In the summer of 2010, buddies since kindergarten and budding entrepreneurs Nick Pardo, 11, and Sean Rooney, 12, figured they needed to start a business enterprise.
"We wanted money," recalls Nick, now 14, as a grinning Sean, now 15, nods in agreement. Lots of money.
"Chores just didn't cut it for what they wanted," remembers Marlana Pardo, Nick's mom.
That winter, the seventh-graders launched The Shovel Boys snow-removal service. Nick's dad, Dave Pardo, helped them set up the shovelboys.com website and Facebook page and get a business phone line -- (815) 31-SNOW-1.
It was as if cash fell from the heavens. That season's 57.9 inches of snow marked a record fourth straight winter with more than 50 inches of snow. The boys were in demand at dozens of homes in their Plainfield neighborhood and across the border in southern Naperville. Sean figures the pair had 12 regular clients throughout that winter and maybe 50 more when the snows got heavy.
"We charge by how big the driveway is and how big the snow is," Nick says, smiling at the memory of the blizzard of Feb. 1-2, 2011, which dumped more than 20 inches on the suburbs and kept them busy after school for days and all weekend. They recruited Nick's younger brother Mikey and sister Ava, and armed them with little shovels. Sean's parents, Mike and Patricia Rooney, chipped in. The boys even hired a couple of friends to help them handle all the business. Nick and Sean each made about $1,000.
"I bought a baseball mitt and a bat," remembers Sean.
"I was able to get an iPad," Nick says.
With their parents using that experience to teach them some business lessons, the boys also saved for a rainy day and reinvested money in new shovels, a used snowblower and bags of ice-melting salt.
"They started with that big storm, and they haven't seen that since," says Nick's dad, Dave Pardo.
Wearing shorts and a disappointed look, Nick walks into his garage on a recent sunny, above-freezing day. Their unused shovels rest against a lacrosse net.
"Here's the snowblower," says Nick, pointing to a bright red machine buried under a pile of shoes and lacrosse equipment in the garage.
The boys think they used the snowblower once or maybe twice last winter, when that snowfall total fell to only 19.8 inches and what snow there was didn't stick around in the record warm temperatures. With little snow falling, their profits also plunged. The $50 or so they earned last winter didn't come close to buying anything on their wish lists.
"I wanted to get a Mac," Nick says of the Apple laptop computer he wasn't able to afford.
"I wanted golf clubs," says Sean, who is on the golf team. "I've been saving up for a while."
So far this winter, business has been even worse. We have set a record for the most consecutive days without a snowfall of an inch or more. Friday, we broke a 19th-century record for the latest we've gone into a winter without a snowfall of at least an inch. Chicago's total snowfall of 1.3 inches remains a blizzard or two short of the record low 9.8 inches of snow recorded during the winter of 1920-21.
The Shovel Boys' income so far this winter is zilch. They have passed out fliers (which set them back about a hundred bucks) and given a couple of estimates, but have nothing to show for it. Although they did exhibit some business diversification skills by using the heavy bags of salt they bought to anchor the portable basketball goal in Nick's driveway.
"I do feel bad for them, because they do put work into it," Nick's mom says sympathetically.
There are plenty of adult new-business entrepreneurs who can relate to the boys' disappointment. The teens, both freshmen at Plainfield North High School, can't branch out into a summer yard service because they are too busy. Sean plays ball and Nick will work as a counselor and lifeguard at a camp in Algonquin.
They have weather apps on their phones and follow the forecasts. They know the plunging cold that kicks in today might bring some flurries, but they aren't expecting enough to bring them shoveling jobs.
"What can we do?" Nick says. "I mean we can't make it snow."
The business setback hasn't dimmed their adult dreams. Nick wants to have a career in the computer business. Sean thinks he might want to own a golf shop on a manicured course "somewhere where it's warm."
Maybe then it will snow.