23. June 2016–
Suddenly he’s there. Ben Pasternak is in the press room of the HEUREKA Conference. “Grab me if you see me,” Ben wrote me the night before via email. With a smiley. But now I see him three hours earlier than planned. He looks at the stage, hands in his pocket. At his side: two men with camera equipment in hand and headphones around their necks.
It’s crazy. Just now I’ve read articles about Ben – in the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Sydney Morning Herald. Ben is celebrated as startup wonder kid, as app maker and entrepreneur. Because Ben is only 16 years old and has received investments (in the low millions) from investors who put their money in Snapchat and Twitter. His product: an app that allows young people specifically to buy and sell used items – in Instagram style. Before that he made the mobile game Impossible Rush, which he sold successfully.
I welcome Ben, his handshake is lax. I ask him whether the interview will stay at 2 o’clock appointment. “Sure,” he says. But he also has time now. That works. We go into the next room, the two men with us. They explain that they are shooting a documentary about Ben. CEO @ 16 it will be called – tracing the path of Ben’s ascent from tenth grader to startup star. “Is it okay for you that we record the interview?” asks one of the men. It’s okay. Then I have to sign a consent form.
While the filmmakers unpack their equipment, I ask Ben how he likes it in Berlin. “It’s great,” he says. He had seen the Badeschiff in Alt-Treptow. And he really wants to go there later.
Really the new Mark Zuckerberg?
Can we get started? The camera team is ready. But first Ben wants to show me what the German media reported about him today. With his smartphone he plays a RBB report and asks me what is being said about him. I translate: “Ben Pasternak has not yet graduated, he has no driver’s license but is already a startup millionaire.“ Almost all texts about Ben start somewhat like this. “Wow, that’s deep,” he jokes. The recording team is ready, but Ben cannot be rushed. The report shows him on a playground. He proudly points at the screen: “Look, that’s me”
And then the actual interview begins: How does it feel for him to be compared with Mark Zuckerberg? They’re both highly passionate about what they do. And of course, build tech products. “That’s all we have in common,” notes Ben. Of course, Zuckerberg wasis far ahead of him as he hads not yet developed the next Facebook. Not yet. That, Ben leaves at that. And shoots a statement afterwards: In a few years his thrift app Flogg will be as big as Tinder or Instagram.
In his apartment in New York City, where he has lived alone since 2015, he spends up to 16 hours a day with work. Ben actually comes from Sydney and says that he sometimes misses the life there: the beaches, his family and friends. Even school he misses, he admits. He dropped out in the 10th grade, which his parents accepted only reluctantly.
Can he imagine Flogg, like his game app, being up for sale? He would do anything to make Flogg greater, he says. Even if it means selling it. However, he is not about money but about growth. After the financing round, he still had to buy himself a hoverboard.
After the interview I ask him briefly to remain for a photo. No problem, he says. In general, he finds everything I propose “awesome” or “sweet”. He does not object to anything.
Teen stuff on the weekend
Later Ben speaks before the HEUREKA audience. He is confused and admits it clearly: Being on stage is definitely more terrible than his first VC pitch. It occurs to me that Ben says many things on stage in precisely the same words he used with me a few hours earlier in the interview: That age is no “factor” for him in cooperating with his seven-member team– though they are all older. That his parents are very “supportive”. He has his words well prepared.
He also admits that the work is stealing much of his youth. But on weekends he continues to do normal teen stuff: go to the mall, spend time with friends (acquaintances of the family live in New Jersey). He says: “I had a really good childhood before I decided to make my life into what I love.”
Then he tells us that he hung a note in his locker in Sydney: “If you’re reading this, you suck!” Because then he would have failed with his big plans in the US. In his new life, he says, he puts “motivational stuff” in his apartment. In a photo by the New York Post you see that over Ben’s sofa hangs a picture of rapper Kanye West. The inscription: “Listen to the kids, bruh.” In addition, the image of a Twitter update: “Justin Bieber follows you now.” For Ben Pasternak, the startup prodigy and business talent that is, after all, only 16 years young, going back is not an option.
See Ben’s full talk at HEUREKA 2016 here: