Web design firm The Lampbox Group doesn’t try to hide that the company was founded by high school students and employs high school students.
On the contrary, that’s at the core of the company’s marketing efforts.
“We use it to our advantage,” says co-founder Jordan Kab.
Kab and Poojan Mehta formed Lampbox in December 2013, when both were juniors at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh. (Today Mehta, 17, is a senior; Kab, 18, graduated early and is taking courses at Wake Technical Community College in advance of attending a four-year school.)
They and their staff of seven fellow students, who are paid on a per-project basis, have completed a half-dozen websites for local small businesses – including two coffee shops, a tap room and an attorney’s office. Lampbox has four more websites in the works.
One of their key selling points is that, as high schoolers, their overhead is low, and, consequently, so are their prices.
Mehta and Kab, longtime friends, said they price case by case and have charged from $800 to more than $3,000. But they noted that low-end price is a thing of the past now that the business has an established track record.
In other words, they’re fast learners.
One of Lampbox’s first customers was Fresca Cafe and Gelato in Cary. Owner Alen Subasic pointedly refers to Mehta and Kab as “young adults.”
Fresca Cafe is a favorite hangout for Kab and Mehta, and shortly after they formed the business, Mehta approached Subasic about revamping the website. Subasic agreed to a meeting and came away impressed.
“I’m a very satisfied customer,” Subasic said. “As a matter of fact, we have talked about doing some other things, getting some more interactivity to (the website).”
Subasic declined to specify how much Lampbox charged him, but he did say, “I couldn’t get better for that price. It was less than 50 percent than anyone else around.”
Another early client was Raleigh attorney Martin Kaplan of The Kaplan Law Office. Kaplan, who specializes in workers’ compensation claims for federal government employees, reached out to the startup after learning about it from Kab’s father, whom he knows.
Kaplan said he had been looking for “younger people” who could do a good job revamping his website, although he was thinking college students rather than high schoolers.
“My website is for informational purposes. It doesn’t sell anything,” Kaplan said. “I didn’t need the overkill and to spend the many thousands and thousands of dollars that the bigger-name” Web design firms would charge.
Kaplan is pleased with the website Lampbox produced and with the company’s customer-service mentality, which includes returning calls during school hours.
“They’re more responsive than some of my other software providers,” Kaplan said.
A common theme among adults who have worked with Lampbox is that Mehta and Kab act professionally, with a maturity beyond their years.
“I’ve heard this even during elementary school,” Roman Kab, Jordan Kab’s father, said of his son’s maturity.
Roman Kab, himself a software engineer, isn’t surprised that a group of high school students can ably assemble websites for small businesses. What took a lot of skill in the early days of the Internet, he said, has become faster and easier with the software tools available today.
“But it still takes knowledge to put those pieces together and negotiate and present a product to a potential customer,” he said. “All of those pieces have to follow one another to have a successful product delivered to a customer.”
Travis Hinshaw, Lampbox’s 17-year-old head of Web design, said that four or five hours of training with the company’s software has proved to be sufficient for the company’s high school workers.
“We work with a lot of really intelligent young guys,” he said. “They catch on pretty quick.”
Hinshaw works anywhere from two to 15 hours a week on Lampbox projects, depending on “how much we’ve got going at the time.”
“Not many kids get a chance to be in a small startup get to talk to adults about business,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity.”
Hinshaw recalled his sense of accomplishment after the first website he helped develop went live.
“Googling that business’s name and seeing something that I worked on pop up, it was really rewarding,” he said.
“And,” he noted, “you get to make spending money on the side, which is always a nice bonus.”
Lampbox is the third technology startup for Mehta and Kab, but it’s the first to make it to the revenue stage. They cite the earlier startups as valuable learning experiences.
“They taught us how to plant seeds, but we couldn’t make a flower,” Mehta said.
That sparked a smart-aleck rejoinder from Kab: “Are you going into bumper-sticker making?”
Both founders had taken high school business classes that, in their opinion, didn’t really match up with their “real-world business experiences.” So they decided that starting a website design business could be a vehicle for them to share what they had learned with their friends and at the same time – if all went as planned – finally get a taste of success.
They invited five friends to a meeting and persuaded them to sign up.
“The easiest way to say it is, (we) make a really good sales team,” Kab said. “I don’t know exactly how we did it.”
Walking around money
Lampbox workers mostly have been working from home or wherever else they are comfortable. But that changed last week when the business moved into the American Underground’s business incubator on Main Street in Durham.
“We are giving them the space free of charge for the next six months to show our support for the good things they are doing,” said Adam Klein, American Underground’s chief strategist. “It’s not every day that you see high school kids incorporating a business that is really having some success and traction.”
To be sure, Lampbox’s success is high school-scale.
Revenue in 2014, Mehta said, was “between $10,000 and $20,000.” But with the business gaining some momentum, Kab projects revenue will be “closer to $40,000 to $45,000” this year.
Mehta and Kab don’t take a salary but have paid themselves about $500 each in bonuses.
“At this point, we still live with our families; we don’t need to be taking much,” Mehta said.
Although both of them plan to go to college next fall, they hope Lampbox will be able to stay in business. Just how that might happen is something they haven’t yet figured out.