A Massachusetts high school freshman is setting the world on fire with his fast-growing startup. Listen up for the growth strategies that are driving his startup's expansion.
I exaggerate slightly--the company in question is Stokes Natural Firestarters, a Wayland, Mass.-based company that "manufactures and sells chemical-free firestarters made from recycled materials like egg cartons, wax and sawdust," according to the MetroWest Daily News.
Adam Liszewski, now a 14 year old freshman at Wayland High School, was frustrated that it took him so long to get a fire going in his family's fireplace. As Liszewski told the MetroWest Daily News, "When I was a kid, it took like 30 minutes to get the fire going on a cold morning--rolling up the newspaper and shoving it under the logs."
He decided to solve this problem--and the solution led him to start Stokes in 2013 with help from Pat Reinhardt, his mom and a long-time friend of mine. Said Liszewski, "I thought there had to be a better way. When I was a kid, I used to be a little bit of a pyro. My mom and I began making the firestarters for friends and family as homemade Christmas gifts."
Since then Stokes's growth has been on fire--growing at a 371% annual rate. In 2013, Stokes sold 45 cases--each of which contains 36 cartons--with 12 firestarter cups per carton. In 2014, it sold 190 cases and by the end of 2015, Liszewski hopes to sell 1,000 cases.
That would be $252,000 in revenue to consumers (although I am not sure how much of that goes to Stokes).
Here are six strategies that have helped propel Stokes's growth.
1. Improve on good ideas in the public domain
The original idea for the firestarter did not come from Liszewski. Reinhardt heard about it from a woman in her book club who saw it in a Boy Scout manual.
As Reinhardt told the MetroWest Daily News, "She now gets free Stokes for the rest of her life. The product is no secret. It's in the Boy Scout manual."
But Liszewski improved on it. The original Stokes firestarter contained lint instead of sawdust. But he decided to add the sawdust because it made the product spiffier and each carton cup burned longer--from 12 to 14 minutes. Said Liszewski, "All you need to start a fire is one cup and a match. No newspaper and no kindling."
2. Give the product away to create paying demand
After giving away the product as a gift, Liszewski discovered that people were willing to pay for them. "One year we didn't have the time make the firestarters and some people offered to buy them so I took the offers. And that evolved into Stokes," he explained.
3. Deliver a compelling value to customers
Buying a product from a startup is risky--since most of them fail. To beat the odds, you should offer your customers more bang for the buck.
Stokes's product gives customers a product that works better, is more environmentally sound, is made in the U.S., and sells at a lower price.
Said Liszewski, "A carton of 12 cups of our product sells for around $7. The price point is significantly cheaper than most firestarter products on the market. Most of them also use chemicals and those they don't work very well. We're also sourced and made in the U.S.A."
4. Sell your idea to good partners
If you have done all these things--you are going to be nowhere unless you can sell. What is most remarkable about the Stokes story is Liszewski's willingness to overcome the inevitable shock he received from partners who struggled to accept that such a young person could be the owner of the business.
It did not hurt that a local garden center--Russell's Garden Center in Wayland--took on Stokes as its first customer. "After I went through all my inventory, Russell's asked me if they could carry it so they were my first carrier," Liszewski said.
From there, he convinced his parents to let him take a day a week for sales calls--gaining confidence along the way while keeping his grades, social life, and extracurricular activities going.
Said his father Tom, "It's also been an incredible learning experience for him. Adam does all the negotiations with store personnel himself. Though it took a few encounters to gain confidence, he now looks them in the eye, shakes their hand and makes his pitch."
5. Scale manufacturing efficiently
In most startups, there is not a surplus of capital. So founders have to find inexpensive ways to meet customer demand.
Stokes has done that as it ramped up production capacity over time. Noted Liszewski, "Production eventually moved from the family kitchen to the family basement where I hired my first employee --my sister Sarah then a fourth-grader."
6. Do good while doing well
Since then, Stokes has shifted production to 10 workers at the Charles River Center, a Needham, Mass.-based private, nonprofit human service agency providing employment and job training, residential homes, day habilitation and recreational programs for children and adults with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities.
Said Liszewski, "This gives people with disabilities a chance to work and make money."
As of January 2015, Stokes firestarters were being sold in six states in about 100 stores, including Whole Foods Market, Roche Bros. and Stop & Shop.
Liszewski plans to go to college but his friends think he could skip that. "A lot of my friends say, 'You've got everything set out for you. You don't have to go to college.' But I would like to go to college. Stokes is a bonus that happened and I'm hoping for it do well and continue, and maybe it will become a big company."
If Liszewski does apply to college, he will have an essay topic that his peers will have a hard time matching. I can only imagine how their parents will gnash their teeth as they try to help their children come up with a more compelling essay topic.
But if you are running a startup, this 14-year-old entrepreneur's growth strategies offer valuable insights.