This is the story, to date, of two-year-old Detroit startup Original Stix. This company has a neat concept – recycling broken hockey sticks and transforming them into cell phone cases, keeping the otherwise non-recyclable composite sticks out of landfills. Founded by a group of recent college grads – three from Michigan State University, two from Cornell and one still at Oakland University, the six friends banded together, took a stab at an idea and found a way to make it work. And, as they were busy making it work, they had the opportunity to meet and learn from Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson. Those “Lessons from Sir” have helped them immensely, and are lessons that any start-up should embrace.

You’ve got to love the name: Original Stix. Of course, that’s a reference to the NHL teams playing in an era that began in 1942 and went until the first franchise expansion in 1967. Those six teams were Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

And then there’s that “t” thrown in, changing “Six” to “Stix” — to convey what’s at the heart of this company: recycling broken hockey sticks as cell phone covers.

Repurposing hockey sticks

Original Stix cell phone cases

The Boys

“The Boys” are six young men between the ages of 24 and 26. Terry Johnson , A.J. Mesdhgh, Mario DiMercurio are MSU grads, Evan and Mike Dremluk are Cornell grads and Steven Thibault is still at Oakland U.  All six friends are hockey fans with cell phones – and found there was a hole in the market for cellphone covers for hockey fans. They started thinking about how they could make really cool cases that would appeal to a wide range of hockey players and fans and decided to see if it would be possible to make cases from one of the most common hockey articles in the trash can: broken composite hockey sticks!

And they did. And that’s how Original Stix was born.

Fast forward to two years later. Today, Original Stix has sold more than 6,000 cell phone cases – each one of them unique, made specifically for iPhone 6, 6s, 5 and 5s. The case includes a raised bezel to protect the screen if the phone is dropped, and the Stix inserts can be swapped out with a variety of stick types and teams. In November, 2015, Original Stix added the NHL to its growing list of licensees and suppliers; USA Hockey – the governing body for ice hockey in the USA, is another one.

Original Stix

Original Stix’s cheeky why-to-buy message

Break Sticks, Not Phones

“Break Sticks, Not Phones” is their cheeky tagline and, like the company name, very clever. When I ask Steven Thibault about the amount of a stick that’s actually being recycled, he’s frank about where they started compared to where they are now.

“When we first started there was a great deal of leftover material,” Steven writes in an email. “The popular models (of sticks) that season featured solid-colored, minimalistic designs with little to no branding… and as we quickly realized, they did not make for very appealing cases, so we started setting them to the side with each shipment. Same goes for the blades of the sticks, which aren’t currently used in our phone cases. From time to time, we’ll get emails or calls from people looking to build tables, chairs, bar tops, and other furniture for their home, so those blades and shafts eventually found homes.”

Trying and Learning

“Through trial and error,” Steven continues, “we’ve been able to streamline some of our processes to the point where there is very little scrap outside of some hockey stick “dust”.”

THM: It must be time consuming, no?

“At first, we were cutting sticks by hand, which wasn’t always as accurate as we needed it to be. We now use a real innovative machining process that uses essentially the entire shaft. The teams we work with now send shafts only, which not only cuts down on the shipping cost, but it usually works out well for the teams because they sign the blades and give them to ticketholders, charity, etc. With that said, we’ve got some incredible products in the pipeline that will utilize goalie paddles, stick blades, and other materials than can be remanufactured in a similar manner. “

Biodegradable Packaging

I also asked Steven about packaging, because it’s such an important part of any consumer-facing product, and because their packaging looks so well thought out – and sweet! He tells me that’s been a challenge to get them to where they are now – see-through, made from recycled materials AND biodegradable.

“When we first started out, we had no clue if our idea would catch on. And we didn’t have much of a budget for it either. The plan was to start with 500 cases, then see how they catch on before getting in too deep. The trouble was, every custom packaging company we talked to had minimum order requirements of 5,000 units and thousands of dollars in machinery and artwork fees. And because no two cases look alike, we couldn’t go with a simple cardboard box – customers want to see what the case looks like before buying one.”

“We eventually had to get a little creative with it – we found a company that made clear hard plastic shells that were just a bit larger than the iPhone. We ordered those, then had cards and stickers produced that helped us get the packaging as we wanted. Recently, we finally hit the point where it made sense to get into customized packaging, which we rolled out earlier this year. The new packaging is not only lighter and easier to build, it’s also made out of recycled materials – and it’s biodegradable!

Richard Branson’s Advice

Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson and an Original Stix jersey

In the summer of 2015, Virgin Atlantic added Detroit as a destination city, and to help promote the Detroit-London route, Virgin founder Richard Branson brought his “Pitch 2 Rich” to Detroit to give help to local startups. Original Stix was one of the companies that pitched to Branson and he has continued to mentor them. According to one of the founders, Terry Johnson, Branson’s lessons were invaluable – especially about delegating.

“One of the pieces of advice Mr. Branson gave us was to delegate responsibilities,” Terry says in an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box. “Up and to that point, we were spending a lot of our time fulfilling orders, packing orders – and that didn’t leave a lot of time to grow the company. We finally took that leap of faith, hired some staff to fulfill orders.”

With additional staff in place, that let them focus on growing the business – which led to the NHL licensing deal that lets them create cases for all 30 NHL teams using individual team logos.

The Importance of Having Fun

In addition to delegating, Steven tells Sir Branson has taught them other valuable lessons. Here are two more:

  1. Have Fun
    “First and foremost, let me start by saying he’s probably the coolest person we’ve ever met. He’s taught us about the importance of having fun with everything – if you’re too on edge and too stressed out all the time, you wont be excited about your work, and it becomes harder for others to be around you. If you’re not doing of that right, you’re not going to be an effective leader and your company won’t be successful.
  2. Competing with the Big Boys
    “He’s also given us some advice on how to compete with “the big boys”. When you’re a startup, you’re not going to have the budget or brand awareness of some of the more established competitors, so you have to be creative to get your name out there. He was telling us that when British Airways was building the London Eye Ferris wheel, they ran into some issues during construction. Virgin Airlines, which wasn’t nearly the size of British Airways, used this opportunity to fly one of their planes around London with a banner reading “BA Can’t Get It Up” – which is a hilarious example of creative exposure. While not nearly on the same scale as that stunt, we’ve began doing things like that on social media here and there, and it’s worked out great.”

The Original Stix products are available through an expanding network of retailers, mostly concentrated in the North-East and Mid-West. And you can buy online through the Original Stix website and items include clothing and pucks in addition to phone cases.

Original Stix –  1442 Brush Street, Detroit

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