9 Oct 2015

Can you match this sustainable startup success, which began at age 11?

Written by Jim Pierobon

OK, this may not be directly tied to how we produce and use energy. But the the creativity from this teenager in Wayland, Massachusetts is the kind of innovative thinking the energy world could use a LOT more of. And he’s still three years from starting college.

Adam Liszewski (photo below) may first appear as a happy teenager navigating his way through the sophomore year of high school. But he’s not your typical teenager. Happy yes. But he’s also the Founder and effectively the CEO of STOKES Natural Firestarters in Wayland, Mass.

How many youth entrepreneurs do you know who can claim more than $125,000 in sales during their first two years in business, and a sustainable business to boot? Here is how he got there.

Adam Liszewski mug

At left, each firestarter is cut from one cone of an egg carton then for shipping, center. At right, STOKES Founder Adam Liszewski’s favorite mug shot. (Credit: StokesFirestarters.com)

Adam, then age 11 in 2011, and his mother, Pat Reinhardt, were using egg cartons, lint from the family clothes dryer and melted candle stubs to make holiday gifts to easily start a fire in a wood stoves and fireplaces. “Egg-nighters” the family playfully called them.

Recipients of the gifts liked them so much, they offered to pay Adam to make a bunch more the following winter.That’s when it ‘hit’ him: why not produce a LOT of these and sell them for a profit? He knew he had hit on something when he brought a couple of dozen to the local farmers market and they sold out. The idea of a natural firestarter using recycled materials with no chemicals resonated with the crowd. Of course it helped the product is made locally.

Adam substituted the lint with hardwood sawdust supplied by a family friend in the natural furniture business in Vermont. That’s when he realized with the ingredients – recycled egg cartons, candle wax and box from recycled paper, and sawdust from sustainably harvested trees — together offered a true all natural product. That led to a family brainstorm session with aunts and uncles, which produced the company’s STOKES namesake.

Today, Adam – still without a driver’s license — resides over a 2,200-square-foot commercial warehouse and is running STOKES as a limited-liability corporation. He receives 3-4 bags of sawdust every week from Pompanoosuc Mills in Vermont and delivers it to his assembly line at the warehouse. There 6-10 employees on any given day provided through Charles River Center, a social service agency nearby. Adam works with them at least every Wednesday during the school year. During the summer, this is his full-time job, if he isn’t out merchandising, delivering or selling STOKES.

STOKES package

Here’s the latest packaging. (Credit: Jim Pierobon)

With 12 firestarters per box selling at $6.99, Adam has achieved what some college-educated entrepreneurs might dream about. STOKES are now selling through retail outlets such as Whole Foods Markets in the Northeast, numerous Stop & Shop in Massachusetts, some ACE hardware stores and more than 40 other local food, hardware and retail store in the Northeast. Recently Wegmans agreed to sell them as a beta test in their Massachusetts stores.

Jack Russell, of Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, is the first retailer Adam pitched with an early version of the product. “Adam presented the product very well. I bought a bunch (Adam’s whole inventory at the time). It took off immediately,” Russell said. Wary of selling out this fall and winter, his Garden Center had 44 boxes of STOKES for sale on October 1.

Adam accepted early on and has since repaid $3,000 in seed money his parents loaned him. Soon after he met Adam, Chris Ferrier, a local marketing pro, created the artwork gratis for bags which initially packaged the firestarters. Adam had had the packaging redone by Atlas Paper & Romanow Paper because Whole Foods Markets wanted shoppers to be able to see the firestarters inside.

Asked what his response would be if someone offered to buy the company, Adam replied that he has “No idea.” Pat Reinhardt chimed in that his high school diploma “most definitely comes first.” Adam says he is focused on growing STOKES and has no desire to sell it.

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