The eco­nomic the­ory of Dy­lan Seng, 18.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - THOMAS HEATH thomas.heath@wash­post.com

Teenager Dy­lan Seng sees starkly dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to mak­ing a liv­ing ev­ery morn­ing at his fam­ily’s Ar­ling­ton home.

Seng’s mother, Jo­ce­lyn, a re­tired two-star gen­eral in the Air Force Re­serve, heads to her well-pay­ing job at the In­sti­tute for De­fense Analy­ses.

His father, Steve, 68, parks in the liv­ing room La-Z-Boy, boots up his lap­top and turns on his we­b­cams to make sure ev­ery­thing is run­ning smoothly at the au­to­mated, 20,000-square-foot pow­dered­glass plant he owns in Granville, Ohio. The com­pany is called Ti­lab.

Dy­lan, 18, said his par­ents have set the “per­fect ex­am­ple” for why he wants to be a cap­i­tal­ist.

“I’ve seen over the years how much their in­put is into what they do, and how it af­fects how much in­come they make,” said the se­nior at Fair­fax County’s Thomas Jef­fer­son High School for Science and Tech­nol­ogy, one of the most com­pet­i­tive and pres­ti­gious high schools in the coun­try.

“I go to school and mom leaves for work,” he said. “And my dad sits in the liv­ing room and makes sure his fac­tory is run­ning prop­erly and ev­ery­thing is in or­der. He might pick up the phone and make a cou­ple of phone calls.”

It made a huge im­pres­sion on Dy­lan.

“The best way to ac­cu­mu­late wealth is to gain in­come flows which are un­cor­re­lated with your time,” he told me. “Time is a very scarce re­source. Trad­ing time for money is not the cor­rect way to do it.”

Mind you, this kid is only 18 and in the midst of ap­ply­ing to col­leges. I didn’t have an eco­nomic the­ory un­til I was 50.

I met Jo­ce­lyn and the two kids, Dy­lan and Melina, 17, about a year ago when my wife, Polly, and I shared a ta­ble with them at Ea­monn’s restau­rant in Alexandria. I had no­ticed the eco­nomics book Dy­lan was read­ing and we started up a con­ver­sa­tion about busi­ness.

I have never en­coun­tered any­one as pre­co­cious as Dy­lan, or any fam­ily as im­pres­sive as the Sengs. I am writ­ing about him and his fam­ily as a way to cap­ture the self­s­tart­ing na­ture that lead many peo­ple to suc­cess in life.

Here’s part of an email I re­ceived from him a cou­ple of months ago af­ter I had of­fered to col­lab­o­rate on a column:

“Happy New Year. About a year ago when we met in Alexandria, you had sug­gested col­lab­o­rat­ing on a column about my en­tre­pre­neur­ial ef­forts.

“I re­cently fin­ished up my col­lege ap­pli­ca­tions (I’m in high-gear writ­ing mode!), which gen­er­ated lots of ma­te­rial that might be in­ter­est­ing and use­ful to­wards com­pos­ing an in­ter­est­ing story for the gen­eral pub­lic.”

Dy­lan wants to ob­tain a me­chan­i­cal-engi­neer­ing de­gree to cre­ate a path to en­trepreneur­ship. Among the schools he has ap­plied to are the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. His “reach schools” are Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and Stan­ford Univer­sity.

His goal, he said, is to study me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing to es­tab­lish a tech­ni­cal foun­da­tion that will help him be­come an en­tre­pre­neur.

Dy­lan out­lined his “ini­tial thoughts” for an ar­ti­cle:

“Bud­ding en­tre­pre­neur: self­driven at­ti­tude; in­nate engi­neer­ing sense with busi­ness in­ter­est, eg re­al­iza­tion: earn from your money, pas­sive in­come, not di­rect cor­re­la­tion with your time.”

He sup­plied some “back­ground”:

“No TV, con­se­quently, very cre­ative.

“Lots of travel for ex­po­sure and prob­lem solv­ing.

“Thou­sands of miles, specif­i­cally around 5,000 miles, boat­ing in the Ch­e­sa­peake (dad’s 2 week boat camp ev­ery sum­mer): “Boater li­cense at age 10. “Mom work­ing in na­tional se­cu­rity, kids very in­de­pen­dent. Highly or­ga­nized lit­tle sis­ter man­ages fam­ily af­fairs.”

Dy­lan listed some of his “in­ter­me­di­ate ac­tiv­i­ties,” in­clud­ing “space, lead­er­ship, sur­vival, sports, mu­si­cal vi­o­lin, pi­ano, trom­bone (raised in Kennedy Cen­ter ‘red car­pet tor­ture place.’)”

This kid is a think ma­chine who drives a former po­lice cruiser Crown Vic­to­ria that he bought for $4,000.

Then there is his im­mer­sion in the busi­ness world. His start-ups in­clude a gum­ball route that spread to more than 10 lo­ca­tions be­fore he sold it. He hired six kids to sell candy dur­ing lunch at mid­dle school and kept track of their pay on Ex­cel.

A rot-free wooden bench, an anti-mo­tion-sick­ness app, heated ski poles, a tu­tor­ing ser­vice and key chains pro­duced with a 3-D printer are among the ven­tures that never got any­where. He also is work­ing on a line of iced teas, called Sul­tan’s Pride.

Don’t laugh. War­ren Buf­fett, one of the rich­est men in the world, had a pa­per route and owned farm­land be­fore he was a teenager, then made thou­sands on a ro­bust pin­ball-ma­chine busi­ness.

Dy­lan gets some of his drive from his en­tre­pre­neur father, Steve, who has 45 patents. But both par­ents are Type-A per­son­al­i­ties.

Steve worked at Owens Corn­ing for 25 years be­fore start­ing Ti­lab in 2001.

Ti­lab makes a mi­cro-thin glass that en­hances coat­ings, ex­tend­ing the prod­uct’s life by decades. Ti­lab earns rev­enue of about $2 mil­lion a year and has only two em­ploy­ees. The glass flakes are used in ev­ery­thing from Navy ships to nail pol­ish.

“We sell to all the ma­jor paint com­pa­nies,” Steve said. “BASF, PPG, Sherwin Wil­liams. It’s very prof­itable. It’s just me and the Ja­panese who make this prod­uct. I got the whole North Amer­ica mar­ket.”

Seng de­signed the plant to re­quire as few em­ploy­ees as pos­si­ble to save on la­bor costs. The fac­tory spits out about half a ton of glass flakes a day. The two em­ploy­ees di­vide and pack­age the flakes for each cus­tomer. Then the prod­ucts are put into large boxes and shipped by var­i­ous truck­ing com­pa­nies to cus­tomers.

Jo­ce­lyn, 55, is a fire­ball. Dur­ing one of her first dates with Steve, they planted 5,000 trees.

Jo­ce­lyn is a big be­liever in sum­mer camps. She sends her chil­dren to camps. She at­tends camps her­self. Dur­ing one in­ter­view ex­change, Jo­ce­lyn was va­ca­tion­ing in Tampa at a row­ing camp, where she was de­com­press­ing.

Jo­ce­lyn and Steve brought their kids up with a de­ter­mi­na­tion to make them self-re­liant. The Seng kids re­ally don’t watch TV. The Sengs don’t even own a TV.

“We want them to think,” Steve said. “If you are watch­ing TV, you are not think­ing. We don’t let them sit like a zom­bie.”

Jo­ce­lyn trav­eled fre­quently and up to a month at a time while in the Air Force Re­serve, where her spe­cialty was cy­ber­war­fare. Steve would take over par­ent­ing du­ties, but there were still big gaps when the kids were on their own.

“They are very in­de­pen­dent,” Jo­ce­lyn said. Melina set up a home sched­ule on Google, and made sure Dy­lan ate and knew where he was go­ing. Jo­ce­lyn re­calls walk­ing in the door and be­ing greeted by Melina, who would hand her mother school forms and say, “Here mom. Sign here, here and here.”

“It’s like Pippi Long­stock­ing, the Swedish book char­ac­ter known for her in­de­pen­dence, Jo­ce­lyn said. “They have been liv­ing on their own for a very long time.”

The teenagers have trav­eled to 15 coun­tries, have gone to ev­ery sum­mer camp imag­in­able (from space camp to boot camp), learned to drive early and learned to suc­ceed and fail on their own. Each has a credit card and is re­spon­si­ble for their own fi­nances.

“We made them ac­count­able,” Steve said. “If they did some­thing that didn’t work out, like run­ning their bi­cy­cle into some­thing, we would give them the extended story about re­spon­si­bil­ity, and the con­se­quences and ram­i­fi­ca­tion of ac­tions.”

When I asked Dy­lan how he learned about fi­nance, he said he read a bunch of li­brary books in mid­dle school. He fol­lowed that up with an email list of 11 (the Sengs like lists), in­clud­ing “Poor Richard’s Almanac” by Ben­jamin Franklin and a bi­og­ra­phy of Elon Musk.

When I emailed Jo­ce­lyn to dou­ble-check her age, she texted back a list of her whole fam­ily, with each per­son’s age and date of birth. She also in­cluded their wed­ding an­niver­sary:

“We’re mar­ried 20+years (10/12/96).

“Steve and I are in Paris at world’s largest com­pos­ite ma­te­ri­als show. Head­ing to Ber­lin for a long week­end with my cousins (back next Tues).

“Btw Dy­lan got to the in­ter­view stage of White­board In­cu­ba­tor! They have a few ques­tions about his Sul­tan’s Pride biz plans. They’ll be chat­ting later this week.”

You kind of see what I mean.

In­ven­tor Dy­lan Seng, 18, a se­nior at Fair­fax County’s pres­ti­gious Thomas Jef­fer­son High School for Science and Tech­nol­ogy, uses the kitchen win­dow at his home to work out a physics prob­lem. He wants to study me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing to es­tab­lish a tech­ni­cal foun­da­tion that will al­low him to be­come an en­tre­pre­neur.

PHO­TOS BY KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

One of Seng’s lat­est projects: a line of iced teas, called Sul­tan’s Pride, with the slo­gan “steep­ing back into re­alitea.”

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