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How One U.S. Teenager is Creating Sustainable Profits

Words by Jim Pierobon
Energy & Environment
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He sounds like a happy teenager navigating his way through the sophomore year of high school. But Adam Liszewski is not your typical teenager. He is the Founder and effectively the CEO of Stokes Natural Firestarters in Wayland, Massachusetts.

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.

In 2011 Adam, then age 11, 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 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. It helps that 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, a recycled paper box and sawdust from sustainably-harvested trees -- together offered a true natural product. That led to a family brainstorm session with aunts and uncles, which produced the company’s namesake, Stokes.

Today, Adam – still without a driver’s license -- presides over a 2,200-square-foot commercial warehouse and is running Stokes as a limited-liability corporation. He receives three or four bags of sawdust every week from Pompanoosuc Mills in Vermont and delivers it to his assembly line at the warehouse. There six to 10 employees on any given day -- provided through Charles River Center, a social service agency nearby -- assemble the firestarters. 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.

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 stores in Massachsuetts, 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 Oct. 1.

Adam accepted early on and has since repaid the $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 revamped the packaging with the help of Atlas Paper and Romanow Paper because Whole Foods Markets wanted shoppers to be able to see the firestarters inside (photo).

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.

Image credit: Jim Pierobon

Jim Pierobon

Clean energy advocate, strategic marketer and story teller with 15+ years supervisory experience and a proven track record achieving strategic and program objectives for energy, utility, technology and other clients in their marketplaces and policy arenas while engaging their priority stakeholders and target audiences. I'm always on the lookout for innovative policies, people, technologies and businesses that are demonstrating how sustainability can be both healthy and profitable. Catch my blog posts at TheEnergyFix.com. I've also written for The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, The Huffington Post and TheEnergyCollective.com.

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