Q&A: Meet the 15-year-old who just sold his tech startup

Daniil Kulchenko in the KIRO-FM studios (Erynn Rose photo)

Our guest on the latest GeekWire Podcast was Daniil Kulchenko, the 15-year-old sophomore from Kenmore, north of Seattle, who last week announced the sale of his cloud-computing startup, Phenona, to Vancouver, B.C.-based ActiveState.

We had a great time talking with him and hearing his story — including how he got into Perl programming at the age of 7, why he built the business, the influence of his parents in his life, and what his friends at Inglemoor High School think about the fact that he just sold a company.

If you missed the show, or just prefer text, continue reading for written excerpts from the conversation.

Todd Bishop, GeekWire: How did you start a company, and how were you even aware of Perl programming, at the age of 13?

Daniil Kulchenko: Actually, my father started me on Perl programming right around the age of 7. He gave me a book on Perl, and I just kinda took it and went with it. So along the years, I just progressed more and more, and then I started doing jobs with Perl around 11 or 12, and right around that time, this idea just happened to me. This was basically a need that I needed to fill for myself. I came up with the idea, and I just wanted to make it for myself at first, and then it slowly grew and grew and grew until I realized, well, I can make this into a business. Right around the age of 13 or 14 is when I started developing it seriously to bring it to the public.

John Cook, GeekWire: But your programming skills go back even further. You were programming at the age of 6 with some help from your mom, right?

Daniil: Yeah, I got a book on making web pages and just started playing around with the examples and made a few web pages back then.

John: So what was the appeal, and what is the appeal for you?

Daniil: I don’t know, it’s just been something that fascinated me. I guess it’s a lot because of my parents’ great involvement with it, which fascinated me. But it’s just something that I found really exciting.

John: So how much influence did (your parents) have, or what role did they play in helping you get the company off the ground?

Daniil: It was mostly an independent endeavor. I asked my dad for advice along the way. He helped with a lot of legal things, and just clarifying what I need to do at certain steps, but mostly it was just myself working on the code, and progressing it upward from there.

Todd: In basic terms, the way I understand it is that in the olden days, back in the 80s, people who were programming did it on their local computers, they created an executable file, a .exe file, and they sent it around to people and they installed it on their computers. Now that’s happening in what we call the cloud — there are servers somewhere we don’t even know half the time, and you’re not only programming there, on those servers, but you’re actually storing the code there and serving it up to people from those servers.

Daniil: Correct.

Todd: So you came up with the idea of doing this for Perl. So what was your inspiration?

Daniil: I really liked the current options that were on the market for the other languages, and Perl is just a great language. I’ve always loved using it. It’s always been a favorite even after I’ve tried other languages. And I couldn’t find an option for this on the market for Perl applications, so I thought, why not develop one especially for myself, because I needed to deploy Perl applications to the cloud, as well. I put it up and people were really interested.

Todd: What’s so great about Perl?

Daniil: It’s just been one where everything just works, and I think one of my favorite parts about it is something called the CPAN, which is basically a giant archive of code that users of the language have contributed, and it’s really nice because anything you can think of, someone’s probably already written the code for, and put it up online. You can just reuse the code.

John: So Daniil, you actually had an exit this week, we call it in the business. You sold your company. How did the deal come about?

Daniil: They contacted me a few months ago, and I immediately knew the company because they’re really active in the Perl market. I’d known about the company for many years.

John: Many years? … One report put it, the company was founded a year after you were born.

Daniil: Yeah, so I’d known about them for a while, and I really liked it, it was really flattering when they contacted me. It just progressed from there. They were really interested.

John: Did they know your age?

Daniil: They did, yeah. The very first email they sent, they already knew my age.

John: Did that play at all into the discussions? Because now you’re going on as a part-time employee. How did your age factor in?

Daniil: It’s mostly legal aspects and the fact that I can’t work full-time because school, as well. Other than that, it was pretty much transparent to my age. I was working as if I was an adult.

Todd: We know that the financial terms of the deal are undisclosed, so we’re not going to get you in trouble here. I just want to know, was it like a modest contribution to the college fund, or a Porche in the high school parking lot?

Daniil: You know, I really don’t know how much I’m supposed to say here

John: He doesn’t even have his driver’s license yet! He can’t be thinking about a Porche in the parking lot!

Todd: So what kinds of things are you going to do for ActiveState?

Daniil: They obviously have an evolving cloud business right now, they’re really getting into the field, and I’ll be working with them on cloud solutions, similar to what Phenona does.

Todd: So will they continue to develop your product? Was it more about getting you or about getting Phenona?

Daniil: Hard to say, but Phenona is going to be integrated in some ways into what they have, but yeah, future plans for their product line are going to be announced later, but it’s going to be part of the business.

John: Talk a little about your friends at high school — what do they think about your entrepreneurial pursuits?

Daniil: They’re all impressed, I guess. The thing with the business is that it’s really technical, so when they ask, oh, so what is it, it’s really hard to explain to other 15 year olds what it does. I generally use a simplified explanation, where if you make a website, you need to get a bunch of servers and put the website on the servers, get all that working and what these kinds of services do is take care of that for you.

John: So what was their reaction, when you told some of your buddies?

Daniil: A lot of them were really fascinated by it, they wanted to ask me more questions. All of them wanted to know how much the deal was.

Todd: Did you tell them?

John: Don’t tell them, I mean, come on, a bunch of 15 year olds? Probably the worst crowd to tell.

Daniil: Yeah. But they all wanted to know more, they were fascinated by it.

Todd: I have one question that’s almost a litmus test for society. You’ve got these (teenage) basketball players and baseball players getting recruited by major league teams. I’m really curious — are the computer science departments around the country actively contacting you and lobbying you to try to get you to go to their programs?

Daniil: Well, not yet. It hasn’t been too much time since the deal happened, but I’ve definitely gotten a lot of interest from individuals who want to talk to me, and find out what I know. Maybe give them some advice, they have questions about something. But yeah, there’s been a lot of individuals interested in talking to me.

John: So what’s next for you? Do you want to go to college? Do you want to pursue a computer science degree?

Daniil: Yeah, I want to get a degree in computer science just as kind of a backup, because a lot of workplaces today won’t even look at you if you don’t have a degree, regardless of what field work you have. So I’d like to have that degree, just as safety, regardless of the selling of the company.

John: What else do you do outside of working with Perl, and building companies? Do you do the normal 15-year-old stuff?

Daniil: Yeah, sure. There’s Facebook, obviously there’s hanging out with friends. I bike a lot. Read books sometimes. But yeah, generally an average high schooler.

John:: Do you have an idea for another company?

Not right now, no. I’m definitely interested in the future, after this is over, definitely interested in pursuing other things.

John: Because once you’ve had one success, the venture capitalists start lining up to come and throw money at you. So get ready they’re going to probably come knocking on your door.

Todd: But do you see yourself continuing to be an entrepreneur?

Daniil: Oh, definitely, I have the spirit in me. It’s definitely something I want to do in the future.


You can also listen to the full episode below. (The part with Daniel starts after our weekly news roundup, at the 11:00 mark.) Listen to the show above or subscribe using this RSS feed (feeds.feedburner.com/geekwirepodcast). Subscribe in iTunes or Zune. Here’s the MP3 file.

We’ll be back this weekend with another episode — stay tuned for more details later in the week.

  • http://www.oscarscode.com Oscar Martinez

    Wow! I don’t know what to say =O

  • http://www.binfire.com David Robins

    I am proud of this kid! Great job….

  • http://www.webdrafter.com WebDrafter.com, Inc.

    Unbelievable! This kid has some amazing ambition, but could you imagine the pride his father has? I’m simply speechless.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like a pretty cool kid to me dude.
    http://www.web-privacy.no.tc

  • Andy

    Great story. Sounds like a great kid with a super bright future. Keep it up!

  • Andy

    Great story. Sounds like a great kid with a super bright future. Keep it up!

  • Ryan Schmidt

    Why go to college? http://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gross-college-2011-6

  • Steve Bug

    I’m going to give my son (or daughter) a copy of Larry Wall’s Programming Perl as soon as they can walk.

    • http://twitter.com/GDriveSync GDriveSync

      oh great, the bar has been raised for children now..

  • dan

    I was alot like this kid, started programming very young, and I was on the computer ALL the time.  Too much really.  Although it allowed me to skip college and start a professional career in programming at age 19, my time just wasn’t balanced.  Now that this young man has a part-time job, I’m concerned he’ll become overloaded.   I hope he finds time to get some excercise.  Proper excercise helps mental function.

  • http://www.facebook.com/saqib.rasool Saqib Rasool

    Its pretty amazing. Way to go Daniil. 

  • http://benjaminlang.com Ben Lang

    Very impressive!

  • http://benjaminlang.com Ben Lang

    Very impressive!