Senior Reporter

If L.A.'s twentysomethings seem like a promising lot, consider what happens when they turn 30.

That's the age, or thereabouts, when many enterprising young people have garnered enough experience, contacts and business know-how to make their ambitions come alive.

"So much attention is paid to the ones who start young, but the majority of young entrepreneurs don't get started right away they wait to amass some money, some street smarts," said Kathleen Allen, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at USC, who has taught hundreds of ambitious youngsters over the past eight years. "Then they're ready to go ahead and start ventures of their own."

In fact, said Allen, more than two-thirds of her students opt to work for someone else after graduating. That way, they can examine an industry or two from the inside out, before deciding where to carve their own niche.

That's what Randall Kaplan did. At the age of 30, he already has a resume that would elicit envy among those many years his senior.

A graduate of Northwestern Law School, Kaplan worked for the heavy-hitting corporate firms Riordan & McKinzie and McDermott, Will & Emery before souring on the law. He landed a job as personal assistant to Eli Broad, the billionaire chairman of financial services giant SunAmerica Inc., and from there wound up, at age 27, as the youngest managing director in the firm's history, with responsibility for mergers and acquisitions and strategic planning.

Now, Kaplan heads the L.A. office of Akamai Technologies Inc., a 6-month-old Cambridge, Mass.-based start-up that develops technology to make Web sites work more efficiently.

Thanks to his legal background, Kaplan has been able to draft contracts and negotiate licensing agreements. His experience with SunAmerica has opened the doors of venture capitalists and angel investors who otherwise would have remained shut.

"I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but felt I needed the corporate experience to get the knowledge base and contacts," Kaplan said. "You develop the instincts that are critical to making the right decisions."

Laurie McCartney, the 31-year-old president and chief executive of eStyle Inc., an online retailer targeted at women, has taken a similar approach. Before launching her venture in November, McCartney attended Harvard Business School, served as vice president of strategic planning at Simon & Schuster and was a member of Morgan Stanley's mergers-and-acquisitions department. Most recently, she worked in the strategic planning department at Walt Disney Co.

McCartney's wide-ranging experience and elaborate set of contacts has been a big help in obtaining investment capital and attracting a top-notch team of executives.

"The contacts are critical," she said. "I want to build a long-term, sustainable big business. If I was trying to build a small business, it would have been a different exercise."

Other high-flying thirtysomethings around Los Angeles include Toby Lenk, founder of eToys; David Bohnett of GeoCities; Jeff Shell, executive vice president and CFO at Fox/Liberty Networks; and Joseph Tang, president and chief technology officer at Guidance Solutions.

Jon Weisner, 25, is heeding their example. The recent USC graduate has seen a number of his classmates launch their own ventures. But Weisner is opting to watch and wait for awhile. At the moment, he's working as an independent computer consultant and has amassed a range of high-profile clients, including USC, Universal Studios Inc. and director Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, which documents the stories of Holocaust survivors.

"I am further down the road than I would have been if I had done my own thing in terms of the people that I know, the environments that I am welcome in, and the projects I have been involved in," Weisner said. "I am right there, sitting at the table while all these deals are being done. That is an incredible opportunity."

Weisner figures that in a couple of years he'll be poised to launch a venture of his own. "By the time I am in my 30s," he predicts, "I will have a smooth-running, profitable business."

Waiting a few years is not a bad idea. Tony Hung, vice president of DynaFund Ventures, a Torrance-based venture capital firm, said he is constantly reviewing business proposals sent by ambitious twentysomethings. And for the most part, they lack the vision or maturity he needs to see before putting his money on the line.

"The majority of the ones I see probably are not realistic," said Hung (who, it's worth adding, is all of 31 himself). "Most if not all of them could use someone with a little more seasoning to run the company."

Youth can be both an entrepreneur's greatest asset and deepest flaw, said Robert Bellano, managing director of C4 Partners/ITP, a Santa Monica executive search firm that focuses on the high-tech sector and has scores of clients below the age of 30.

"In this newer terrain, where you're redefining a business model, lack of experience actually might be beneficial, as long as you are bright, smart and nimble," Bellano said.

But some young entrepreneurs "get blindsided because of lack of experience, and emotionally they don't recover," he added. "Whether they can rebound from failure that's the unknown."

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