THE BLOG
08/01/2013 04:30 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

White Collar Apprentices: Why I'm Recruiting Teenagers for My Tech Startup

In today's competitive hiring environment, many startups have tried on-campus recruiting to lure recent college grads. At my startup, we're scouring some yet-untouched campuses: high schools. My company Handshakez hired two recent high school grads and the experience has worked out so well, we're planning to hire more teenagers in the coming months.

Our 'Gen Z' teammates aren't interns; they receive a salary, stock options, and benefits. Some of our employees get a kick out of having teen colleagues, but both Aaron Silberman, our business developer, and Thomas McNair, our mobile product manager, have integrated into the team. Why did we hire high school grads and what has the experience taught us?

Well, we hired them for two main reasons. First, they are extremely talented and smart -- Aaron and Thomas aren't your typical teenagers. Second, their youth is a huge benefit to our company, which is building a completely new type of enterprise software. Our software is based on social and mobile technologies -- two areas teenagers know more about than most 35-year olds! For young people, the default is 'social-on' and smartphones are an extension of everything they do. Thomas has never owned a mobile phone that wasn't touch screen. Young people simply have no resistance to technology; it's part of their DNA.

Our customer engagement software combines social aspects of Twitter, Pinterest, and Vine and is mobile optimized, so incorporating the fresh perspective of young users who live and breathe mobile and social has been incredibly valuable.

It took some convincing to get these top high school grads to work with us. Most of their friends are spending their summers floating on the river and hanging out at pool parties. But Aaron and Thomas saw the potential of working at Handshakez; they're developing a set of hands-on business skills they'd normally not learn until their mid-20s. What's more, they're pulling a salary -- which will help them pay for college. (Aaron is working with us during a gap year before he attends Georgetown in 2014 and Thomas will attend the business honors program in the fall at UT Austin, while simultaneously working full-time at Handshakez.)

With the average college student now graduating $26,000 in debt - and that figure rising every day -- it's clear young people need new ways to pay for college. And working at a startup for a year after high school is a great way to do so. Not only do young people earn money they can use to pay for college, they'll graduate from university with concrete business skills - helping them stand out in the post-college interview process. In a market where the unemployment rate stands at 16.2 percent for workers under 25, having applicable work experience upon graduating from college is a huge advantage.

I asked our youngest employees to explain in their own words why they chose to work at Handshakez.

"When I decided to take a gap year, I went looking for a practical learning environment, because while I know I'll learn a lot of amazing things at Georgetown, most of it will be academic and hypothetical," said Silberman. "Here at Handshakez I'm learning all about business; I've learned about social engagement, sales and marketing, and lead generation, and I'm helping run these programs as part of a real team."

I give Aaron a hard time because he showed up to his interview in a suit, and no one has ever worn a suit in our office. But it showed his initiative and drive, and he continues to get here early every day ready to work. In his first two weeks on the job, he made 300 sales calls.

"I started my own mobile app development business in 9th grade and built and ran teams in India, so I've been coding for years, but I really wanted the experience working on a development team," said McNair. "Everyone thinks I'm crazy to work full-time and also go to college, but I think I can swing it; I'm used to staying up until 2am to Skype with developers in India."

Thomas interviewed with us on a lunch break in the high school cafeteria, and joined a few days after he graduated. His fresh perspective on what users want in a mobile app is a huge boon for our company. He's never had to work with clunky, cumbersome enterprise software like most of us have, so he has no technical baggage about how business software is 'supposed to be'.

Having teens around the office has been a profound experience. We hired Aaron and Thomas as an experiment - and it has surpassed our expectations. We're planning to ramp up our high school recruiting process, and will begin meeting with the business clubs at top high schools in Austin this fall to formalize the program.

We hope to hire a bunch of kids to help drive our startup from good to great. What started out as an experiment will become a permanent part of our culture - and a differentiator that will help us create truly innovative products.