It’s not uncommon for teenagers to mow lawns part time to earn spending money or contribute to a college fund. However, 17-year-old RJ Duarte managed to turn his part-time lawn maintenance job into a business that achieved more than $100,000 in revenue in 2017.
While the business started as a means for Duarte to earn spending money, a small local award convinced him to take his part-time gig to the next level.
“When we won an award from the Young Americans Bank in 2015, we realized this wasn’t just a summertime job but that we could take this to the next level,” says Owen Johnson, Duarte’s partner in the business.
Duarte describes his business, Green Worx Landscaping, as a start-to-finish landscape company that serves customers around Golden, Colorado, and parts of Denver. The small business employs five to six high school students year-round, with additional students helping in summer. He also pays all his workers above minimum wage.
Green Worx had about $11,000 revenue in 2015, but it increased in 2016 to $30,000 in revenue. By 2017, revenue grew to the $100,000 milestone.
“We’ve been shooting for 300 percent growth every year now,” Johnson adds. “We’ve managed to get just under that each year, and that’s normal. So, that will put us at hopefully $250,000 revenue in 2018.”
Duarte’s initial goals for Green Worx weren’t about growing a profitable lawn maintenance business. He began mowing lawns in his neighborhood at age 8 with the goal to make just enough money to buy candy at a local gas station.
“My dad wouldn’t buy the candy for me, so I would try to make money to buy candy,” he says.
His older brother provided lawn maintenance services to a few people in the community, so Duarte decided to join his older brother to mow three to five lawns in the neighborhood during the summer. The two would go around these properties weekly with a little red wagon and an old mower. After two summers of working together, Duarte’s older brother left to take on a part-time job.
At this point, 10-year-old Duarte started to set slightly bigger goals, such as make enough money to buy a PlayStation by the end of summer. So, he gave his summer business a name – RJ’s Lawn Service. His family lived in a duplex that was across the street from a trailer park, so there were plenty of potential customers for lawn maintenance work, Duarte says.
By age 11, he maintained 40 to 50 lawns in his neighborhood, which was 10 times more business than what he and his older brother had been doing just a few years prior. All the growth was by word-of-mouth: talking to neighbors about mowing their lawns for a low price.
However, at age 13, he decided to take his business more seriously to expand and service more customers. One of his biggest obstacles to growth was transportation since he wouldn’t be able to get a driver’s license for three more years. His little red wagon and push mower could only travel short distances, so Duarte took a $500 loan from his father to purchase a riding mower.
“It wasn’t even for mowing lawns,” he says. “It was to drive my equipment around.”
He also asked his friend, Owen Johnson, to join him in the business to help with the growing number of customers.
“He helped me mow lawns after school and during the summer. Owen just had the same mindset (as I did) – you have to go out to make money on your own. We saw mowing lawns as a means to accomplish that goal.”
Since Duarte and Johnson teamed, their goals evolved from wanting spending money to wanting to run a credible business. They changed the name in 2015 to Green Worx Landscaping as well for better branding.
“We just picked a name more or less and determined that the name didn’t matter as long as we could brand ourselves,” Duarte says.
Business ramped up that year, as Green Worx had 200 customers during peak season. They had year-round business by providing mowing, landscape cleanup, tree pruning and some landscape install jobs. To ensure things remained manageable and profitable, Duarte says he had to weed out lower-profit customers.
“It’s tough turning down clients, but until we’re 18, we can’t scale to where we want to be,” he says. “We’re limited by capital, time, being full-time students. So, saying, ‘no,’ is something we have to do now.”
With more jobs, Duarte gradually acquired more equipment over the years with the help of his parents providing him small loans. Green Worx also won a $1,000 grant for being young entrepreneurs from the Young Americans Bank located in Denver, which helped to purchase equipment.
“We’ve been shooting for 300 percent growth every year now. We’ve managed to get just under that each year, and that’s normal.” Owen Johnson, president, Green Worx
Spring and summer seasons tend to be busiest for Green Worx, and Duarte says spring can be especially challenging since he and his crew members are still in high school.
Last spring, he says he sold a contract to perform lawn maintenance work at a local water park. As part of the contract, Green Worx crew members needed to mow the location before 6 a.m. to have it ready to go for a swim team that met there every morning.
“We mowed a few acres in the dark, running headlights to see,” he says. “We’d go and mow early morning, get to class by 7 a.m., do school. The second the (school) bell rung, we were working until dark, did homework, slept and repeat.”
In addition to Johnson, Duarte asked his friend and classmate Mats Moreau to also help manage the increased business at Green Worx in 2016. With year-round demand for their business, a challenge for these three managers has been juggling the business and school. Duarte says they communicate with teachers if they need to step out of class to make a business call.
“Often kids use their phone to text or play games, but for me, it’s checking on clients,” he says. “Often, I go after class and apologize or explain the bigger picture when I’m working on a big contract. So, I communicate with teachers and show how we’re making progress and being responsible. A lot of teachers push past that and say, ‘these kids are working harder than I’ve seen.’”
Recently, Duarte decided he didn’t want to run the business out of his or Johnson’s garage. So, he rented a small 10-foot x 20-foot office suite for them to do paperwork, along with a nearby small storage unit for the landscaping equipment. He says Johnson’s mother helped with the process.
“My parents are small business owners,” Johnson says. “They do consulting work. They’ve been running a small business for a long time, so they have a lot of insight to help us on how to manage financially the business aspects, how to organize money, how to spend it and do taxes. They’re a tremendous help and provide educational support.”
Although both Duarte and Johnson say they plan to go to college in fall of 2018, both hope to see Green Worx continue to grow. Duarte admits he’s not sure if Green Worx will be his “forever” career, but he has a short-term goal of growing it as he goes to study at Colorado State University.
“It’s only an hour north of us,” he says. “We have an office in Golden, Colorado, so we’ll be commuting back and forth a bit.”
Duarte says he wants to get more of the team certified through the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado’s program. He also aims to find insurance and more fleet vehicles when he hits adulthood.
“I would say within the next year, I’d like to see if we can build our numbers up,” he says. “I’m not sure what our size will look like, but we look at competition here that’s been in business 30 years with a fleet of vehicles, cool office space – that’s what I’d shoot for in the next five to 10 years. For next year, we just want to push boundaries more and see what we’re capable of.”