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Press > Teen Entrepreneurs Cash in on Their Skills

15 Aug 1999

Palatine Landscaping Company - Arlington Heights Landscaping - Buffalo Grove Landscaping
 David Swanson
 President - DLS Landscaping Inc.

Having outgrown their lemonade stands, a number of Chicago-area teenagers are busy running home-based businesses this summer. While their peers are baby-sitting, caddying or flipping hamburgers, these teens are earning money in self-created ventures that include a back-yard basketball camp, a full-scale landscaping service and corporate Web site design businesses.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 7 million 16-to 19-year-olds are employed full or part time, with 87,000 listed as self-employed. This latter figure encompasses a rarefied group of teen entrepreneurs.

Brendan O’Connell, now 17, was shooting hoops in the back yard of his River Forest home in 1994 when his mother drove in and said, “You’re so good at basketball, you ought to teach it.” Brendan followed up on her suggestion and gave it a shot.

That first summer, he and his older brother Sean, now 19 and a sophomore at Illinois Wesleyan University, ran a two-week basketball camp in their back yard for 15 neighborhood grade-schoolers. Now in its fifth year, the camp boasts approximately 70 participants from kindergarten to 7th grade, operates two separate two-week sessions (two hours a day, five days a week) and includes on its staff the youngest O’Connell brother, Paddy, 15, a sophomore at Oak Park-River Forest High School.

The camp has also expanded physically, with older boys and girls drilling at a rented park facility court and younger campers at the O’Connells’ back-yard hoop.

“Young kids are the heart and soul of the camp,” says Brendan, a 1999 graduate of Oak Park-River Forest High School who will attend Carleton College this fall. “They’re the most fun. Basketball isn’t as important to the camp as teaching things like sportsmanship, but one of the most rewarding things is to see a kid make his or her first point.”

O’Connell begins organizing the summer camp as early as March.  “There’s a lot of preparation, expenses to figure and other details,” he says. “What I like best is not having a boss. With your own business, you’re able to innovate, do things your own way.”

For the past two summers, the camp has boasted a full enrollment.  “When Brendan donated a camp session to our grade school raffle this spring, people really bid it up because so many parents want their kids in the camp,” says River Forest resident Colleen Horrigan, whose two sons have attended the camp since its first year. “The kids learn excellent basketball mechanics and have fun competing, but they also grow up seeing older boys being nice to younger kids, and it rubs off.”

The O’Connell brothers charge $65 for a two-week session and $100 for four weeks. After covering expenses such as insurance, T-shirts, fliers and prizes, the brothers have earned more than $2,500 each year for the past two summers, money that goes to their college tuition funds.

Eighteen-year-old Dave Swanson’s landscape service also started small and has grown as steadily as grass in springtime. As a 6th grader, he was the typical neighborhood kid with the family’s power mower, earning spending money by mowing a handful of lawns. Today the 1999 graduate of Fremd High School in Palatine provides lawn maintenance for 91 houses a week.

Swanson, who will be a freshman at Illinois State University this fall, now has four employees, a fleet of two trucks and two trailers detailed with his company logo, his own phone line, two cell phones and two two-way radios as well as equipment such as aerators, thatchers and rototillers filling half the family garage.

Like many budding entrepreneurs, Swanson kept thinking of ways to expand. By 7th grade he was mowing 12 yards, and in 8th grade he used his earnings to purchase a commercial lawn mower. “I figured I could cut my time in half with the big mower, and that’s how it worked out:

I had 25 clients that summer but spent the same amount of time as the year before,” Swanson explains. The young entrepreneur currently averages $25 per client per week.

“After I pay expenses, I pay myself a salary, and the rest of the money goes back into my company to pay for equipment,” Swanson says.  “I make significantly more than a summer job would pay.”

While broadening DLS Landscaping Inc. to include seeding, plant removal, mulching and other landscaping tasks, Swanson was an award-winning participant in Junior Achievement Inc., a non-profit organization that offers classes in business and free enterprise. “I could have kept my lawn-care business small, with one pickup truck,” Swanson says, “but Junior Achievement opened my eyes and gave me the inspiration and tools to go bigger.”

There have also been growing pains. “Last year I stopped hiring friends because I realized they sometimes think they can slack off, but I lose money if they’re too laid back,” Swanson says. “I also didn’t want to lose friendships over business.”

Currently the Palatine teen divides his time between working outdoors with his crew and managing paperwork and customer contact.

Long hours are an entrepreneurial hallmark, and several teens echoed Swanson’s advice: “Don’t try to start your own business unless you’re willing to put in a lot of time. And make sure it’s something you enjoy doing,” he adds. “To me, it’s a lot of fun to be outside, and not stuck inside an office all day.”

Swanson gets most of his work from referrals, and many young entrepreneurs agree that word of mouth is the best method of promotion.

As 14-year-old Cory Scott says, “The work that you do advertises itself to people.”

For the last year, Scott has run his own desktop publishing business in an after-school program at Dyett Middle School on Chicago’s South Side, where he graduated this spring. He worked on a computer donated to the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), a non-profit group that teaches business skills to inner city youth.

After doing well in his 7th-grade computer class, Scott began typing papers for fellow students, charging them $6 per report. His teacher noticed and suggested he join NFTE’s young entrepreneur’s club.

“In NFTE I learned about buying and selling and how to make a profit,” Scott says. “I was also learning how to do things faster and easier in my school’s computer lab.”

He was soon creating letterheads and business cards, and when his school hosted a meeting of area educators, Scott presented his portfolio to the participants. “I was nervous talking to so many people, but once I got started, I was OK, and I sold cards to 25 of them,” he says. “So far I’ve done letterheads for about 15 clients and business cards for nearly 60 people.”

Scott, who charges $1.25 per sheet of 10 business cards, averages $10 to $12 a week in his business venture. A percentage of his profits goes to the NFTE young entrepreneur’s club to help pay for supplies.

Dyett principal Cheryl Marshall Washington was one of Scott’s first clients. “Cory presents himself in a professional manner, provides samples of his work and delivers in a timely fashion, so I have no trouble giving him a good reference,” Washington says. “He is learning life skills to take beyond in the wider world.”

“Morgan Park High School has a computer program similar to Dyett’s, so I expect to be able to continue my desktop publishing business there,” says Scott, who will be a freshman this fall.

Other Chicago-area teenagers have transformed their affinity for computers into high-powered money-making ventures.

Patrick Dietzen and Robert Postrozny, 1999 graduates of Hinsdale Central High School, launched a Web design and computer-consulting business together three years ago. The two friends have come a long way from their first joint enterprise in 5th grade, renting video games to neighborhood kids. Today the 18-year-olds run separate businesses but still work together occasionally.

Dietzen and Postrozny embody entrepreneurial persistence. They were turned down on their initial business calls, did Web site designs on their own home computers for no pay in order to build a portfolio and finally landed their first Web design assignment with a local newspaper.

Together they have worked for nearly 30 clients representing a wide range of industries, including banking, health care and manufacturing.  The teens charge $50 to $60 per hour for Web site development services. Their earnings range from $1,500 to $7,000 per client, according to Postrozny.

Dietzen, who will attend Holy Cross College this fall, plans to pay for his first semester of college with part of his earnings and to keep the remainder in investments. Postrozny, who will be a freshman at Boston University, has invested almost all of his earnings in stocks.

“When Pat came to us and said, ‘We want to build you a Web site,’ I saw a very young kid with amazing presence and confidence,” says Richard Murphy, president of Hinsdale Bank and Trust Co. “I didn’t want an immature product but was astounded at his level of professionalism and follow-up. Now that he’s created our Web site, we consult with him and upgrade it on a consistent basis.”

“The original design takes the most time because you do each one differently, and then you maintain the Web site,” Postrozny explains.  “You don’t get paid for keeping up client relations, but it’s important to call and make sure things are all right. It’s very creative to do Web sites, but we also do research constantly, looking for new ideas.”

“It’s quite something for someone so young to start a company, get that first customer,” says James McCarthy, chairman and CEO of Gemini Consulting Group Inc., a health-care holding company in Oak Brook.  “Robert has certainly demonstrated his competence in the year we’ve worked with him. I’m impressed by his knowledge and ability to respond in a speedy, cost-effective manner.”

Although the entrepreneurial spirit is as American as corn on the cob, it doesn’t take root automatically.

“My dad taught me how to write business letters and proposals and how to meet business people and talk to them,” Dietzen says. This kind of adult mentoring can add an essential piece of experience to a teen’s natural energy and enthusiasm.

And parents are often the lightbulb for a teen’s money-making venture.  Christina Breen, a 1999 graduate of Marshall Middle School on Chicago’s North Side, says her mother suggested that she breed her two pet gerbils and sell the babies as pets. The 13-year-old took it from there, locating and preparing extra cages and then selling the baby gerbils to fellow students.

Next, she approached a local pet shop. “It was scary to go in and talk to the store owner, and I took a friend along the first time,” recalls Breen, who will be a freshman at Lane Tech High School this fall. “But now I know you shouldn’t be afraid to ask.”

In addition to parental involvement, organizations such as NFTE and Junior Achievement provide programs that teach business practices and principles to young people nationwide. At the Museum of Science and Industry, kids can try their hand at running their own company at Junior Achievement’s interactive Enterprise exhibit, which opened last spring.

“I think a lot of teenagers can have their own business,” says Web site designer Postrozny. “You just have to focus and take small steps, like calling someone, doing something to get you started, even if it scares you at first. And don’t be afraid to do things a little bit different from the way others are doing it.”

“The key is to dream,” says fellow entrepreneur Dietzen, “to think what’s possible, and then have the passion to do it.”
For More Information Contact:

DLS Landscaping, Inc.
713 W Revere Lane
Tel: 847-934-0186
FAX: 847-934-6928


By Marya Smith



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