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Lab School whiz-kids tap into parents’ skills for Web start-up

While most seventh-graders spent their week-long spring break playing computer games, University of Chicago Laboratory School seventh-graders Sam Kaplan and Louie Harboe used that time to design their own iPhone program.

While most seventh-graders spent their week-long spring breaks playing computer games, University of Chicago Laboratory School seventh-graders Sam Kaplan and Louie Harboe used that time to design their own computer program.

Their company, Tapware, rolled out one “totally customizable” iPhone application, The MathMaster, which presents kids with a series of basic math problems to solve, according to Harboe. Features include options for different mathematical operations, settings for difficulty levels, and summary statistics.

Kaplan, the son of Booth School professor of entrepreneurship and finance Steven Kaplan, may have picked up some business skills from his father, but his programming abilities are his own.

“He’s been beyond me in computers since the second grade,” Steven said, referring to when the then-second-grader set up their house’s wireless after efforts by the Internet providers themselves failed.

Harboe’s design credentials are no less impressive; his website, graphicpeel.com, which offers free downloadable icons, recently garnered him a job offer from a company “whose name you would recognize,” Steven said. Harboe, the son of two architects, is most interested in design—Harboe designed the MathMaster’s background image.

Kaplan—who taught himself the programming language PHP in the fourth grade and took AP Computer Science not too long after—is the app’s programmer, although he said, “I think I’ll end up in the future more as a business person than a programmer.”

That wouldn’t surprise his father at all. “He’s got good business intuition,” Steven said. “He’s a very good negotiator; you wouldn’t want to negotiate with him.”

Parental influences aside, the company’s “mainly just us,” said Harboe, whose parents provided the seed money that allowed the two boys to form the company, but then took a hands-off approach.

Harboe and Kaplan have plans for Tapware’s eventual expansion and hope to merge the company with their other current Internet interest, their Web site sipthatdrink.com. The site allows Internet surfers to vote on a different drink each week; this week, visitors can choose to “sip” or “trash” a Starbucks iced coffee.

“We want to make an application so you can do it on the go,” Harboe said. In the future, all such applications will be available to download on gettapware.com.

The two junior businessmen are also taking pointers from some of their customers—their peers at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. “They’ve suggested to us to make [the application] a game,” Kaplan said, “so we’re looking into that.”

Although feedback from fellow middle-schoolers has been mostly positive, Harboe admits, “I think, on the inside, kids are a little jealous.”

Such jealousy may have increased slightly this past week, when a Chicago Sun-Times article resulted in a quick succession of appearances on local news and radio programs. The attention proved good for business—sales spiked the following day at approximately 23 purchases, an almost eightfold increase from the three per day the company averaged before.

“Who knows?” Kaplan said of the company’s auspicious beginning. “Tapware could turn into a multi-million–dollar corporation.”

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