Boys flying high in Jamestown
Rider Tuff, 16, is a lifelong summer resident who has always had an eye for business. His latest venture, however, is his first to get off the ground. Both literally and figuratively.
For real estate companies along Narragansett Bay, Rider has become a familiar face. He has already cashed checks from Island Realty and Mansions & Mansions, and has Sotheby’s International pitching his product to 50 of its Newport brokers.
For Rider, learning the art of aerial photography has been a profitable lesson in business this summer. Along with his four partners, the boys have learned everything from sales to contract disputes. Along with two of Rider’s three brothers, Quinn, 14, and Mason, 12, teenagers Tommy Miller and Dale Dunning also have a stake in Jamestown Aerial Photography. The venture, however, started as a hobby.
Rider, the son of Geoff and Martha Tuff, has been coming to Jamestown all his life to visit his grandparents, Pat and Tim Tuff. The family has somewhat of a compound on Racquet Road: Along with his grandparents and parents, three of Rider’s uncles own abutting houses. To get a glimpse of the property lines, Geoff Tuff enlisted a local photographer to take aerial shots as a present for his parents. Aboard a helicopter, the photographer took remarkable shots of the properties and sold the work to the Tuff family. According to Rider, the total cost was about $3,000.
Without a pilot’s license, Rider realized the only way he could mimic the helicopter shots was aboard a drone. Unfortunately, being a spender, he had empty pockets. Looking to his more frugal family members, he approached Mason and his father for a loan. With $1,300 in borrowed money, Rider went on Amazon and purchased a DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter with a 14-megapixel camera.
“Top of the line,” he said. “One of the best you can buy.”
Rider began taking photos of his family’s compound, and his grandparents loved the images. However, he was now more than a grand in debt, so he couldn’t just play with his drone all day. He got a gig lifeguarding three days a week at Cottrell Pier, a private beach near his summer home on the east side of the island. But it was during a family party at his home in Wellesley, Mass., where Rider thought of a faster way to pay back his little brother.
Earlier in the day, Rider considered the opportunity to sell photos, and he ran the idea by his mother. Martha Tuff then shared the idea with her husband’s five siblings.
“I got really annoyed that she told them,” he said.
But when they sat down for dinner, Rider’s uncles and aunts showed support of the business model, even expressing investment interest.
“They realized that this could actually be a moneymaking venture,” he said.
Following a two-week trip studying abroad in France, Rider was working at the beach when Tommy showed up looking for a job. The boys had been friends for years, sailing and playing tennis every summer at the Conanicut Yacht Club. At Rider’s suggestion, Tommy began looking for caddying jobs and dishwashing gigs.
Meanwhile, Dale, who is from Dedham, Mass., was also at the beach lounging around when Rider realized he needed someone to sell his photos.
That’s when Tommy received a text from Dale: “I got a job with Rider selling photos.”
A light bulb went off in Tommy’s head. “A drone can take photos every bit as good as someone in a helicopter for a tenth of the price,” he said. “I thought it would be a good idea to talk to realty companies.”
Tommy, who lives in Colorado, spends his summers at his family’s vacation home on Shoreby Hill. Just down the street is Island Realty, and Tommy’s first soliciting attempt was a successful one. The realtors agreed to a meeting.
“It was super exciting,” he said.
However, Dale botched the first contract, Tommy said laughing. Island Realty gave the boys a list of seven houses to photograph, and depending on the weather, Rider said it could be done within a week. Dale said it would cost $250 per bundle. Island Realty thought the quote was for all seven houses, but Dale did not make it clear that it was $250 for each house. A bundle, Tommy said, is between 20 and 40 photos of each home. Fortunately, Island Realty was forthcoming. The two parties settled on $1,000 for the lot.
The homes were located from Beavertail to the north end of East Shore Road. Because Rider has a provisional license, his father won’t let his son drive with Tommy in the car. So the soon-to-be eighth-grader followed in tow on his bike.
After they solicited the realty companies in Jamestown, the boys took the ferry across the East Passage to Newport. They knocked on doors to some of the most prestigious real estate firms in the Northeast, including Sotheby’s, Berkshire Hathaway, William Raveis and Coldwell Banker. The boys even have their own website up and running: aerialjamestown.com.
As for their responsibilities, Rider flies the drone and the others sell by any means necessary. Art galleries. Door-to-door. Realty companies. Whatever gets them their 25 to 75 percent, depending on the contracts they negotiated with one another. All the agreements are on an Excel spreadsheet administered by Rider.
The Quinn boys said they learned their work ethic from landscaping in their grandfather’s backyard. Tim Tuff will give the boys $10 an hour to work on his backyard trails, which he has named after his grandkids.
“He basically spends his entire time gardening,” Rider quipped. “He’s retired and has nothing else to do.”
Along with cash from the holidays and birthdays, Mason has used the money made in his grandfather’s backyard to accumulate a small fortune. That’s why Rider went to him for a $500 loan.
“I have been saving over the years,” said the 12-year-old. “I don’t normally spend. That’s what my brothers do.”
“Mason’s a little loan shark,” Tommy interjected.
Also, Mason makes a better sales percentage than Tommy, Quinn and Dale.
“He has a little more equity because he put in the initial money,” said Rider. “Nothing could have happened without him.”
Although Mason makes the best percentage, Tommy is the most effective salesperson, according to Rider. “He definitely the most outgoing,” he said. “He will walk into any place and start talking.”
So what would Tommy say if he knocked on a door with a sales pitch?
“We were wondering if you’d be interested in some great aerial photos of your house,” Tommy replied without missing a beat. “Or maybe you have an event. If you plan on going paddleboarding or sailing for the day, we could fly over and take some really cool photos.”
Rider says he’s always been interested in entrepreneurship. Up until the drone, however, his ideas have been farfetched.
“I had ideas for apps, but I have no programming knowledge,” he said. “Nothing was attainable until now. There is a market for aerial photography, and it’s something we can do.”
The best part, though, is that there is barely any risk.
“It doesn’t cost us anything,” said Rider. “Aside from putting the drone in the air, the business is risk free.”
“The only thing we waste is our time,” said Mason. “And we’re kids, so we have time.”
Also, they said, there is no risk to the buyers. For example, if a realty company isn’t happy with the photos, they can refuse them.
“We don’t take any upfront money,” said Tommy.
Rider’s company doesn’t retain ownership of any of the photos. The rights to the photos are included with the bundle, which are delivered on a USB drive to preserve the high resolution.
“We only give digital photos on USB drives,” said Rider. “Instead of printing them out on a canvas, the photos are completely the buyers, and they can print them as many times as they want.”
“They can reprint them on a postcard and sell 1,000 of them for $1 each,” said Tommy.
Although this summer’s work is a small-scale project, it’s something Rider has enjoyed doing. He is thinking about studying business management in college.
“I can see doing something like this in the future. It’s been so fun starting up a company,” he said.
Unfortunately for Colorado resident Tommy, when the summer is over, the Quinn brothers and Dale live about 10 minutes from each other on the outskirts of Boston. But Tommy has learned from Dale’s first negotiation with Island Realty. Even though he is 2,000 miles away, he knows what he’s owed.
“I made sure to screenshot the Excel sheet,” he said.