Publishing a book and becoming a CEO before age 20

R.J. Tolson wrote the fantasy novel \'Zephyr: The West Wind\' while in high school. (Courtesy of R.J. Tolson)

Hoai-Tran Bui, special to wtop.com

ARLINGTON, Va. – Most college students spend their spring break vacationing in Florida or lounging at home while catching up with TV shows on Netflix. But 19- year-old R.J. Tolson spent much of his break being interviewed by local television stations and newspapers about the publication of his debut fantasy novel “Zephyr: The West Wind.”

Tolson, who grew up in Arlington, Va. and attends Whittier College in California, is an author and chief executive officer of his own company, RJTIO. He says he hopes to continue his streak of success with a debut music album “Human,” as well as continuing to publish sequels to “Zephyr.”

WTOP Living sat down with Tolson to talk about his aspirations and the obstacles presented by his youth.

You are a fairly young CEO. What made you decide to start your own company?

I just wanted to make more than my allowance in high school. I had like $15 allowance, and I wanted to have more than that on the weekends at boarding school. I didn’t want to ask my parents for money so I tried to find a way where it could be long-lasting, something that’s needed and that I could make revenue from.

Why didn’t you go for a part-time job? Why jump straight into founding a company?

I’m not really good at following people’s orders so I didn’t want to be under anybody. So I just wanted to be my own boss, and I think I work best that way.

So can you explain what your company does?

There’s one company called RJTIO, and this company has several divisions. Four divisions: one’s a charity called Forever Trust. The other is RL Infinity, which is an international tutoring and business consulting division. And then I just started a printing, or publishing, division in which we publish authors who otherwise wouldn’t be published. They contract us, and they’re under our name. And through that we help with the process of editing, as a normal publisher would do. And then we have the web design company, which was the original one.

You started this in high school, so how did you balance schoolwork and running a company?

I started in senior year of high school, so by that time I was lowering down my class load and getting ready for college. During school I was doing varsity soccer and varsity tennis, but other than that I had a lot of free time. And I just spent it writing, starting my business and getting clients. But then as I went into college, it got a lot harder to manage everything.

So let’s get into the real meat of this: your book. You recently published a book called “Zephyr: The West Winds.” It’s the first in a series of fantasy books. And you’ve said in previous interviews that you were inspired by “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings.” Were there any other classical fantasy authors that inspired you?

I guess if you’re going to go by classical, I’m more into urban fantasy. I was inspired more by urban. Newer books like “The Lightning Thief” by Riordan. “Pendragon” is probably my favorite series of all time by D.J. MacHale. Which is a great series. That’s probably the one that inspired me to write the most, more than “Harry Potter.” I wasn’t really into “Harry Potter” — it wasn’t that big when I was younger. I grew up with it though, so it became big for me. But I was inspired by “Pendragon” the most.

So does science fiction play into your books as well?

Metaphysics is my thing. So I like thinking about other worlds, concepts like that. Physics and science history. Science fiction, it’s interesting — I like fantasy more, and I write more fantasy, but I might be experimenting with science fiction soon.

Are there any other genres that you’re thinking of getting into?

I want to go out of the fantasy genre, but I’d like to stay in it at the same time. So what I’m doing is a fantasy-romance novel called “Blood Red Love,” which will be released hopefully in the next few months. It’s not like “Twilight” at all, but it’s the same genre as “Twilight.”

How do you plan on going into romance without making it too kitschy?

I stick to my fantasy elements, and I bring in romance that I think connects with readers a lot more than just the basic cheesy stuff, like “Oh I love you, you’re so amazing.” You know, it builds up. You have to connect your readers, so that’s what I’m trying to do first before I do all the cheesy stuff. It’s going to be a lot of fantasy and action, but it’s going to have that romance aspect.

As a teen author, do you think Christopher Paolini has paved the way for authors like you?

I think Christopher Paolini has let people know that people can do that at a young age. But I think there’s a lot of controversy on his work. He’s a great author, and I love “Eragon” and the series, but a lot of people, because he’s so young, they like to rip him apart. When someone’s young, you get judged for being young. People think you don’t know as much. Yes, we don’t have as much experience as someone who’s older, but that doesn’t mean we’re not knowledgeable.

They judge him a lot, and I get the same thing a lot as well. I think people are too focused on the fact that he’s young and that he did something really good for his age — he did something really good in general. I’ve gotten a lot of comments like that as well. I think he paved the way for letting people know that age doesn’t matter.

How did you handle the criticism that you faced for being so young?

It’s really hard, actually. But it’s like being bullied, in a way. You just have to be strong. You know, if you believe that you can do it, you’ll never give up. It’s about not giving up, honestly. Because even as an author, in business I get looked down upon until you show your stuff. Even then, some people are jealous. You just have to push to get what you want.

Do you hope for writing to be your main career at this point?

It would be great if it would be. It’s really hard to do that. At the moment, my goal is to be 50 percent doing my work and business, and 50 percent writing.

Do you think that the millennial generation has become more focused on entrepreneurship?

I think that’s a perception — it’s what we like to think about this generation, our generation. But once you become one of those people who are already doing that, you find there’s not many people doing it.

Do you see yourself as setting an example for others?

I like inspiring people to get up and try to do their dreams. And it seems like not a lot of people are doing that. They have obstacles in their way, and they don’t know how to get by it. But for me, I had obstacles as well, and I just thought really hard, and tried to be creative, and got around those obstacles or broke them down. So I think people need inspiration to do that kind of thing, otherwise they just never do it.

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