Coming from a university in Maine, USA that focuses on business and entrepreneurship, I see many of my colleagues finding success in their startups. That being said, I’d like to introduce you to a classmate and friend of mine, Dylan, and his (genius) business, Tree-Free Fire. I interviewed him and loved hearing how his business got its start. I’m sure you will too!
Tell us about yourself! Where are you from, where did you study, how did you get to where you are now?
Hi! I’m Dylan Veilleux, I grew up in Somersworth, New Hampshire (coastal New Hampshire) where I spent most of my time going to school, playing sports, and hanging out with friends. From an early age, I fell in love with crafting and making products. As I grew older, I started to take my craft seriously and began studying entrepreneurship through high school. While in high school, I found ways to make money such as selling sneakers, tutoring kids on the football team, a few inventions (that would later go nowhere), and even a snack-selling business for away basketball games.
I eventually started university at Husson in Bangor, Maine to study entrepreneurship, and, shortly after, transferred to Thomas College in Waterville, Maine. Fortunately, my mother worked at Thomas College, so my tuition was heavily discounted and I financially could focus on building a business. While at Thomas, I joined a mentorship program that gave me the startup tools to start my current business endeavour.
What sparked your interest in sustainability and entrepreneurship?
My initial interest in entrepreneurship started when I was 15. At around the same time, my parents got divorced and my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I was always interested in crafting but never thought of it as an opportunity to make money, let alone a career. However, given my circumstances, I needed to find a way to take care of myself and become independent if my family was going to make it through these challenging times. First, I got a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant for minimum wage. The hours and pay were both limiting, so over time, I started to create side hustles to increase my weekly pay. I continued to add new side hustles, eventually, I fell in love with a certain few and which continued to grow over the years.
A year and a half later, I made more money from my side hustles than from being a dishwasher or pizza cook.
I never thought about sustainability when I was in high school. I didn’t have the luxury to think about the big picture. I had smaller problems that I needed to solve first. It wasn’t until university that I had the time to study problems that I cared about and find solutions for. During a freshman business class, I learned about hemp cultivation in Maine. This became one of the first big problems that I cared about. In the US, hemp was illegal to grow for almost 75 years and now it is slowly integrating into a mainstream crop. I fell madly in love with this problem and wanted to help reintegrate a crop that I found to be undeniably useful.
How did Tree-Free Heat and Tree-Free Fire get their start? What was your inspiration?
TFH got its start when I was a junior in university after I met with the Entrepreneur Mentor provided by Thomas College. From there, I was introduced to the available resources provided by the state of Maine, the academic system, and local entrepreneurs. Quickly, I gained the raw resources needed to start the business. I dove headfirst into the inefficiencies of the developing hemp industry.
In 2019, I worked on a local hemp farm for free. There, I helped with prepping the farm buildings for the summer, picking weeds, and moving hay bales. When I had the opportunity, I would ask any and every question that floated in my head. I would later find out that only the hemp flower (typically used for CBD products) is harvested and the rest of the stalk (typically used for fabric and building materials) is thrown away as a waste product. At this moment, I knew I had found an opportunity.
Hemp stalks are among the most potent natural fibres available. Hemp can be used to create a range of products including rope, clothing, insulation, concrete, wood replacement, among many other applications. However, it can be challenging to make those products without the proper processing machines and supply chains in place. Therefore, given hemp’s infancy in the market, I needed to find ways to make products that can scale with the current market without needing to be heavily capitalized.
The first thing I did was buy an electric wood chipper online so that I can turn the hemp stalks into smaller usable material. From there I had a range of options to choose from and I decided I’d start with the easiest product to make. I narrowed that down to biobricks.
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Biobricks are compressed logs of raw material, commonly wood, that are used to heat wood stoves. They offer convenience and less mess than regular wood logs. Hemp possesses lignin, an organic polymer, that can be used as a glue when raw hemp is compressed and reaches a certain temperature, making it a great alternative to wood biobricks. After many weeks of searching, I eventually found a business that was generous enough to help me create my first hemp biobricks. To my surprise, it worked splendidly. The bricks held form, burned easily, and maintained a similar BTU (British thermal units) as wood.
Unfortunately, the path to creating a hemp biobrick processing facility became far too difficult and we needed to put the plan on pause. To supplement our revenue source we decided to start with a simple product that would allow us to build our brand; I developed hemp firestarters. Our firestarters are composed of hemp stalks, wax, and a wick dipped in citronella. Simply by lighting the wick, you will get a moderately small but strong fire for 30 minutes, allowing you to start your own fire.
By the end of 2019, I started selling and making my firestarters. Sales started slow but seemed to pick up during the pandemic. By July of 2020, I was really in a sales groove and honing my craft as an entrepreneur with real-life situations. By the end of 2020, I had my first successful sales year and by the start of 2021, we were entering the lull of the season.
During our slow season, our team began to think about the longevity of the firestarters. Our goal is to build out our catalogue of products and we took the late winter months as an opportunity to prepare a new product for the summer. We researched and developed ways to upgrade our firestarters. By using similar ingredients we developed a fire-in-a-tin-like product that easily brings the ambience of fire wherever you are without tending to a real fire.
By March, we created our portable campfires that we called Tree-Free Fire. Our fires are perfect for patio table dinners, trips to the beach, or a camping adventure. At approximately 3.5 x 4 inches, our tins are easy to transport but big enough to create a relaxing vibe. Each tin is made of wax and natural materials as the wick.
When we first released the product, we included hemp in the product, however, we quickly learned that our customers were put off by that and were concerned about getting “high”. Hemp possesses little to no THC. Understandably, there is much work in educating people about hemp and we decided to remove it from our product to focus on growing a mass-marketed product. In our first nine weeks, we have grown our company to match the revenue that we produced in ALL of 2020. Today, we are steadily growing, adding new people to our team, innovating new products, and finding ways to enhance the lives of our customers.
Who are your products for?
Tree-Free Fire produces all-natural portable campfires that are easy-to-use, scentless, and safe. Ideal for cocktails and dinner on the patio, parties of all sorts, and evenings on the beach. We believe memories are made around the fire. That’s why we simplified the fire-making process for everyone to enjoy. Our tabletop fires are less work than a campfire with the same relaxing vibe.
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Who were some of your mentors in getting this business started? How did you connect with them?
Mentors have positively affected my life… At the beginning of university, most of my mentors were professors at school, and through them, I have connected with folks outside of academia to teach me important lessons.
One of the most impactful mentors later joined my team and is now a co-owner. I connected with my partner, Nick, through Thomas College. I was introduced to him through an internship program. Nick taught me how to make small steps in achieving my goals and being accountable for the goals I set. Today, I still rely on Nick for his mentorship and guidance.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments since starting your business? Any challenges as well?
My biggest accomplishment is still being in business after two years. Running a business is incredibly difficult and most startups do not last nor make money. This is the longest-running company that I have started and I plan to keep it running for many years to come.
The biggest challenge for me is constantly adapting. I’ve always been comfortable with adapting to my surroundings, but it can be a fatiguing process. I value my times of consistency, and I mentally prepare for change, which is inevitably often. Though it is challenging to work with change, I find that it positively affects the other aspects of my life.
What have been your biggest learnings so far?
The biggest learning I have gained (and still learning) is how to balance my personal, social, and business life. When I first started, I put my work life over everything, I started to lose relationships I cared about and I wasn’t properly taking care of myself. Over much trial and error, I have found a rhythm where I can optimally get in touch with people I care about, focus on my mental and physical health, and maintain my business.
Where do you see Tree-Free Heat in the next five years?
I see Tree-Free Fire continuously building products. The members of our team are entrepreneurs that seek opportunities. Our goal is to build out a catalogue of products that appeal to a diverse group of people. Of course, we have our niche of fire and hemp-related products that we want to continue to explore. I personally see myself spending my career developing and selling products that I believe in. It has become the creative outlet that I can use to financially support myself and my family. So, in five years I am not certain of the products that will be in my catalogue but I know that they will continuously grow.
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“If I could tell you One Thing” – What advice would you give your younger self?
The one piece of advice that I would give my younger self is to trust that I am ready and capable of starting a business. In the past, I had a mindset that I was not prepared and I needed to read hundreds of books before I started on my journey as an entrepreneur. However, the truth is that I can learn while I build my business.
I spent years reading, listening to podcasts/lectures, and searching for mentors because I didn’t believe I was enough. I wasted precious time and learning experiences thinking this way. Instead, I wish I studied the art of entrepreneurship while developing my business and accepted the pending mistakes I was going to make. Even today, with all of the hours of studying, I make mistakes constantly; they happen. A mixture of experience and studying is ideal to build a successful business.
We loved learning about Dylan’s story. Being a university student is hard enough, imagine adding your own business on top of it! Tree-Free Heat is available for shipping in the US, and their fires can be purchased on their website. Check out their Instagram as well to see more about how the business develops!