To an outsider, the sticky notes on the wall in my bedroom are random words with no clear meaning. To me, they are snapshots of inventions in need of a safe place to rest. As I sit reading through the notes, vision after vision of projects appear in my head. The ideas sit on the wall waiting to be realized. Each idea that I commit to pulls a little part of me out into the open and turns a vision into a reality. I am an inventor and a “Trailblazer.”
For as long as I can remember, I have been inventing. Some of my early projects were a box fort, milk jug raft, and Lego robotic vending machine. In fourth grade, I joined a robotics team because I loved creating new things and wanted to be an inventor when I grew up. At home, I was limited to what I could build with Legos, cardboard and duct tape. Nine years of robotics expanded my creative world, gave me access to new materials, new tools, and new ideas. It was an environment that encouraged risk taking and trial and error. I learned more over the years from my failures than from my successes. This experience has given me the confidence to believe that I can tackle not just robots, but bigger problems in the world.
My passion and hustle also spilled over into my volunteering and side jobs. During my high school years, I mentored two middle school robotics teams and volunteered at RC car camps at the local Tech School. For work, I refereed soccer games, ran the scoreboard at school soccer games, worked at a boat dealer and interned at a computer manufacturing business.
Furthermore, I always have a project going on at home. I don’t sit still well. My friends make fun of me because I always have new ideas and I attack them head on. I have designed and built a vacuum pump, a subwing, a drift trike and an electric powered driving couch from scratch. I also rebuilt my great great grandfather’s 1953 Oldsmobile. When I am making and inventing, nothing else seems to matter in the world and I don’t let obstacles stand in my way. It is this constant progression that allows me to continuously push my limits and has prepared me for my most important invention yet.
During the first weeks of the pandemic, a local nurse reached out looking for help. She explained that local doctors were struggling with virtual visits. Doctors struggled to teleconference with their patients while simultaneously looking at their charts. I wanted to help, and I had an idea. This new problem quickly went from idea, to solution. I proved the idea would work by cutting, taping, and bending cardboard. Next, I modeled and manufactured. As a junior in high school, I invented the world’s first over-the-computer cell phone mount.
This innovative mount hangs on top of the computer screen and holds the phone at face height to make virtual visits easier. Within 36 hours, I was delivering 12 phone mounts to my local hospital. I quickly realized that this phone mount could help more than just doctors, and soon over 100 were donated to local teachers transitioning to virtual school. I did not truly recognize the scope and impact of this project until I was contacted by Forbes and recognized in their story “8 Under 18: The Young Trailblazers Stepping Up During The Pandemic.” It was a gratifying feeling that I was no longer creating for myself; I was using my passion for inventing to help others.
Starting My First Business
My next invention was a business. In creating the phone mount, I had found an untapped market. This phone mount has uses far beyond the doctors that it was created for. Teachers, students, business professionals, and anyone multitasking while using a computer finds the mount useful - it allows the phone to become a 2nd screen. The beauty of my phone mount is its simplicity. Some of my friends said no one would pay for a piece of plastic, but I recognized that it is much more than a piece of plastic, it is a solution to a common everyday problem and the market is huge.
To protect my idea, I worked with a local attorney to apply for a patent. Then I rounded up two friends and started the Phone Mount People LLC so we could start selling the product. My friends quickly lost interest in the business, but I wanted to see it through and continued to blaze the trail alone. I didn’t think this phone mount was going to make me rich, but I liked the idea of making a little side cash. More importantly, I was going to take on new challenges and learn about different aspects of being an entrepreneur and develop new skills that would be applicable for my next invention and my next business.
Initially, each phone mount was made by hand. To make this business profitable, I had to develop an efficient manufacturing method and minimize part costs. Using the tools available at the high school shop, I developed a large vacuum jig for the school’s cnc router and an automatic pneumatic bending jig. I researched suppliers to find the best price for our raw materials and took some risks by investing in large quantities of supplies. I set up the manufacturing line and packaging station in my basement. I patiently worked through each aspect of setting up establishing seller accounts, barcodes, business status, pictures, marketing, business cards, and printing labels.
In December of 2020, my senior year of high school, I was selling my first invention on Amazon and Etsy. Sales were slow at first, only 1 or 2 a week. I paid for advertising on each account and slowly earned good product placement on each site. By summer, I was consistently selling over 100 phone mounts a month. I started expanding my offerings by adding additional colors to the phone mount listing and started exploring a new market with a new flat-pack DIY metal birdhouse design.
Engineering My Future
Now as a college freshman majoring in Mechanical Engineering at University of Wisconsin - Madison, I continue to run my business. I coordinated with my former high school’s manufacturing classes to cut the raw parts for me at a fraction of the cost compared to industry. I travel home frequently to manufacture new inventory and ship out over 150 phone mounts a month to Amazon. I package and ship out Etsy sales from my dorm room, followed by frequent trips to the post office.
In addition to running my business out of my dorm room, I work over 10 hrs a week at the university’s college of engineering prototype shop and co-lead the Human Power Vehicle Club. These efforts help reduce my student loan debt when I graduate and provide additional experience with shop tools and manufacturing methods to help with my current and future businesses.
My long-term goal is to own and run my own business. I’d love to devote all my time to my new business and the other ideas that I have, but I recognize the benefits of earning a degree in engineering before diving in.
Each of these projects started as a simple idea, but my hustle and trailblazing turned them into reality. While I love bringing ideas to life, what I realized recently is that I am even more excited about using my passion to take on challenges in the hopes of making life better for others. Emboldened by my past successes, pursuing my next idea leaves me excited and ready to follow my passion to invent my future.
About The Author
Teekay Kowalewski is attending University of Wisconsin: Madison.
Editor: Robert Farrington