Teen’s tractor business a real moneymaker

Sylvester’s gift of 3-D printer turns into successful plan to pay for college
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Many high school seniors are trying to figure out how to pay for college, whether with the help of family, scholarships or even loans.

Sidney Sylvester, a senior at Lena High School, isn’t too worried about that, as he’s already got a plan to pay four years of tuition in the bag, and it’s all through making toy tractors.

Making the tractors has been a way of life all through high school for Sylvester, who received a 3-D resin printer as a gift when he was in seventh grade.

“For years, I would use that printer to create whatever I wanted, whether it be a phone case, a phone stand or any little models,” Sylvester said. “That gave me a lot of experience in computer-aided design, which then gave me the skills I needed when my brother asked me to 3-D print him a pulling tractor, because he’d always been interested in toy tractors since he was little.”

Sylvester estimated it took him about 15 hours to design and print that first tractor. He decided to design five more and try to sell them on Facebook. Right away, he received orders for 30 tractors among those initial designs.

“From there, we made more and more, and now we sell 74 different products today,” Sylvester said, noting that includes kits for people to build the tractors themselves and individual parts for people to design their own tractors, like engines, steering wheels and chassis.

In addition to becoming wildly popular through the internet, Sylvester’s company, J&S Customs, has helped him earn plenty of money and given him a chance to compete recently at a Wisconsin Junior Achievement competition comparable to the ABC series “Shark Tank.”

The prize was a $10,000 scholarship, but even though Sylvester didn’t win, it appears he didn’t even need it as he prepares to embark on the next four years at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, where he plans to pursue a degree in electrical engineering and eventually hopes to work in aerospace at NASA. Sylvester doesn’t plan on putting his successful business on hold, however, as he said he’s going to spend the whole summer printing plenty of stock to be sold while he’s in school, recruiting his brother to ship out the orders.

“I never expected to have a business, especially a business like this, in high school,” Sylvester said.

Engineering was something he’d be interested in from an early age. He noted that the 3-D printer he received in seventh grade was the only Christmas gift he asked for that year.

“That tool was what honestly enabled me to further my skills, and then those skills allowed me to upgrade my machines and then start my business,” said Sylvester, who noted he had as many as seven 3-D printers at one point creating the toys but currently has three large ones in operation. “It’s all a big snowball effect. Once you get something started, you can keep working off of what you have.”

Sylvester noted that it’s easy for him to make custom 1/64-scale models. Customers send photos of their personal pulling tractors, and he can make the model from there.

Paying for tuition doesn’t appear to be a problem for Sylvester, if his business plan holds. In 2022, he made $26,000 off of creating and selling his custom tractors and other items, with only $10,000 in expenses. This year, he projected he would make $56,000, more than double the previous year, but he expects that could go up as the projection was made prior to his decision to build surplus stock to be sold while he’s in Platteville.

“Popularity and range of products is what I think is driving the sales up,” Sylvester said. “More people are seeing my business, and my returning customers have more products to buy now. I used to offer only 10 or 15 tractors, and they could only buy a certain amount, but now they have a wide range of products to choose from that they can get more and more and more.”

Sylvester has already received several requests to sell his items at retail, and he even had an offer to buy out his business, which he declined.

The business hasn’t been a hindrance to Sylvester’s high school education, as he boasted a 3.85 grade-point average.

“I’ve been able to do most of my homework at school,” Sylvester said. “There are very few projects I’ve had to take home, so that frees up time in the evening to get more work done and make more profits.”

If Sylvester does get his dream job at NASA, he might retire from building custom tractors and other items. He anticipates the business could go to his brother and inspire more creative customs.

“Things change so quickly, so I honestly don’t know right now,” Sylvester said.