Photos by Michael Piazza
Have you ever struggled getting your fire going at a wet campground or on a freezing cold winter night? You huff and puff, throw more paper at the fire, but get nowhere. Stokes Firestarters may be the solution to your dilemma. With just one match, and one Stokes Firestarter, you can make a fire.
The creator and owner of Stokes is not who you might expect. Adam Liszewski is 15 years old and going into his sophomore year at Wayland High School. During the school year, he plays lacrosse and soccer and skis in the winter. In the summer, when he is building stockpiles of Firestarters for the winter, running his company takes up most of his time, around 30-35 hours a week.
Aside from starting his own company, Adam is similar to most other boys his age: He likes to play video games, watch funny movies and listen to all types of music. His favorite subject in school is science, and his favorite food is home-cooked ribs. He lives with his parents, Pat Reinhardt and Tom Liszewski, and his 11-year-old sister, Sarah, who is also an entrepreneur, having started her own cut flower business.
In the fall of 2011 in need of Christmas gifts, Adam—age 11—and his mother started making firestarters, instead of bottled fudge. For the couple of months leading up to the holiday season, they gathered egg cartons, dryer lint, and melted candle stubs. They were a fun gift to make, even though he and his mom often burned their fingers melting wax. He discovered that the firestarters he made lit faster than those sold in stores, even though those firestarters have the kind of chemicals that, as Adam said, “have names that cannot be pronounced.”
He called them “egg-nighters” and gave them out as Christmas gifts. They were incredibly popular among his family and friends and when he didn't make them the next year, his aunt called and offered to pay Adam to make them. Realizing how much having a natural, economical, and effective firestarter excited people, Adam saw a chance to give people something they really wanted as well as a chance to do something he found fun.
To make the firestarters a legitimate business, he changed their name from “egg-nighters” to Stokes. In order to produce a large quantity of his product, Adam substituted sawdust for dryer lint at the suggestion of his family friend, Dwight Sargent, owner of Pompanoosuc Mills, a company that sustainably harvests trees in Vermont. Adam now trades sawdust from Pompanoosuc for finished Stokes Firestarters. The transition from lint to sawdust was a huge turning point in the overall manufacturing and cleanliness of Stokes. Now, with a product that could be mass-produced, Adam got seed money from his parents and started a manufacturing line in the basement of his house. In January of 2013, Stokes Natural Firestarters was officially up and running. Impressively, Adam has already paid his parents back in full.
Adam had a product to sell, but he faced a challenge: he was too young to drive. He enlisted his father to help and they would drive around one or two days a week going to different stores promoting their idea and product. The first sale Adam made was to Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland. Adam enjoys pitching the product to managers and never worries about how managers will respond to his age.
Adam's biggest rejection from a store was Whole Foods, despite the product being a great fit with the Whole Foods' natural mission. He learned that their main reason for not buying them was not the product, but the packaging. Originally they were sold in a brown paper bag with the label on the front. Not only was this design difficult to stock, but it also did not protect the firestarters from being crushed. Undeterred, Adam figured out how to sell Stokes in cubed boxes by partnering with design firm Ferrier & Co. as well as Atlas Paper/Romanow Containers.
Stokes light quicker and burn longer than other firestarters on the market, burning for 14 minutes. They are versatile, they can be used to make fires wherever and whenever you need to—a campfire, a grill, a wood burning stove, a beach bonfire, or a fireplace. It takes one Stoke and one match to make one great fire. Adam says that educating people about how the firestarters work is an ongoing and time consuming process in marketing Stokes, but one of the most rewarding parts of his business is the response he gets from people who love them.
Not only are Stokes all natural, but Adam has also been thoughtful about who he hires to produce his product. Since his company has outgrown his house, the manufacturing of Stokes has moved into a warehouse, and Adam has sought a mutually-beneficial partnership with the Charles River Center to employ people with developmental disabilities. The Charles River Center’s mission statement is “to empower and support people with developmental disabilities by offering high-quality, individualized opportunities that foster independence and community inclusion.” Working for Stokes, according to Cassie, one of the employees, is “a lot of fun”.
Adam, usually with his dog Bucky in tow, describes working with the people at the warehouse as one of his favorite parts of the job. His friends also sometimes come into work in the warehouse; last summer they came to help in his garage, and in the beginning they helped out in his basement. Adam says that even though it can be difficult to manage friends, they also have fun.
While Adam is still a typical teenager, he is spending his summer leading a growing company. Adam is excited about the company and maintains a great attitude about any setbacks, like production delays. He also repeatedly mentioned how grateful he is for all the support he has received from the people who helped design the box, the managers and owners of Stokes vendors, his friends, family and parents. Despite the hard work and time commitment required to run Stokes, both he and his father spoke of how incredible the experience has been for Adam. Adam, unlike most 15-year-olds, is spending the summer before his sophomore year in high school learning first hand about business, people, and sales, all while running a really cool company.
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.