TIM DUNTON is proof that teenagers with Internet accounts can produce more than hard disks full of porn. At the tender age of 16, Tim is the director of Global Gold Internet Services, the company he started on his 15th birth- day. His folder of press clippings introduces him as a "teenage Richard Branson" and "the next Bill Gates". From his bed- room in Hertfordshire, the teenager has made nearly pound;45,000 designing Web sites for clients including DIY firm Polycell and film manufacturer Cintel.
He already employs 10 people, and regularly attends business meetings with customers in London. Clued up with IT skills and increasingly net savvy, the sixth former is among a new generation of whiz-kids British companies are relying on to help them on to the Internet.
Tim's bedroom doubles as company headquarters, and a powerful Apple Mac rests proudly on the desk. His love of Apple computers is evident - the room is plastered with its logo as though the firm were a football team, and a PVC banner advertising the Macintosh spans most of a wall. At school, Tim would rather use his hand-held Apple Newton computer than write on paper.
Global Gold has been operating for nearly two years and in that time business has rocketed with more and more companies desperate to get online. His exploits have earned him appearances on Channel 5's The Mag and Vanessa Feltz's ITV daytime show.
The BBC has asked him to appear on their whiz-kid chat show Bright Sparks.
He is sitting at his desk ironing out a problem with his new server in Washington DC when I ask him how it all started. "Myself and a friend, Chris Alexander, did a site for my dad's university department. We got paid pound;200 and thought there must be something in it."
Does he find firms reluctant to take him seriously because of his age? 'If they ask I admit I'm still at school but I think they expect young people to be clued up with the Internet." He pocketed pound;2,000 from his contract with Polycell who got in much after reading about him in a newspaper.
Self-taught, he picked up most aspects of business, programming and law as he went along. Including web page design, recent additions to the Global Gold empire include Submit.net, a search tool for finding information, Interlink UK, an advertising exchange scheme, and Always Apple, a fanzine resource for users of Apple computers.
Tim took 11 GCSEs and passed "more than enough to get into sixth form" where he is studying business and economics, geography and design technology. He doesn't rate schools' ICT, and attributes none of his success to his education. "At school you're taught basic things like word processing and drawing pack- ages". He points out that his school, Simon Balle in Hertford, has just begun to train staff on the basics of the web.
The Net search directory Yahoo lists 4,837 Web design agencies, and to set up one requires nothing more than a basic knowledge of HTML (HyperText Mup language).
"It's easy to get started and say, 'Yeah, I'm a web designer', but it's keeping things going and planning ahead that's difficult," Tim explains.
However, David Crane, director of NooMedia, a leading web consultant, refuses to view companies such as Tim's as serious competition. "At the moment there's a gold rush of people picking up a it of HTML and then calling themselves experts. The web is a difficult medium. To use it for publishing you need to understand the way people use the Internet and what techniques work well."
Does NooMedia find itself losing business to amateur set-ups? "We had one large client who in the end decided to let his 13-year-old nephew build the site. You can't pretend to understand the requirements of a company if you're not in business yourself," he insists.
Tim is holding British Airways to ransom over his ownership of the British- Airways.co.uk Internet address which he has registered hoping to "warehouse"
and sell on at a profit. Unless sued, he stands to make a killing selling the domain back, as he did earlier last year with linkexchange.co.uk when an American firm paid him $7,500 (pound;4,687) for their name. "They started to make angry noises, threatening legal action, but after talking to a lawyer I found there was really nothing they could do, so they agreed to buy it.
I ask what is next for Tim. "I haven't decided if I want to go to university or if I'll carry on with Global Gold. I think I could make a living out of the web if I wanted to but I'll wait and see if things carry on the way they are".
Tim insists he is not a nerd. "I'm absolutely not a geek. I go out and have fun and do normal teenage things." In contrast with such' a tale of decadent success, Tim's spending achievements are rather more disappointing and apologetic. "I just put my money in the bank," he confesses.
Global Gold - www.gold.uk.com
Ian Harris is a 16-year-old student at Hawkley Hall High School, Wigan