At age 20, Clarkson entrepreneur buys commercial building in Watertown

Matthew S. Turcotte, 20, purchased the building at rear at 22740 Murrock Circle, which houses offices and storage space. He founded North Shore Solutions, a website development company, at age 16. Photo by Justin Sorensen/Watertown Daily Times.

This 20-year-old’s mind burns like a furnace with new ideas.

Buying an office building in the town of Watertown is the latest accomplishment in the business career of Matthew S. Turcotte, a junior at Clarkson University in Potsdam. The precocious entrepreneur — who launched his website development company, North Shore Solutions, at age 16 — closed on the building at 22740 Murrock Circle in January after earning a six-figure salary in 2012. Along with adding a second office in Watertown, Mr. Turcotte is now the landlord responsible for four tenants at the commercial building, which includes 65 storage units.

Mr. Turcotte began brainstorming about buying commercial real estate last summer. He hatched his business after meeting with a Clarkson University alumnus, Elmer Banks, who during his career as an entrepreneur launched a chain of banks in Lehigh Valley, Pa. Now older than 80, Mr. Banks drove from his summer house at Blue Mountain Lake in the Adirondack Mountains to meet with Mr. Turcotte in Potsdam for lunch at his office at the Clarkson campus, located at an incubator space in Peyton Hall. After they finished brainstorming, Mr. Turcotte left the meeting with a feeling of self-belief, setting in motion a plan to buy the Watertown building.

“I had never had a credit score or borrowed money before, and I told him, ‘I don’t know if I have the resources to do it.’ He said, ‘I think you can totally do it.’ To meet with someone in the finance industry that said I could do it, that was a light bulb moment,” he said. “I then found this piece of property in Murrock Circle, met with a Realtor to take a look at it. It took about five months or so for the closing.”

“Learning by doing” is a message preached often by faculty at Clarkson University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, said Mr. Turcotte, who is majoring in innovation and entrepreneurship. The university recruited him when he was a 16-year-old student at Thousand Islands Central School, after he launched North Shore Solutions. Clarkson President Anthony G. Collins made an unprecedented business offer to lure the young entrepreneur: In exchange for a 10 percent equity stake in North Shore Solutions, he received a full-ride scholarship, alumni mentors and office space for his business.

The university established a Young Entrepreneur Award for incoming freshmen and gave the first award to Mr. Turcotte in 2010. Incoming students who submit business plans can apply to receive discounted tuition under the Clarkson program, which in turn receives an equity stake in their businesses.

“To try this out, Matt was the ideal candidate. You don’t have to spend much time with him to recognize he has a set of characteristics that will lead to business success,” Mr. Collins said. “I understood that Clarkson could add a lot of value to his life as a person, and there was a point when I said: ‘Matt, I really believe you should come to Clarkson.’ He responded, ‘Make me a deal.’”

It turned out to be a deal, Mr. Collins said, that’s drastically changed the Clarkson’s model for higher education. Rather than targeting entrepreneurs later in life to enroll in its programs, Clarkson’s program gives students the resources and mentors needed to become successful when they are young. Alumni with successful business careers are paired with students as mentors for the entrepreneur program, offering them advice as they build their businesses from the ground up.

“It’s not just our faculty that can talk about how to develop and grow, but you have someone in the class who’s doing it,” he said. “We can have a traditional classroom experience, but in addition we can be a for-profit university that is involved in business development, so students can be involved in growing business enterprises. When they’re successful, we can use that equity share to subsidize our nonprofit enterprise, a way of proving another (revenue) stream that contains the cost of higher education, has economic development benefits to our region and adds the greatest value because people are learning on the job.”

Justin A. Taylor, who became the Clayton town supervisor in 2007, hired Mr. Turcotte to develop the town’s website. It was the first time working on a project with a local government for the young entrepreneur, whose company now works with 40 municipalities statewide along with small businesses and nonprofits. North Shore Solutions offers an array of services, including website and logo design, electronic commerce options and online hosting services.

Mr. Taylor said he spotted the young man’s knack for technology when he was a teenager volunteering in the sound room at First Baptist Church in Clayton.

“I ran the sound and he ran the video, and was doing the pastor’s text on the screen,” he said. “The pastor would read the text, and in between slides Matt was busy on the computer. It was evident he could do a lot, and I later asked him to do the town’s website. He continues to work for us, and other municipalities across the state and country as business and governments now have a desire to make more information available” on the web.

The university’s free-thinking model of going to college as an avenue to start a business fits Mr. Turcotte like a glove. He spends his days sharing ideas with students and business owners, incorporating ideas he’s learned in class to make his business more efficient and working with clients on projects “over the cloud.” He doesn’t have much time on weekends for party-going. In May, he’ll take a trip to Italy with a group of 20 students to tour businesses.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, someone trying to start a business from a dorm room would be highly frowned upon by a university. But now that you’ve had (success stories like) Mark Zuckerman with Facebook, students have ideas and universities are supporting them. I can learn things here in the classroom and apply them right away to find out what does work, what doesn’t. It’s exciting to connect the dots.”

Asked where the future will steer him in the next five years, the young entrepreneur answered he plans to find more opportunities to buy commercial real estate on one hand and grow North Shore Solutions on the other.

“What I found out about myself is I’m more an entrepreneur than a technical person,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in technology, but it’s the entrepreneurial spirit that really drives me. I used to think, ‘I’m going to start this business, and that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’ But now I’ve had this experience buying a building and learned so much, and I’ve come to really like this real estate and financing side of things. You look around and see what opportunities come up, and if you see one you pursue it.”

-Ted Booker, Watertown Daily Times staff writer