Should Your Teenager Start a Summer Lawn Service?
"Dear Mr. Ennico: I am a junior in high school, and I have an interest in business. I have seen a multitude of your YouTube seminars, and appreciate the insight you share through them. During this upcoming summer, I want to start my own lawn service business. I do a lot of sports during the summer, so I want my business to be more part-time, where I do not have to work too long every day, and I am the sole worker. Do I need a business license, or what other legal information should I know about in order to get this business ready for summer?"
Boy, does this email take me back. When my wife and I bought our first home shortly after getting married, one of our very first visitors was a teenager who introduced himself by saying: "Hi, I'm so-and-so from down the street. Welcome to the neighborhood. I'm the local kid who mows people's lawns and does odd jobs." He handed me a computer-generated price list for all his services -- keep in mind this is 1985, when personal computers were first coming on the market -- and -- I will never forget this -- remembered to add sales tax. Needless to say, I was bowled over and actually used his services for a while until he graduated high school.
I'm proud to say that young man went on to become a senior financial executive at one of America's top publishing companies. Great oaks from little acorns grow ...
Your first task is to find out what the legal age is for working and for entering into binding contracts in your state. At 17 you should be able to get a work permit, but in some states you have to wait until 18. The guidance department at your high school should be able to provide you with that information, along with a summary of any other state labor laws that apply to working teenagers (for example, restrictions on the number of hours you can work).
Then you will need to do the following:
-- Get a business license from the state so you can collect and pay sales and other business taxes (unless you form an LLC, you will register as a sole proprietor).
-- Get a federal tax ID number from the IRS (you can use your Social Security number, but that's a really bad idea, as you will have to give that number out to lots of folks).
-- Have a local attorney put together a short contract for your customers to sign. Spell out the hours you are available to work, and put the legal burden on them for any damage or accidents to person or property that don't result from your "gross negligence or willful misconduct" (such as dog bites, broken windows due to stray pebbles kicked up by your weed wacker).
The good news is a lot of people in your neighborhood will work with you in spite of the risks involved, because they want to be seen as supporting local youth (or, let's be serious, because they don't want to offend your parents).
Now for the bad news:
-- Most people in your community will already have a lawn service tending to their property each week, with employees who are fully bonded, insured, etc., which you probably can't afford to be. This means your customer base will be limited to people who do it themselves but may want an occasional break for vacations, etc., and don't want to pay for a professional service.
-- People can be very fussy about their lawn. Reliability and dependability are key factors to the success of a lawn service, and it will be difficult for you to meet your customers' expectations given your sports team commitments (people don't want their lawns mowed late at night). Also, you will probably want to take some time off yourself this summer to enjoy some of the things you can only do when you are 17 years old (trust me on this -- I had a newspaper delivery route seven days a week in high school, which cut back on a lot of fun things I now wish I had time to do).
Your best bet is to put together a one-page flyer that says "local teenager available to mow your lawn and do odd jobs," hand-deliver it to your neighbors and post it in places where such notices commonly appear (local restaurants, post offices, car washes, bus/train stations or any place people stand in line waiting for something). Be sure to include tear-off strips with your name, phone number and email address.
Also check whether Nextdoor has an online bulletin board for your neighborhood. This is a 21st-century way for local businesses to attract customers within easy driving distance (on Nextdoor search "find neighborhood"). If it does, create a business page and post a message each week advertising a different service.
Hope this helps. Thanks again for reaching out, and good luck this summer.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.