Mon Mar 3, 2:28 PM ET
By Rich Karlgaard Sean John sold more than $200 million of clothing last year. Now, if you are older than 40 and don't have any teenagers, you might pause here, shake your head, let out a whistle, form a capital T with your liver-spotted fingers and ask: What the heck is a â€¦ Sean John? Answer: It's the clothing label of P.Diddy. You know, the rap singer.
Oh sure, of course. The economy stinks. But a rap singer yanks down two hundred megabucks a year.Natch. From clothes. From a line that didn't exist five years ago. Understood. Don't blow an artery, readers. P. Diddy is not our story today. No, our story is even weirder. It's the story of the guy who designed the ultrahip SeanJohn.com Web site. This designer, MaxOshman, well, he's a bit of a nerd who lives with his parents in uncool Montclair, N.J. Actually, it's cool that Max lives with his parents. He is 17 years old. Super Samurai In Palestine, 17-year-olds strap bombs to their chests and board buses. In America, a high school junior named Max Oshman pulled in $400,000 for his Web design work in only three months. Okay, it wasn't just Max. It was Max and 11 fellow geeks--a virtual team of 12. According to Max, "Some of them live in the U.K., two inCroatia, two in Sweden and the rest are scattered around in southern California, New York, Texas and Amsterdam." The leaders of this e-gang--they call themselves pLotdev Multimedia DevelopersLLC--are Max and Yves Darbouze, a 30-year-old Miami geezer. The e-gang's average age is 23. Max has never met any of his partners in person. A first-ever meeting in New York with partner Yves was in the works when Max and I talked. One supposes it's difficult for a 17-year-old to take business trips while keeping up a 4.0 average at Solomon Schechter School, playing point guard on the basketball team and laying out the school yearbook. How, then, does the pLotdev team communicate? "Mostly," says Max, "by e-mail. When we have a big project, we communicate via phone. We also have group talks using MSN Messenger." Max and Yves hooked up (by e-mail) after Max completed his first book, Macromedia Flash: Super Samurai--at age 15. Max's coauthor introduced him to Yves, who needed some Web design work done, thinking Max would be good for the job. "We spoke about the industry and where it was going, and we shared many of the same beliefs," says Max. "We decided that we would start a company." At the time Yves had no idea Max was 17. Max and Yves agree that a pair of Macromediasoftware programs will change the world. One is Flash, a 3-D graphics program; the other isColdFusion, which lets people update Web sites without a programmer. As Max described this software to me, I thought: Yes, makes perfect sense. Such cheap, off-the-rack software will indeed open up Web design to artists, the way Adobe opened up page design 15 years ago. Max, of course, would have missed my analogy altogether. Fifteen years ago Max was 2. No Face Time--Yet
Max looks like any straight-A kid from suburban New Jersey. Don't be fooled. He speaks like a Madison Avenue mogul. About pLotdev he says, "We geared toward the entertainment industry--creative, very upbeat designs with a lot of motion and user interaction. We call this style high-impact design. Extremely engaging to the user." Do any of pLotdev's Hollywood clients balk on meeting a consultant four years away from a legal beer? "None of my clients has ever asked my age," says Max cheerfully. He pauses, then continues more guardedly. "Whenever there are face-to-face meetings, Yves goes. I take part in the phone meetings. We want to make sure clients base their decisions on our skills, not on fears that some 17-year-old kid is going to screw up their Web presence." Now Max buoys up. "In the next few months, however, I do intend to start going to meetings." For now, Max stays at home, batting out code on his HP Pavilion zt1130, Dell Dimension 4300 and newiMac. Old-Fashioned Hustle How does this young team ever manage to get in the client's door and pitch work? Pure old-fashioned hustle. "Sean John and [previous clients] Motown and Universal were recruited byYes," says Max. "He called, wrote and nagged people to death just asking to give us a chance. He wrote a ton of proposals. We wrote free demos to show them our work." These days pLotdev is reeling in the work. Current clients include Microsoft and P. Diddy's record label, Bad Boy Records.
Visit Rich Karlgaard's home page atwww.forbes.com/karlgaard or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Edited for CROWN by Ivo Bach