Jumping bikes over trash cans and curbs during the past decade, Jason A. Stephens has broken at least six $200 freestyle BMX bike frames -- costing his parents about $1,300 in replacement parts and repairs.
"I'd break them and drag them home, and my mother would look at my torn-up bike and say, 'Jason, the only thing holding that bike together is its soul,' " he recalled.
Tired of wasting money on weak bike frames, Jason, who graduated from Howard High School on June 1, told his parents he could build a better bike. Two years ago, he turned that boast into a business called Soul Bikes.
From an office in a single-car garage at his parents' Ellicott City home, he has sold about 180 stunt bikes locally, across the country and in Germany, England and Japan.
"I saw a need for a better, stronger bike for freestyle riders, and I filled it," Jason said. "It was an opportunity for making money. It's a great feeling to have a product out there that's doing so well. The money doesn't really concern me. The really good part is when people call you and say, 'I love the bike. I wouldn't change a thing.' "
Last month, his quick business success earned him $500 as Maryland's Top Youth Entrepreneur of the Year from the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development. Three other Howard County high school students were also among 28 youths honored by the state agency.
"The fact that Jason does all his own marketing and exporting of his products domestically and internationally was very impressive," said Cynthia Lynch, an executive assistant in the agency. "A lot of times, we see a company that a young person is running, but it is concentrated locally. Jason went a step further and has marketed his product.
"For someone who is 18 years old to do all their own marketing and to promote himself out of his own territory is incredible," she said.
Jason is the founder and chief executive officer of his company, initially financed with about $15,000 given to him by his parents, Beauty and Stanley Stephens.
With $12,000 of that money, he bought computer programs to organize his files on his Macintosh computer, began advertising and installed a toll-free telephone line for customers to reach him.
Jason used advice from friends, local riders and his own biking experiences to figure out which parts on a freestyle bike "broke the most and bent the most," he said. He then designed a frame and fork with stronger reinforcements, better handling and "trick capabilities."
Jason said he put a brake commonly found on mountain bikes on his freestyle bike to give riders a lighter frame that makes some stunts easier. To fit riders' needs, he adjusts the length of frames, the thickness of the frame's tubes and the position of the bike's forks.
Strong bike frame
With constant testing of what works and what doesn't, Jason claims, he has developed the strongest available frame for daredevil stunt riding.
"Freestyle riding is a lot of stress release," Jason said, pointing to his pencil-drawn designs pegged to his office walls. "Just the rush you get after you pull a trick that you've been practicing for hours and hours is amazing. I know how it feels to have a good bike to ride and do that."
His Soul Bikes are manufactured by Fabweld Inc. in Pompano Beach, Fla. The bikes are then shipped to Jason's home, where he checks them and then sends them to his five distributors.
At first business was "feast or famine," said Mrs. Stephens. Jason would get five to six orders a night from riders and then go a couple of weeks without any calls. But using an Indiana mail-order distributor and a broader advertising scheme has helped increase sales.
Jason plans to major in mechanical engineering and international business this fall at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va. His mother will take over his business' daily tasks, but he plans to return home on the weekends to apply his classroom learning to new bike design.
"He knows he has his priorities straight," said David Glenn, Jason's guidance counselor, track and football coach. "Whenever he's got homework to do, he doesn't hesitate to say, 'Hey coach, I can't make practice today because I've got studies to do.'
"You can't argue with a kid who puts his grades first," he said. "He's the kind of kid who would come out and run extra laps at night to catch up on what he missed. I could see how his company is doing bigger and better things because of that determination and dedication."
'Look out Fortune 500'
Jason said his business has broken even so far. But he anticipates that in a year, money won't be a problem. In five years, he plans to have expanded his product line beyond stunt bikes to include at least two additional types of freestyle bikes, flat land and ramp riding.
By 2006, he warns, "look out Fortune 500."
Other Howard County winners of the state youth entrepreneur awards were:
* Kristen G. Fraser, 17, of Hammond High School in Laurel won $250 for winning second place for her book, "Cruising the Chesapeake with Children," which her company, Thistle Publications, published. The book is a "cruising guide for family friendly marinas, beaches and attractions," such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore along the Chesapeake, she said.
* Zena Maggitti, a 19-year-old senior at Glenelg High School, was honored for her bakery/cake decorating business that she has run out of her Woodbine home for a year. Friends and family were looking for a cake baker, so Ms. Maggitti decided to go into the business. A recent graduate of the Howard County School of Technology, she plans to further her culinary training at Johnson Wales in Charleston, S.C.
* Susan Fuller, 18, was honored for running Project PROMise, a prom consignment shop that sells "once-worn" prom dresses at low prices. The group operates biannually out of donated space in the Columbia area. Last year, Ms. Fuller, a recent Centennial High School graduate, helped the group donate $1,100 to Grass Roots Inc. and the Howard County Domestic Violence Center.