For as long as he can remember, Zach Mroczkowski ’17 has been an entrepreneur.
“I did the whole lemonade stand thing. I even drew cars when I was little and sold them to my friends for ten cents apiece. I sold baseball cards, things like that,” recalled the Illinois State University College of Business alum. “I’ve always just wanted to work for myself and earn my own money and be in control of how much I make and things like that.”
His long-held dreams have now become a reality. Mroczkowski is the inventor of the Firesmart Fire Teepee. The patented metal device streamlines the process of setting up a fire by providing a framework that keeps the wood in position and is a great addition to backyard fire pits.
Mroczkowski originally developed the idea for the product while on a retreat with his professional business fraternity Pi Sigma Epsilon.
“We were getting everything set up. A day prior it was raining so things were a little wet, but people were trying to start a fire. I left for about 20 minutes, and I came back and they still didn’t have anything going,” he said.
Using the fire building skills he developed under his father’s tutelage and in Boy Scouts, Mroczkowski stepped in and managed to get a blaze going in less than five minutes.
“It’s pretty simple to me because I understand how to make a fire,” he said. “After I was done, everyone was like, ‘Zach, thank you so much for making this. This is awesome.’”
While the group cooked s’mores over the fire he built, Mroczkowski found himself wondering why his peers struggled with the task.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘How come these people can’t start the very first invention man has ever created? Why aren’t they understanding it? What was the concept that they weren’t getting?’” he said.
He realized the root of the problem was the structure of the fire.
“They just had a bunch of wood piled on top of some sticks that were here and there,” he said. “They just didn’t understand it, so I looked into the fire and I saw a framework, a teaching device, showing them how to properly set up the teepee style method of making a fire.”
While he was intrigued by the idea, Mroczkowski did not act on it until he took an entrepreneur course with ISU professorTerry Noel and had to develop a business idea for a class assignment. His classmates were impressed with his resourcefulness and encouraged him to pursue the business concept beyond the classroom. Taking their advice, Mroczkowski went on to participate in Startup Showcase and received support from the George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. After experimenting with several prototypes, he developed a functional design and received his patent in early 2019.
Prior to attending ISU, he spent four years working on hovercraft as a combat engineer in the military and is now putting his experience to use making Firesmart on his own welder. Mroczkowski went full time with his small business at the beginning of the year and is ramping up production.
“It’s definitely been a journey, but I’m loving every minute of it,” said the alum, who graduated with a degree in management and quantitative methods. “I love the whole process of growing and learning. I’ve probably grown the most I’ve ever grown in these past eight months or so than I have in my entire life.”
Along the way, Mroczkowski admitted he has experienced some challenges and has needed to overcome some of his own anxieties about launching out on his own as a small business owner. The entrepreneur observed that sometimes facing your fears involves doing things you do not want to do because the change may make you uncomfortable, lead into the unknown or could cause temporary discomfort.
When faced with such circumstances, he reminds himself, “I’ve got to do this because on the other side of that fear that I’m having is someone that I want to be.”
When asked what advice he had for current ISU students interested in entrepreneurship, Mroczkowski said, “Take advantage of the opportunities you have while you’re in college. Understand that failure is not bad. Every successful person has failed. The other thing is being grateful, being grateful for the opportunities you have, being grateful for today. It’s hard to have a bad day when you’re grateful and you’re surrounded by the people who love and care about you.”