HERMITAGE – Many college students have to balance their studies with work. But Jon Stephenson's balancing act was a little different than most.
Stephenson created his own company, Empire Streaming, at age 15, while still a student at Hickory High School, and it carried over when he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh.
"The biggest problem was, if you're studying for a final and you have a customer paying you several thousand dollars a month and you have a deadline or something's broken at 4 a.m., it's like, what do you do?" he said. "Do you study or do you sit there and fix it?"
Stephenson, 23, said he was lucky that "nothing catastrophic happened, where I had to stay up for days fixing something. It was more or less, while I was at school, everything was fine. Most of our customers did maintenance midnight or weekends so it didn't actually conflict that much."
Stephenson graduated from Pitt in the spring with a business degree in marketing and business information systems, freeing him to concentrate on Empire Streaming, which provides access to internet radio stations, hosts websites and arranges online advertising.
"That's where most of our money comes from now: injecting audio ads into streams and then doing a revenue share with the broadcaster," he said of advertising. "It's kind of morphed from being just a stream-hosting company to being a full-service platform that provides tools for them."
The company is morphing again with Stephenson's bankruptcy court acquisition of Live 365.
"They were one of the first internet radio streaming companies back in the '90s so at one point they were the largest internet radio company in the U.S.," Stephenson said. "They started before Pandora, before Spotify, before all of these other companies.
"Live 365 focuses on what we call microcasters, so very small radio stations," Stephenson explained over a cup of ice coffee during a recent visit home over the holidays. "There's no actual solution in the market right now for small webcasters to get online streaming, get the tools that they need and then also become compliant from a music licensing perspective."
The last part of the equation is what Stephenson is concentrating on in anticipation of Live 365's relaunch sometime next year.
"There's a lot of webcasters that are online and they're not paying royalties properly or they're doing geoblocking and stuff like that," he said.
While copyright and licensing laws control what happens in individual countries, the laws do not cross boundaries when people around the world are in contact at any time over the internet. Stephenson is trying to build a structure where he and/or his client webcasters don't get sued for international copyright infringement.
The effort is costly and keeping him working 12 to 16 hours a day, he said, but the payoff could be huge.
"We see a really big void in the market," he said. "Once we actually bring the solution to the market I see customers pouring in. There's over 80,000 independent online stations and Live 365 had about 5,000 of them when they went dark."
As hard as the problem is to solve, Stephenson has enjoyed the work.
"If I ever want to go back to school I probably would look at law and do copyright law," he said. "It's a very lucrative field and there are so many gray areas around that now."
Stephenson has no employees – he has 14 contractors who work 20 to 60 hours a week for him – and bills about $100,000 a month. Live 365 was bringing in about $5.5 million a year in revenue before it went dark.
"We definitely can get to that, if not more, within two years," Stephenson said.
Stephenson works out of his home in Pittsburgh.
"My office is my living room," he said. "I have a dedicated desk. I work there or in coffee shops. The nice thing is I can travel. It's really nice I can pick up my laptop and go, just work from wherever."
ADVICE FROM A YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR
Take the risk – young
“I would definitely say take the risk young. If you screw up, what’s the worst that’s gonna happen? If you wait too long, you’re always going to be like, ‘What if I would had done this?’ Taking the risk while you’re in high school, college is the best time because you don’t really have anyone you have to support other than yourself. If you did something wrong, the worst that’s gonna happen is you shut down and you have a cool experience. That’s a very cool interview experience you could have.”
Find a mentor
“Finding a mentor is something I wish I would have done a lot earlier. Just find somebody that’s very specific in your field. Most people, if you give them your story, are going to be more than willing to at least offer you some type of insights because they see you’re 18, 19, 20 years old. They’re happy to grab coffee at least once a month.”
Don’t sweat the details