Last winter, when local high school (then) senior Julien Brooks was in Denver for a hockey weekend, he noticed a number of tricked-out, cool Jeeps parked near his uncle’s house where he was visiting.
“I’d been looking into the Jeep rental business for a while, originally through an app called Turo, which is basically the Airbnb of cars,” explained Brooks.
Turns out, the guy who owns all those Jeeps, Mark Fit, is his uncle’s neighbor and he and Brooks started talking. Fit, whose regular job is as an insurance broker, has been in the customized Jeep rental business for 12 years, operating small, seasonal rental locations in Glenwood Springs, where he grew up, and Gunnison. He was looking to expand into Telluride and voila — a partnership, Ajax Offroad Rentals — was born.
“Julien’s on the front lines, marketing and renting the Jeeps, and I’m on the backlines,” said Fit. “I saw that he was a hustler, and I know that from being a hustler myself.”
It’s through Fit that Brooks was able to secure a local fleet of two, four-door, customized Jeeps: A gray 2020 Wrangler and a pumpkin-colored 2020 Gladiator. As a third generation Telluride local, Brooks grew up Jeeping across the region, and while the business fits his financial modeling, he’s aware of the stiff competition he’s up against with local Jeep outfitters who’ve been in the business for 30 years.
“If you go around town and see the different rental Jeeps, they’re all the exact same stock model — they just throw a sticker on them and put them out on the road,” Brooks explained. “We are the only ones to offer built-out, customized vehicles that have specialized off-road tires, 4-inch lift kits for extra clearance, soft tops and titanium front and back bumpers.”
Brooks, who graduated from Telluride High School in May, believes this is an optimal time to pursue this venture. Having worked for the past several years as a lifeguard, as a camp counselor and at the Sheridan Chop House, he had saved enough money to finance his start-up costs.
“[Fit] and I do have a revenue share agreement because he has mentored me throughout this process,” Brooks said. “He’s been generous in setting up payment schedules so that I don’t have to frontload all the capital, and I pay him a depreciation and customization fee for my two-vehicle fleet.”
The day after his senior prom, Brooks woke up at 5:30 a.m. to pick-up his first Jeep, draped it with a marketing banner and parked it at a senior class car wash fundraiser for the Karen Lavender College Scholarship Fund.
“And then I rode that Jeep with its banner with a few friends in the senior parade the following weekend,” he recounted. “So that was the official business launch.”
Other than accessing part-time contract workers to clean and deliver the vehicles, Brooks is a sole entrepreneur.
“I’m on call from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m, seven days a week,” he said. “I’m dead-set on turning a profit this year and the way to do it is through sweat equity.”
Juggling end-of-school work, AP exams and a busy senior social life, Brooks designed his own business website — ajaxoffroadrentals.com — where he processes 90 percent of his bookings.
In the midst of all this excitement, there’s also been stress as Brooks had to take on debt for this venture.
“But I doubled-down on engine optimization, which was a learning process in and of itself,” he said. “And worked on my social media marketing, my Google ads preferences and making connections with local hotels and property management companies to get the leads.”
At the end of October, Brooks expects to replace soft tops with hard tops and swap the off-road tires with all-weather snow-tread tires to offer longer-term, half-off rentals to Telluride winter visitors.
In order to launch and operate his Jeep business, Brooks deferred acceptance to business school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where he may cultivate an interest in real estate, having recently interned at Cantor Limited Partners, a private equities real estate fund in Telluride.
The primary challenge Brooks has experienced in this venture is mental pressure.
“I was always a good employee because I would seek help when I needed it,” he explained. “But when you’re working for yourself and you have a problem that you can’t fix, you don’t really have anyone to turn to. So you use everything you know and the resources you do have to figure out solutions.”
Faced with challenges, Brooks has dug deep and worked hard with determination.
“Yes, I’m in pursuit of this venture for financial reasons,” Brooks admitted. “But the reason I was so keen to start a business at 18 is because I want to learn and invest in myself to become an extremely valuable asset to a company and future business venture partners.”