Life as a Student Techno-Entrepreneur

Passion for computer programming and innovation propels Luke Melia towards his dual goals: making a million and striking a balance.

By Leila Zwelling

The command: 10 print "Willie's a dork!" 20 go to 10

The output: "Willie's a dork!" "Willie's a dork!" "Willie's a dork!" "Willie's a dork!" "Willie's a dork!"

Seven-year-old Luke Melia and his younger brother, Willie, sat on their bedroom floor watching the message scroll infinitely down the old Atari 1800XL computer screen. It was 1983, and Luke had finally mastered his first computer program.

"It wasn't the most productive thing, but basically that was programming," says Melia. And using that computer to antagonize his younger brother was only the first step. A step toward a lucrative invention.

Now, from his office in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, Melia, 21, sits at his desk surrounded by six computers. He is working on something much more productive than those first computer commands. As CEO of Kaizensoft, the software company he created two years ago, Melia now spends about 70 hours a week improving the software he invented.

Luke Melia in his office in downtown Charlottesville

A student at the University of Virginia and successful entrepreneur, Melia strives for balance in his life. Although few other college students can claim to be financially independent, responsible for a business, and nearing a goal to increase net worth by $1 million a year, students nationwide are increasingly finding themselves on the cutting edge of technology. These students are achieving in business instead of in the classroom. But these achievements also bring a difficult set of questions: How much is given up when a student immerses himself in business during the college years? Does a typical liberal arts education become irrelevant? What does a student miss when he doesn't have time for socializing and outside interests? Is balance possible?

During his first year in college, Melia got a job through a family friend at Upline, a Charlottesville publishing company serving the network marketing industry. Four months into the job, Melia stepped up to managing editor of Upline's monthly journal. He was earning $25 an hour and working 30-hour work weeks doing computer layout and design.

Network marketing companies are based on a multi-level business model. For example, Mary Kay uses the network marketing model to sell cosmetics. Each Mary Kay distributor operates an independent business and enrolls several people below her to work as distributors. Each salesperson makes commissions on the sales of people enrolled below her.

While working at Upline back in 1995, Melia realized network marketers needed special software to keep track of the people below them. He met with a few interested Charlottesville businessmen and discussions began. "None of us had the money to invest in it then," Melia says. But after convincing a local programmer to join them for 25 per cent of future profits plus all the free coffee he could drink at The Java Hut (owned by another partner), Kaizensoft was born during the summer of 1995. Less than a year later in March 1996, Kaizensoft began operation with the release of Downline Builder 1.0.

Downline Builder, the first software of its kind made for Windows, has changed the way network marketers keep track of their organizations. Before, if network marketers wanted a visual picture of their sales organization, they had to hand draw graphs of organization hierarchy. Downline Builder provides distributors with a computerized visual tree-graph to monitor their downline. When a name is clicked on with the computer mouse, information
appears about the distributor: phone number, email, notes about the person from previous conversations. When taking inventory, the distributor can figure out who below him can become more successful, and in turn, increase his or her own commission. "It's so killer because it lets you think visually," Melia says, pride and passion shining through in his voice.

And other network marketers agree. "Downline Builder is going to transform the world of network marketing," Wayne Brown, a network marketer with over 50,000 distributors below him, said in a July 1997 Upline Magazine article.

Kaizensoft's five partners range in age from early 20's mid-50's, Melia being the youngest. But when company partners asked him to become CEO last year, Melia knew age difference was no longer an issue. He became the company's majority owner and spearheaded a reorganization, asking other partners to step down to silent partner status. Luke's four original partners no longer have decision-making power. The company now includes Melia, a programmer and a marketing and sales administrator.

"If you are not committed to a company, you are a drain on the company," Melia says, looking like a typical college student in his jeans and sweatshirt as he examines some papers on his desk. "A business needs parents, people who are with it no matter what." Undoubtedly, Melia is Kaizensoft's most nurturing parent. His complete dedication to the company has paid off: Downline Builder 97, the software's first major upgrade, is due for release this October. And company sales reached their highest point this past August.

The name Kaizensoft comes from Kai-zen, a Japanese philosophy meaning "continuous innovation and improvement." It's Melia's guiding concept for everything he does. "Naming the company Kaizen helps me make the right decisions," he says, his brown eyes lighting up as his usually relaxed manner becomes more animated. "I can't have a company that doesn't innovate. And that one single idea governs my life."

From an early age, Melia had a talent for combining business and technology. He started his first computer consulting business at age 14, and through word-of-mouth advertising began serving wealthy clients in New York's Park Avenue apartments. Throughout high school, he did computer work for Rising Tide, the natural foods store his mother owns near their Long Island home. He also took a job busing tables at Bubby's, a trendy suburban coffee shop, and ended up designing the restaurant's payroll program on Microsoft Excel. "I realized that every job I did was becoming a computer job," he says.

And computer jobs pay. Melia learned that money bought freedom. Freedom from his parents, freedom to buy the latest software, and at age 16, freedom to buy a used BMW. "I knew that no matter what happened, if I kept my technological skills honed, I'd be able to be independent." He graduated high school with "the basic building blocks in place." The rest--running a business, managing employees, and designing software--he's taught himself. And, he says, no university program in the world could have taught him that.

Melia got his business education via satellite from The People's Network (TPN), a network marketing company specializing in business and personal development. TPN is another of Melia's business ventures; he is currently an executive, and gains commissions from sales of the 180 distributors below him. In the backyard of the house he shares with seven other university students, a TPN satellite dish sits next to ragged, second-hand couches on the porch and empty beer cans along the sidewalk. From his home, the satellite dish allows Melia constant, up-to-date information about new TPN products and services.

Between business trips to network marketing conferences across the country and the long office hours in Charlottesville, Melia is left with little time for school. As a student in the University's prestigious Echols Scholar Program, Melia entered college with a desire to explore the wide range of liberal arts courses. During his first year he took some of everything--religion, literature, science, and even Women's Studies. But during his third year, balancing a full-time student's demands with more than 60-hour work weeks became too much. Melia attended morning classes, began work by early afternoon and continued straight through until 3 or 4 a.m., stopping only for meetings and quick meals. "I could either do endless reading and schoolwork or the endless amount of things to do at Kaizen," he says. "I was completely excited about Kaizen. School was interesting, but it came second."

This year, Melia continues his education, but as a part-time student. He is enthusiastic about his two University classes this semester, Karate and Lighting/Technology, but no longer has the time to take heavy reading courses like the ones he loved first year. He plans on taking one class per semester, including summers, to graduate by 1999. It's taken off some of the pressure, but he still works into the early morning hours. He tries to leave the next morning before anyone arrives at the office because "it's embarrassing."

Before becoming involved with Kaizensoft, Melia had a full extra-curricular life. He participated in theater, choir, student government, and sports. "I didn't expect the other interests to disappear so quickly. I miss a lot of it," he says. Melia still tries to find the time to meditate daily and follow a macrobiotic diet and lifestyle because "all the success and financial freedom in the world is worthless if you don't take care of your body." But, at times, Melia admits, balance is impossible. "I wanted more than anything to make the company succeed, and whatever needs to be done, there's no question: You do it. But it goes on forever."

By his third year at the University, Melia had no time to meet other college students, go to parties, or any other of the social activities most students take for granted. "I was failing school because I was working, but I was failing life and myself because I wasn't doing anything else," he says. "When I come home from work at 2 a.m. on Friday night and see people out partying, sometimes I feel I'm missing out. But would I really want to do what they are doing over what I am doing? No."

Early one Saturday morning, Melia lay passed out on an office couch after a long night's work. He woke up to a knocking on the window; an inebriated co-worker stood outside. The two made a breakfast run to Aunt Sarah's Pancake House. Melia watched, horrified, as his friend spilled orange juice everywhere and made lewd comments to the waitresses. "I left thinking, here he is drunk and addicted to alcohol, but here I am, passed out from work on a Saturday morning," he says. "Really, it's as much of a problem. It's so tough, though," he says with a sigh, briefly putting his head in his hands. "There is very little stigma against workaholics in our society. The question that always got me is, why stop? What do I care about more than this?"

But, looking at his "Goal's List," it is clear that Luke Melia cares about a lot of things. Goals are divided into three sections: This Year's Goals, By the Year 2000 Goals, Lifetime Goals. He balances sections of business goals with personal and relationship goals. Everything from improving powerful software for network marketers to continuing a "wonderful and passionate" relationship with his girlfriend of three years, and from making technology a positive force for mankind to having strong family relationships. He is close to his four younger siblings--especially Willie, now a sophmore at Towson State College, who is not into computers at all. Melia forms his business and relationship decisions on two basic faiths: People are basically good, and karma ensures that what goes around comes around.

By 1999, Melia plans on selling Kaizensoft. He says he doesn't know what industry he will explore next, but he will always, of course, continue to strive for business and technological invention. Maybe some work in the natural foods industry again, maybe a move to California, but those details will come later. "At some point in the past, you made an appointment to be where you are now, so you have to make the right choices for the future," he says. "Whatever happens in my life, it's my choice."

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