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 powdered-glass 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 self-starting 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: self-driven 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.