Game Boy

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

IN THE FALL OF 2007, Seth Priebatsch headed off to Princeton and, a few weeks after arriving on campus, learned about the school’s annual business-plan contest. Before Priebatsch even entered, he likes to boast, he knew he would win it.

There was good reason for his optimism. Priebatsch was 12 years old when he started his first company, Giftopedia.com, a price-comparison website that helped users locate good deals. (He found the site’s programmers while on a family vacation to India.) At least twice while at school, he had to run out of class to deal with server outages. “I explained to my teachers calmly that I really had to leave and take care of this,” he recalls. Priebatsch sold off most of the company when he was 15, and the Web address when he was 17. Then, as a high school senior, he launched his second startup, PostcardTech. This one created and distributed promotional CDs for universities and tourist destinations. He rented out a factory in China — which is “way easier than it sounds,” he says. “Do a bit of research, get the right numbers, fire up Skype, dial.” (He still owns PostcardTech, though he has no involvement in running it.)

For the Princeton competition, he decided on a proposal for a company that would use text messages to lead mobile-phone-based scavenger hunts. After hashing out the idea with a professor, Priebatsch drew up his plan. And, as he’d predicted, he won. When the $5,000 prize came in the form of a giant poster check, Priebatsch ran to the nearest Bank of America and made a big scene of trying to jam the check into an ATM. It was a grand time, he says, until “they called the police and we had to leave.”

Three years later, Priebatsch’s freshman-year business plan has blossomed into arguably the most-talked-about young tech company in the country, the Cambridge-based SCVNGR. These days, Priebatsch, who is 22, is as well known for his engineering wizardry as his, um, youthful energy. He rides a scooter around his office. He unloads Nerf guns on his unsuspecting employees. He always wears orange sunglasses and, like a cartoon character, dresses himself in the same outfit every day: an orange shirt (an ode to Princeton, and without a doubt a branding ploy as well).

He is often barefoot, too. He greets friends barefoot. He greets journalists barefoot. He even greets clients barefoot. That’s the type of thing you get to do when you drop out of one of the best schools in the country after just one year to start a company that quickly scores VC funding from high-roller investors like Highland Capital Partners and Google, and today is estimated to be valued at $100 million. You also get to call yourself “Chief Ninja” instead of CEO. And you apparently get to use vowels only when you want: SCVNGR is pronounced “Scavenger.” Finally, you get to deliver one of the keynote addresses at the 2011 South by Southwest tech conference — the same keynote given three years earlier by another Ivy League dropout, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Priebatsch’s company produces smartphone apps designed to draw people to businesses and then build consumer loyalty. Basically, the SCVNGR app is meant to engage users in games and challenges — at, say, a local bar — that earn customers discounts and freebies. The idea is that app users will eventually become regulars at the bar.