By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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Geoff McFarlane and Mark Lynn are hung over. They were boozing last night at a charity event, and now they're paying for it at lunch with a "hangover triangle" of water, OJ and coffee. But despite their ages -- McFarlane is 22, Lynn is 21 -- they're not just a couple of college guys on a bender. No, they're the new owners of Flow Lounge and Nova restaurant in the Luna Hotel, self-proclaimed "paper millionaires" who own six different Denver-based companies -- and they're college dropouts.
The two met at Cherry Creek High School and became inseparable during their junior year when Lynn set fire to his father's house. Lynn swears he's a pyromaniac and was simply playing with matches in his father's bedroom, but McFarlane remembers the fire starting because Lynn was "taking a shit and trying to get rid of the smell."
Either way, the forgotten matches started a smoldering fire, and within an hour the room was in flames and the fire brigade was kicking out windows and flooding the second floor with water. Lynn and his father watched from the street. When Lynn fessed up to causing the $40,000 in damages, his father (with whom he'd immigrated from Ireland at age twelve) took it all in stride. "We haven't seen much action since we left Belfast, anyway," Lynn remembers him saying. The next day, Lynn began a six-week-long sleepover at the McFarlane home while his dad holed up at a local hotel.
Lynn and McFarlane soon discovered Napster and started their first business: deejaying weddings and parties with eighty gigs of pirated music. That made the summer after their senior year a lucrative one: Graduation parties filled the weekends, and personal checks filled their bank accounts. Flush with cash, McFarlane left in August 2001 for college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and Lynn took off for a six-month romp around Asia. After just one semester, McFarlane packed up and followed a girl to Syracuse University.
"I should never have gone to college for academic scholarship," McFarlane says.
"With all those Texas blondes, we all thought he'd be there for years," Lynn counters, as if part of a well-practiced routine.
But when McFarlane's father, Colorado business mogul Will McFarlane, landed in the hospital in 2002, suffering complications from a lung transplant aimed to cure pulmonary fibrosis, Geoff packed his things and returned to Denver. Within months, he and Lynn had pooled their savings from the DJ venture and bought their first property at 1944 West 36th Avenue, which they fixed and flipped. That September, McFarlane enrolled at the University of Denver, and the two began building a duplex at 1940-1942 West 36th Avenue. McFarlane was nineteen, Lynn eighteen.
"The opportunity to start a business compared to going back to Syracuse...I wasn't doing anything there to get a jump start on everyone else, which is what I always imagined myself doing," McFarlane says. "I didn't want to look for a job when I graduated college; that was never my dream."
"Yeah, and I'm unemployable," quips Lynn, who tried a semester at Metropolitan State College of Denver before giving up on school. "I didn't have much scholastic aptitude," he adds. "There were always the kids saying ŒYou're never going to go anywhere if you don't go to college,' and I was just like, ŒThat's bullshit.' They wouldn't let me into DECA [the marketing, management and entrepreneurship club] in high school, and then they asked me to come and speak for DECA two and a half years later. It was awesome."
McFarlane also gave up on school, dropping out of DU to focus on the businesses, which had grown to include a real-estate brokerage and 50 percent ownership of PlayCoed.com, a local sports and social club started by co-owner Mike Downey. The three organize everything from dodgeball leagues to beer olympics for their 8,500 members in the Denver metro area, and by January, they intend to expand to Orange County in California.
But conquering the corporate world at nineteen is a bitch -- especially without financial help from McFarlane's father, who owned the Denver Buffalo Company. Instead, they racked up their credit cards, worked graveyard shifts at restaurants to keep debtors at bay and had a two-month-long job at Neiman Marcus to fill their closets with designer suits, thanks to a sweet employee discount. They also looked to one of their heroes for inspiration: Richard Branson, founder and CEO of the U.K.-based Virgin empire.
"There's fucking Virgin everything," says Lynn, who read Branson's biography at age fifteen. "When we realized we were expanding, we knew we needed a generic name, something that could transcend industry -- something that represented our ideas, our vision, our philosophy."
And thus was born Jet Companies, which now employs more than a hundred people and acts as the holding company for all of the pair's other businesses. Lynn and McFarlane own 75 percent of the company, with friend and DU graduate Eric Wyancko owning 20 percent. Wyancko is also the CEO of Jet Urban Development, which has completed four projects in the Denver area. The trio's next big housing plan is modular units that can be designed online, built in a factory and dumped onto a pre-determined plot of land. The concept is at least a year from fruition, Lynn says, although the duplex they built at 1940-1942 West 36th Avenue was a factory-built modular. Brokerages Jet Financial and Jet Real Estate are also in the works, as is Jet Partners, a venture-capital firm, and the Himalayan Children's Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit that Lynn started to help Nepalese children go to school and find housing.
"Our goal is to cover a lot of different industries and have a lot of different successful companies," McFarlane says.
But their biggest endeavor to date was purchasing Flow Lounge and Nova in October. Lynn and McFarlane originally wanted to buy and gut the entire Luna Hotel to build condos, but owner John Hamilton wasn't interested. Instead he sold them the bar and restaurant, despite six letters of intent from other hungry entrepreneurs, because he thought they were the right guys to turn the place around. Early next year, McFarlane and Lynn plan to rename and redecorate Flow, remodel the cafe space to become a late-night Asian noodle bar with cafeteria-style seating, and revamp the basement to make it "the most exclusive, elegant nightlife experience in LoDo." However, their plan to "revolutionize" Denver's nightlife is on hold until they finish transferring the bar's liquor license to their names.
"It's not just to own a bar with a $25,000-a-month payout," McFarlane says. "We want to start a concept that, if it works, we can take it nationwide and make it huge -- compete on a larger scale, franchise it and create a corporation out of it."
After lunch, as they head back to their office at 1575 Boulder Street, they spy a young girl hula-hooping on 15th Street. They honk and holler like a couple of college boys cruising for hot girls.
All in a day's work.