboy new media moguls. Cohen is rather relieved that the flotation of SoJewish has been delayed. "With the flotation and my A-levels going on at the same time, one of them would have been mucked up and it would probably have been my A-levels."

Undeterred by mounting exam pressure, Beaton plans to relaunch the Nobags site over the next few weeks and already seems to have got the next couple of years planned out. "I want to do further education, but I'd like to do it as an apprenticeship with Nobags, that way I can still get a qualification at the end of it."

Beaton's future definitely lies on the net. "The internet has allowed young people to develop a business," he says. "It's easy to own a website, it's just making it a good website that's hard.

"I'd like to secure some big investment for Nobags. You see ShopSmart advertising everywhere and I want to compete. I don't want to be taken over and pushed out, though. I'd like to be an employee and be a big shareholder in the company."

Cohen on the other hand is after those short-term gains. He doesn't see his future in the internet industry. "It's fun, but I can't see myself doing it when I'm 50. I think it's a young person's business. You need to be young to understand how the internet market works.

"I'm still one of the youngest people in the industry, but some 12-year-old will come along soon to knock me off my perch."

Cohen has already been offered a place at Warwick University to study English and creative writing, but he plans to take a year off first to make big bucks by developing the CyberBritain site. "Hopefully, if CyberBritain works, it will get me quite a bit of cash," he says. "I'm hoping it will be bought out by one of the big portals such as Yahoo. Then I'm going to get out and start enjoying myself."

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