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Is this 15-year-old Australian the next Mark Zuckerberg?


Dallas Kilponen

Teenage whiz kid Ben Pasternak at his school, Reddam House in Sydney. His Impossible Rush game is proving a hit.

Ben Pasternak was so bored one day during science class he decided to design an iPhone game.

Careful to not let his teacher see what he was doing on his laptop, he enlisted the help of his whiz-coder friend Austin Valleskey,15, who lives in Chicago, to build a game app in a matter of hours.

Much to the boys’ surprise, Impossible Rush has become a big hit on the App Store both in Australia and overseas.

It peaked at number 7 in Sweden, 16 in the US and 18 in Australia, above apps such as  Vine, Google, Gmail and Twitter, and has clocked up 300,000 downloads in the six weeks since it launched.

Like other popular games such as Flappy Bird or TetrisImpossible Rush is a minimalist affair: the player simply taps a wheel to match colours against balls which fall faster and faster.

For Ben, a year nine student at Reddam House’s Woollahra campus in eastern Sydney, the game’s success is vindication that his dream of becoming the next big tech entrepreneur is achievable.

“Everyone I tell has the attitude that there are a million-plus apps out there, [they say] ‘what are the chances of your app working out? You’re just a 15-year-old kid’,” Ben told Fairfax Media.

“But now Impossible Rush is out I’ve proven to myself – and everyone – that it’s going to work out.”

The boys weren’t even planning to release the app, but Austin told Fairfax Media that another friend, Carlos Fajardo from New York City, gave them $US200 (NZ$256) to take it off their hands and invest in marketing it – to great success. Fajardo is listed as the app developer on the App Store, while the boys are listed as creators.

Ben said Fajardo made A$1500 (NZ$1680) from paid advertisements within the game in one day, but says he isn’t bothered that he hasn’t seen any of the money himself. His mother, Anna, said the boys did the app as an adventure and from Ben’s perspective it wasn’t about money on this occasion.

His greater goal is to create the number one app in the world. After that he wants to start something, not just toil for a big tech company like Apple or Google where some of his newly made contacts work.

Since February, he has been working on another app called One, to be launched by year’s end. It puts a person’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds all in one place.

Anna said she and husband Mark had invested “thousands” of dollars into the project, although she described it as “relatively inexpensive”.

Pasternak said her son’s passion for technology began around the age of eight, when he became “obsessed” with Club Penguin, a social gaming site now owned by Disney. He soon turned his attention to Apple products.

“He’s a devotee – he used to queue up all night to get the latest product,” she said.

At 14, Ben was the first customer in the world to buy the iPad Air, filming the event with the help of a friend to post on his own YouTube channel, where he reviews Apple products.

He quickly established himself as a social media darling, and now has more than 200,000 followers on Instagram, and more than 40,000 on Facebook.

But it was a family trip to Apple’s corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, in January that spurred Ben beyond the world of selfies and into something far more ambitious.

While he wasn’t allowed to tour the building, just visiting the on-campus Apple store was enough to inspire Ben to start making his own apps.

Pasternak said Ben’s father Mark gave him the idea for One, but the work has been all his.

“I don’t think Mark expected him to just take off with it like that,” she said. “He hasn’t dropped the ball since.”

While Pasternak described her son as “busy” and “obsessive”, she likened it to having a child prodigy in the house, such as a gifted musician.

“He’s channelling it in such a creative and beautiful way,” she said. “It could be just gaming – so many kids his age just sit at home and play games, but he’s not interested in that. He’s interested in creating new technology.”

The tech obsession isn’t genetic. Pasternak is a trained psychologist. Mark, however, is an architect – which might explain Ben’s love for design.

Ben’s parents are insisting he finishes school, and they want him to get a degree. His mum is suggesting a gap year to test-drive his entrepreneurial ambitions first.

“We won’t count our apps before they hatch,” she said.

Reddam House principal Dave Pitcairn said Ben had proven his detractors wrong with the success of Impossible Rush, and had “absolutely no doubt” the teenager was headed for great things.

“He’s awfully intelligent,” Pitcairn said.

Pitcairn said Ben was “very popular” and “charming” at school, and that his people skills were “going to be phenomenal” out in the professional world.

“He’s got that twinkle in his eye and a naughtiness about him that is both endearing and frustrating,” Pitcairn said.

That much is plain: Pasternak said she thought her son was out at the beach with friends during this week’s Labour Day holiday – in fact, he was busy spruiking his successes to Fairfax Media.

“From our side [Reddam House], we wish him all the best and we’ll support him through this,” Pitcairn said. “But he must make sure his school work is also up to speed!”

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